At Wathann Film Festival, an Eye for the Independent

By Tin Htet Paing 10 June 2015

RANGOON — Since mid-May, a post soliciting submissions to a local film festival has been making the rounds on social media, stating that “independent” short films and documentaries outside of mainstream cinematography would be given special consideration when festival organizers make their official selections.

The “Call for Films” announcement was issued by the Wathann Film Festival (WFF) 2015, the fifth annual rendition of Burma’s first-ever film festival.

“Our mission is to improve the standards of local films and inspire Myanmar filmmakers to produce higher quality and more artistic films,” Thu Thu Shein, a filmmaker as well as the director of WFF, told The Irrawaddy last month, as she was being busy organizing this year’s festival. As in previous years, the WFF 2015 will bring to the screen films that cannot be found on TV or in Burma’s cinemas.

On a rainy day in September 2011, WFF held the opening ceremony of its inaugural festival at the Maha Sanni Thukha Monastery in Rangoon, which was transformed into a makeshift cinema hall for the occasion. It was at this unconventional venue that Burmese audiences got their first taste of film festivals.

Burma once had a vibrant film industry, with over 200 cinemas nationwide in the late 1950s, according to the Myanmar Motion Picture Organization. But like many other sectors, the silver screen slowly withered on the “Burmese Way to Socialism,” leaving generations of filmmakers consigned to making low-brow comedies or love stories and struggling to get by under a repressive military dictatorship that didn’t countenance provocative filmmaking.

Thu Thu Shein and her WFF cofounder, cinematographer Thaid Dhi, envisioned the festival as a U-turn on the road to socialism, which ostensibly ended in 1988 but had the film industry spinning its wheels for more than two decades longer under an equally iron-fisted regime that replaced the left-leaning Gen. Ne Win.

Both directors got their exposure to documentary filmmaking at the Yangon Film School, a Berlin-based nonprofit that has been offering theory and practical filmmaking courses for Burmese filmmakers.

Like most filmmakers say, “Getting a film made is easy, but getting it seen is the challenging part.”

For Thu Thu Shein and Thaid Dhi, the WFF is about lessening that challenge.

It was while in Prague about six years ago, studying filmmaking at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU), that they had the opportunity to experience European film festivals and found a way to do bring the concept back with them to Burma.

“We realized the need for an independent film industry in Myanmar and we got to know the advantages of film festivals, which are the only chances for independent filmmakers like us to do public screenings,” Thu Thu Shein says.

In 2010, the WFF founders returned to Burma to prepare for the film festival.

“Wathann” means “monsoon season” in Burmese. While in Prague, the duo missed Burma’s rainy season so much that it was the very first thing that came to mind when they thought about Burma. WFF is organized annually in Rangoon during the monsoon season, typically in September.

The first edition of the WFF received more than 40 independent short film and documentary submissions. At a time when Burma’s reforms could be described as nascent at best, organizers were able to screen all 21 officially selected films without any censorship.

“Even though it was the first experience for all of us, we were quite satisfied with the results. We realized that there were so many other filmmakers like us who were working on it separately. We didn’t have a community to discuss films and stuff. And there it was! Wathann became a platform for the independent filmmaking community,” Thu Thu Shein recalls.

“The whole group needs to be involved to make a real change in society,” she adds, noting that the WFF has allowed filmmakers to network and, in the process, elevate the quality of the industry.

A Reel Difference

Independent films distinguish themselves through their original content and style, and the way in which the filmmakers’ personal artistic visions are realized. Usually, but not always, independent films are made with considerably smaller budgets than major studio films.

Thaid Dhi says that low budget does not, however, mean limited creative space.

“The art of filmmaking is so broad,” he says. “We want to give the audience the chance to experience different kinds of films, so that they have more choices and there can be different audiences.”

It’s not that mainstream movies are bad, Thaid Dhi says, acknowledging their outsized influence on society relative to independent films.

“We really hope that independent filmmakers and mainstream ones could fulfill each other’s needs. In this way, our Myanmar film industry could become so strong,” he tells The Irrawaddy.

Thaid Dhi admits that, at present, there is no real market for Burmese independent films, domestically or in the international market, that is beside the point.

“They make art for art’s sake,” he explains, while adding that there is always a desire for good stories that are well told.

The WFF has screened many films that have won awards internationally, like “Now, I’m 13,” a documentary about a girl who has no chance of schooling though primary education is free in Burma. The film, directed by Shin Daewe, won Best Documentary at WFF’s fourth edition.

It’s also a forum that embraces artistic liberty, according to director Aung Nwai Htway, whose personal and behind-the-scenes story of his famous movie-star parents, “Behind the Screen,” won Best Documentary at the second annual WFF.

“The Wathann Film Festival is one that has no boundaries for filmmakers who want to present their creations from whatever perspective they like,” he says.

This year, entries to the competition are grouped into four categories: Short Fiction, Documentary Film, Animated Film and “Others.” The length of films is limited to 30 minutes for all categories.

The WFF puts a cap on submissions’ run time to encourage new filmmakers who may be eager to compete but might be daunted by the prospect of raising money for feature-length productions in their first film festival foray, the founders explain.

“Independent filmmakers always produce their own films that do not make money, so it’s extremely difficult for them to make a feature-length film,” Thu Thu Shein says, but adds that WFF organizers intend to support filmmakers who want to create feature-length films in future.

Since it pioneered the concept in Burma in 2011, a handful of other thematic counterparts have emerged, among them the Art of Freedom Film Festival, the Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival, and the &Proud LGBT Film Festival, offering more opportunities for Burma’s independent film industry to find its feet.

“That’s so encouraging for filmmakers, having such thematic film festivals that are also essential in Myanmar. But we’d like [the WFF’s scope] to remain as ‘independent,’ because we don’t want to narrow down the creativity of the filmmakers,” Thu Thu Shein says.

While they have paved a platform for their fellow independent filmmakers, ironically their own creative output has been limited. Asked how many films they have produced and directed recently, Thu Thu Shein answers with a laugh, noting that, as the WFF’s organizers, they can’t submit their own films for the festival competition.

“Some years, we haven’t even had time to make our own films, since we both are busy preparing for Wathann,” Thu Thu Shein says.