‘Those Raised in A Locked-Up Society Are Different’

By Ma Sat Su 16 October 2014

“The Monk,” a film about a novice weighing the choice between monastic and lay life, has earned the respect of international audiences and brought greater world exposure to formerly hermetic Burma.

The film has won several international film festival awards and in July of this year earned the distinction of being the opening feature to screen at the Karlovy Vary Film Festival, one of the Europe’s major cinema events.

The film’s director The Maw Naing, 42, sat down with The Irrawaddy to talk about the international acclaim and how he expects Burmese audiences to receive the film.

Question: Why did you direct ‘The Monk’?

Answer: I’m more interested in art film than entertainment film. As I read more books on art films, I decided to create an art film as my first work. There are many, many nonsensical and ridiculous things taking place in Burma. Those are the resources for us. I would like to show the international community what is happening in Burma. If we don’t do so, who will? The media do talk about what is happening in Burma, but their focus is on information. In the arts, it is not just about information.

The majority of Buddhist monks, who are respected a great deal in our society, are leading very hard lives. Again, I would like to communicate the message that most of the youths [in Burma] do not know exactly what they want to be, and many let their dreams fade away.

Q: Is this your first film? If not, what have you previously directed?

A: It is my first long film. It was around 2004 or 2005 that I started shooting while studying. I started shooting short films. In 2008, I shot a 90-minute feature essay film about [Cyclone] Nargis. I gave it the name ‘Nargis: When Time Stops Breathing.’ When it was shown abroad in 2010, we did not use the real names of the crew on the credits because it would be risky for them as the crew was living inside Burma. It was only in 2011 that we put the real names on the credits. That film won awards at four international film festivals.

Q: In which countries will ‘The Monk’ be screened next?

A: It will be shown at the Busan [International] Film Festival in Korea; in Poland; India; in Qatar’s Doha; and in New York. The film is also scheduled to be screened in Singapore in December. I’m looking forward to the show in Singapore because there are many Burmese there and I would like to hear their feedback. I also plan to show the film in countries and cities where there are many Burmese people.

Q: How has the international feedback been?

A: Feedback has been positive. They said the shooting is nice. We mainly did the shooting under natural light and did not use much light to make the pictures vivid. The focus is on problems inside a society.

They like the lighting. Some have even said they would replicate our lighting style in their next films. Some have discussed Vipassana with me and some introduced themselves to me, held my hand and said ‘I can’t believe your country Burma can shoot such a nice film.’

I am pleased. It is the outcome of the strenuous efforts of our crew.

[Audiences] are interested in the film because it is from Burma and it is about something they did not know about before.

Q: What kind of feedback do you think you will get from Burmese audiences? Your take on life in the monkhood is probably not how most people perceive the situation.

A: There will be criticism, for sure. For example, I write a poem about something and readers may think it is about something different. That’s their right. The way they understand it may be different from one another.

We have lived in a locked-up society. Those who grow up in a locked-up society are different from those grow up in open societies. Those who grow up in a locked-up society are somewhat abnormal. We ourselves are. We are not frank with each other. We dare not complain even when we are right. Since this has been going on for a long time, there has emerged misunderstanding as a result. Burmese people have a fear, since they were not allowed to think freely. Most of the people who have watched the entire film like it when they grasp the essence of it.

Q: How can the living conditions of the monkhood be improved? What is your assessment as an ordinary person, not as a director?

A: It is quite clear. It is all because of the military dictatorship. Things will get better gradually when there is no military dictatorship and everything is fair. You can’t build Rome in a day. It is common knowledge that many problems remain unresolved in Burma.

Q: What will your next film be about?

A: The script is still being written and will be completed in November. But I won’t be able to shoot it until October next year. The main character in the film will be a woman who searches for truth and ultimately fails. But she has sowed the seed of a thirst for truth in the minds of people, and then many follow in her footsteps. That film will be more challenging.