A Barber and a Bus Conductor

By Sean Gleeson 14 January 2015

YANGON — In a small, unassuming shopfront in North Dagon Township, U Tin Htun reflects on the sense of shame he felt as a child after his father told him to learn the barber trade, a station in life he thought well beneath his talents.

Years later, after he was pensioned off by the Ministry of Industry and left scrambling for a means to provide for his son’s education, U Tin Htun sharpens a pair of scissors in preparation for the day’s trade as he playfully concedes the merits of his father’s advice.

The languid working life of U Tin Htun is the subject of “The Barber,” a new featurette by Anna Biak Tha Mawi, a first-time director and recent graduate of the Yangon Film School.

Now in its ninth year, the school has cultivated something of an austere house style among its filmmakers that is unembellished by narration and firmly in keeping with the guiding principles of the cinéma vérité movement.

The resulting films offer a remarkable window into Myanmar’s social and cultural fabric which, in “The Barber,” is channelled through U Tin Htun’s gentle benevolence and refined sense of irony.

Shot over two days, a steady stream of clients are captured on the barber’s chair, some the silent recipients of his good humor, others eager to impart their own wisdom. In one instance, U Tin Htun notices a scar on the back of a trishaw driver’s neck. The barber gently remonstrates with him when told it’s the product of a recent fight with his wife before offering a 100 kyat discount when he learns the customer is short of cash after a night’s drinking.

In between jobs, U Tin Htun recalls being picked up one morning to cut the hair of a former government minister. Refusing to have his hair trimmed and dyed in the office, the minister asks the barber to come to the pagoda instead. After official business intrudes, he eventually accompanies the minister by car to Bago, and on a plane to Bagan and then Mandalay. It is after midnight and U Tin Htun is 700 kilometres from home before the haircut is finished.

For the director, the barber’s candid warmth made him a compelling subject, allowing her to immortalize a profession in flux, as old-fashioned, sole-proprietor street barbershops in Yangon gradually give way to more modern hair salons.

“I like his way of talking and his behavior towards each customer,” said Anna Biak Tha Mawi. “He is very friendly and adapts easily to customers of different ages and different backgrounds. He gives special care to his customers and he really values his job.”

Premiering on Dec. 6 at the Yangon Film School’s annual showcase, “The Barber” was accompanied by another debut by recent graduates centered on 29-year-old Ma Myat Su Mon, the eponymous subject of “The Bus Conductor.”

Supplementing her husband’s meager income as a driver and supporting a young daughter, Ma Myat Su Mon rises early each morning to shepherd passengers on, off and around a clapped out bus as it travels through downtown streets and outer townships. Passengers stand bemused by the rare sight of a female conductor, and her methods of gentle persuasion, in a vocation where barked orders and jostling are much more par for the course.

Naturally, Yangon’s decrepit bus fleet posed its own logistical problems for the filmmakers.

“The cameraman and sound recorder had to work in very difficult conditions,” said director Daw Ngwe Ngwe Khine. “The buses in Myanmar are very fast and very crowded and they had to shout to get space for us to pass. We explained the sort of film we were making and eventually everyone was happy to participate.”

Both documentaries display a remarkable finesse—a feat made all the more impressive by the Yangon Film School’s swift crash course for new talent. Lindsey Merrison, the founder and director of the Yangon Film School, attributes the success of the films to the school’s prevailing format.

“We bring them from zero to quite competent filmmakers in the space of seven weeks,” she said. “The films [our graduates make] are portraits because it’s suitable for people with no experience of making documentaries—the day-in-a-life portrait provides a natural trajectory to work around.”

The Yangon Film School has benefitted from a transparent and upfront relationship with the government over the last decade, partnering with organizations such as the Myanmar Motion Picture Organization for a screenwriting program and establishing itself as a cultivator of local talent and production skills.

With the advent of a somewhat less censorious oversight regime, the school was able to do something previously unthinkable in 2012 by hosting a screening of its award-winning Cyclone Nargis documentary and appending the real names of its crew to the final credits. Publicizing such insights into the powerful as those proffered by U Tin Htun, would also likely have been out of the question in years gone by.

While the school undergoes an audacious expansion of its activities, including the launch of a fellowship program and plans to produce more feature-length and dramatic works, risk assessments remain the final determinant of whether a project goes ahead. The organization is always conscious of the uncharted lines which determine what productions are acceptable.

“Things are more relaxed than they used to be, though you still have to be careful,” said Ms. Merrison. “Anyone wielding a camera in this country needs to exercise some caution.”

Additional reporting by Nobel Zaw.

This article first appeared in the January 2014 print edition of The Irrawaddy Magazine.