RANGOON — Burma movie director Zay Par is doing what would have been unthinkable two years ago—putting the finishing touches to a film that harks back to a 1988 student uprising brutally put down by military rulers.
Hunched in front of a computer in a cramped room in Rangoon, Zay Par says he is testing the boundaries of newfound artistic freedom that has blossomed since the junta handed power to a hand-picked civilian government in 2011—but very carefully.
“We will show our edit to the censorship board and they will decide whether to allow it or not,” the 35-year-old said.
The protagonist of the film is an activist jailed during the student uprising. Now a freed political prisoner, he is looked up to by villagers who have sought his help in a dispute with a Chinese mining company.
As he shares his experience with them, there are flashbacks to 1988.
The movie would have been banned just a couple years ago, when the military ran the country, and the producer and director would have been in hot water. Even today a quasi-civilian government’s reforms go only so far and film makers remain reluctant to touch on sensitive subjects.
After 49 years of military rule, President Thein Sein, a former army general, is spearheading sweeping changes that include lifting restrictions on freedom of speech. There has been an explosion of news media, but movies are still light on politics and heavy on action or comedy.
Zay Par’s film will be the first to depict scenes of the 1988 uprising, when authorities killed at least 3,000 people and arrested thousands more, holding some for years as political prisoners.
But Zay Par isn’t showing soldiers gunning down unarmed protesters. In the scene he’s editing, students march and chant slogans while the camera pans slowly across, showing only the back of a soldier facing the crowd.
Zay Par said it’s not just government censors he’s worried about: He doesn’t think the general public is ready yet for graphic scenes of political violence.
Burma’s political transformation has yet to bring stability. Ethnic militias still face off against government troops in the hinterlands while clashes between Buddhists and Muslims have killed more than 200 people over the past year.
“In the present situation I decided not to use soldiers shooting students,” Zay Par said. “I will show only what I should show.”
The Good Old Days
It wasn’t always this complicated.
Burma used to have a vibrant film industry, with a movie-mad population and 244 cinemas in the late 1950s, according to the Myanmar Motion Picture Organization.
“We produced about 80 to 100 pictures every year. That was the golden age,” recalled San Shwe Maung, a 78-year-old actor and director who is a member of the organization.
The country now makes only 17 to 20 films a year, he said in a colonial-era house that serves as a museum of Burmese cinema, with movie posters of stars and starlets past hanging on the walls.
These days, he said, movies are shot in a couple of weeks or less. In the past it might have taken three years.
Because most cinemas have ageing projectors, new movies have to be converted from digital to film before distribution. But people prefer to shell out 1,000 to 5,000 kyat ($1 to $5) to watch Hollywood and Bollywood films. Thai and Korean movies are also popular.
The number of cinemas has dwindled to perhaps 100 around the country, with about 20 in Rangoon, down from 40 in the 1970s, according to San Shwe Maung.
Rangoon has two theaters that show mainly Western action films in 3D, but most are older places, paint peeling on the outside. Inside, the seats are dilapidated and there is no air conditioning to provide respite from the tropical heat.
The old cinemas are popular with young couples seeking privacy in Burma’s conservative society, if they can put up with the mosquitoes, or the mice running around their feet.
As if to underscore the decline of a once-thriving industry, two more cinemas are being demolished in central Rangoon.
But the industry’s fall began almost five decades ago when a 1962 coup by military officers turned the country into a police state largely cut off from the outside world.
Wary of any criticism that could stir up the masses, the junta imposed strict censorship. Politics and corruption were off-limits and censors would also chop anything approaching a sex scene, said San Shwe Maung.
Then, in 1968, the government nationalized the film industry. It became difficult to fund productions or even buy film to shoot on.
“After that there were no more good pictures, up to nowadays,” San Shwe Maung lamented.
The veteran movie star did manage to make a movie depicting the conflict between the army and ethnic Karen rebels. He played a Karen fighter who falls in love with a nurse treating government soldiers. His character switches to the government side to be with her and is eventually killed for it by his fellow rebels, a plot twist that satisfied the censors.
“We could do it, because at the end I was punished,” he said with a laugh.
San Shwe Maung won the award for best supporting actor for that role in the country’s Academy Awards in 1974. Winners were chosen by officials at the Ministry of Information until last year, when members of the Motion Picture Organization convinced the ministry to let them choose half the awards themselves.
Zay Par’s movie about the 1988 student uprising is another sign the government is loosening up. And the censorship rules have eased considerably. But breaking out of the creative confines of the past is still a challenge, according to the film’s producer, Phyo Yadana Thwe.
“I’ve lived in a box for 25 years. Now the government gives us freedom, but it’s hard because we are afraid,” she said. “We have no idea of free thinking.”
Additional reporting by Aye Win Myint.