Memory! Film Fest Celebrates Celluloid in Rangoon

By Feliz Solomon 27 May 2015

RANGOON — The lights go down but the sounds don’t stop in Rangoon’s rundown movie palaces, where the crackle of sunflower seeds competes effortlessly with high-decibel action tracks. It’s one of those rare places where you can go to a cinema and not forget that you’re completely surrounded by strangers.

That’s part of what Séverine Wemeare and Gilles Duval want to preserve: a sense of collective activity and shared memory that only the movies provide. The pair founded the Memory! International Film Heritage Festival in 2013 with the hope of instilling their love of repertory cinema across Southeast Asia. For its first two years the festival was held in Phnom Penh, but it might now find a new home in Rangoon.

The 10-day festival, which features more than 50 films from around the world, will run from May 29 to June 7 at the Nay Pyi Taw Theater in downtown Rangoon. All screenings are free, as are discussions with special guests that a few of our readers might consider famous (Catherine Deneuve, Michelle Yeoh, to name a few). While the program is international, four classic Burmese films will be screened in their original 35mm formats—a very rare occurrence, one that is unlikely to be repeated in the near future.

The roster is a delight for classic film fans and a great primer for those curious about cinematic history. The program features three live musical accompaniments, all of which are promising. Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi classic about class disparity, Metropolis, will screen at the National Theater with two pianos, while Burma’s Itö (also known as Han Htoo Lwin) will provide a modern score for Alice Guy’s 1906 The Consequences of Feminism. One of the first animated feature films ever made, The Adventures of Prince Ahmed, 1926, will be shown with a live performance of traditional Burmese music conducted by Kyi Soe Tun.

Many of the films in the program may be obscure to casual moviegoers, but don’t let that stop you. Duval recommended A Girl of the Bush (May 30, 4pm), and Black Narcissus (June 2, 4pm). Wemeare suggested—if you haven’t seen it yet—the classic Breakfast at Tiffany’s, starring Audrey Hepburn (June 7, 9am). And if you have seen it, get a later start and watch Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life at 8pm on closing night, because (in this reviewer’s opinion) it is one of the greatest movies ever made.

Maybe the most irritating thing about film festivals is that they tend to have schedules that don’t work for people who have jobs. The film you’ll want to see but probably can’t is Insiang, which is on at 9am on Thursday, June 4. The Filipino feature, a 1976 drama about a young woman seeking revenge for a lifetime of cruelty, was recently restored and debuted at the Cannes Film Festival.

The entire lineup is strong; if you close your eyes and drop a finger on the schedule, there’s a very good chance it will land on a movie you’ll enjoy or, at least, find interesting. It’s worth going just to pick up the program, a 184-page book that doubles as a download list, with detailed synopses of every single film. The programmers, Wemeare and Duval, gave themselves only one very general constraint: All of the films relate in some way to the theme of “women,” which could mean just about anything.

Many of the films they chose, however, feature strong female leads, are directed by women, or provide unique insight into women’s private lives. A strong curatorial agenda that reflects a woman’s perspective is novel anywhere in the world, but especially so in Burma, where women are often underrepresented in nearly all aspects of public life—from pop culture to politics.

Wemeare and Duval founded the Memory! International Film Heritage Festival three years ago because, as Wemeare said, “there was absolutely no event dedicated to film heritage in Asia.” Globally, there are only a handful of projects that source and celebrate film as a social and historical artifact. Burma is unique among Southeast Asian nations because, aside from having a long and lively “golden era” of movie-making, the masterworks of Burmese cinema have been relatively well-preserved.

The pair scoped out Burma last year as a potential host for the festival, partly because of its rich and unexamined cinematic history. After a successful test-run in Rangoon, they met with the Ministry of Information in Naypyidaw last November to discuss a partnership. Wemeare said she was taken aback by the ministry’s enthusiasm and openness.

“So we go into the office of the Minister [of Information, Ye Htut],” she recalled, “and we had a strong, plain and frank welcome. We are from a different country, we read the press and everything, and we tell him, ‘You have to understand that this is going to be about films from everywhere, from any period. Is that fine?’ And he said yes.”

Our Picks:

The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967, Jacques Demy, May 29 at 4pm) *Lead actress Catherine Deneuve will attend this opening night event

Lola Montès (1955, Max Ophüls, May 30 at 1:30pm)

Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962, Agnès Varda, May 31 at 9am)

Master ClassA conversation with Catherine Deneuve and director Olivier Assayas (May 31 at 12 noon)

Mr. Sun Stone (1983, Daw Thin Thin Yu, May 31 at 1pm) *Director Daw Thin Thin Yu will be joined by actresses Daw Swe Zin Htaik, Daw Khin Thida Htun and Daw Nwe Nwe San for this Myanmar Film Treasures event

Insiang (1976, Lino Brocka, June 4 at 9am)

Passerine Bird (1962, Nguyen Van Thong & Tran Vu, June 5 at 10:30am)

Imitation of Life (1959, Douglas Sirk, June 7 at 8pm)

Nay Pyi Taw Theater is located on Sule Pagoda Road between Bogyoke and Mahabandoola roads. The full schedule of events is available at