Tight Competition Among Myanmar’s Indie Films at 9th Wathann Film Festival

By MYINT MYAT THU 19 September 2019

YANGON—Spotting established A-list stars at the Wathann Film Festival (WFF) can feel surreal. Every year, one or two veteran directors can be seen wandering into Waziya Cinema, the home of Myanmar’s oldest independent film festival. They seem to get lost and stumble in on their walk back from Sule to Myanmar’s Tinseltown, which sprawls two or three streets from Waziya. But apart from these disoriented few, a schism remains between the majority of Myanmar’s mainstream filmmakers and one the country’s strongest local film festivals.

It could be that the two crowds produce films that just don’t mix. But when a blackout struck for several minutes midway through “Cobalt Blue” at WFF last week, it was fun to sit with the darkness and imagine a future for Myanmar’s film industry. “Cobalt Blue” is the first home-grown Myanmar short film to be selected to compete at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival, where it screened last month. Now it was screening at home: in a film festival that couldn’t secure any major sponsors, in a derelict cinema that festival organizers weren’t sure they would be able to use this year due to safety concerns.

But despite its issues, this year’s WFF paid back in full everything that was missing from last year’s lukewarm festival submissions. This year’s offerings were more emotional, exceptional and explosive.

“I don’t want to be anything,” yells a child again and again in “Opium Farmer,” Su Su Hlaing’s enlightening diorama of two families in Northern Shan State’s opium fields. As with many films in this year’s competition, it showed a distinct cynicism: does a kid still in nursery, brought up among opium flowers and civil war, have any real chance to think ahead to what she wants to become one day?

“Opium Farmer” took this year’s award for Best Documentary. The film comes out of Yangon Film School (YFS), a local documentary powerhouse. Last year’s Best Documentary winner at WFF was also a YFS production, as were three out of this year’s six documentary entries: Opium Farmer, Lost Boy and Going Home. All three bear the school’s signature slick production technology and present a symphony of social and political issues, especially “Opium Farmer.”

Opium can be as addictive as power, but growing it is not as tempting. The farmers in the film get by on a cringe-worthy sum of just around 200,000 kyats (US$130) per year, all from opium farming. “If the government gave us enough corn seeds, I would stop growing [opium],” says one opium farmer in the documentary. Could a handful of corn seeds, which the farmers say the government used to give them in the past, be enough to put an end to Myanmar’s globally-infamous opium production? What should the farmers do when their own children become drug addicts? Is there anything we can do for them? The questions go on.

The 9th Wathann Film Festival, one of the best years for the festival so far.

On a different track is “Sick,” a Tagu Films production in which the doctor-turned-director Zaw Bo Bo Hein takes a subject that he was once very intimate with, and makes it into a film about our ailing healthcare system. The bond between the two characters—a critically ill man and a friend burdened with his medical expenses—is clear and strong though its weight drags the viewer down. After going home from WFF empty-handed three years in a row, Zaw Bo Bo Hein finally took home a trophy for Best Short Film with this blood-stained hospital story.

The film’s setting is impeccable; the metaphors are open-ended. A gloomy run-down hospital room in Irrawaddy Region in the years after Cyclone Nargis feels like present-day, rather than a decade in the past. With the minimal details we are given about the sick man’s identity, the person we see on the floor, bleeding and crawling, could be more the country’s healthcare system than the character himself.

When we heard Tagu Films was coming back to WFF this year, we looked forward to tender humanity packaged in posh cinematography. In addition to “Sick” they also brought “Acceptance,” directed by Nyi Zaw Htwe. What is missing in “Sick” can be found, glittering, in “Acceptance.” Nyi Zaw Htwe takes us on a refined emotional journey that’s a sharp contrast to the bumpy, bloody ride in the pitch-dark of “Sick.” We found ourselves crying and smiling simultaneously at some points as stingingly sharp moments and irony run parallel.

The film looks at the old-as-time conflict between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. In her acting debut, the 79-year-old Daw Myint Myint Thein took home the Best Acting Award for her tear-jerking, thrilling portrayal of the mother-in-law. She remains ruminative and silent throughout the film while her ever-whining daughter-in-law speaks for her. The situations here seem not as dire as in “Sick.” But in “Acceptance,” the bleeding occurs internally, unseen and unspoken, in the heart of the aging mother. The audience feels every drop of it: the film took their hearts and they gave it the Audience Award, a new award category in this year’s WFF.

Director Nyi Zaw Htwe receives the Audience Award for his profoundly moving film, “Acceptance.”

But the greatest tension at WFF this year probably played out off-screen at the festival’s jury meeting. In a first for the festival, the jury deliberations stretched on so long that multiple restaurants where the jurors were meeting had to ask the panel to leave as they were closing up shop. By their third restaurant, the jury was still unable to reach a compromise. It seems that the New Vision Award was the main sticking point. The next day at the awards ceremony, the organizers announced that there would be two New Vision Award-winners for the first time in the film festival’s short history: Myo Thar Khin’s “1/4 Wasted” and Than Lwin Oo’s “Between.”

“Between” played to the tricks of the trade for the New Vision Award, which usually goes to a poetic and experimental—and sometimes unintelligible—short film or documentary. The result is a metaphor-drenched, boy-meets-girl story that blossoms in one of Yangon’s not-so-beautiful alleys.

A boy and a girl meet in said alley; the girl blows up a balloon until it bursts. The boy is doing the same but he stops just when the balloon looks so full that it might explode. He then sucks back in all of the breath he blew out. The two then stand facing each other in the downpour. We are left here to interpret everything ourselves. More performance art than short film, “Between,” otherwise smart and secretive, is not in the same league as Sai Kong Kham’s high-flying poetic “Train,” the 2017 New Vision Award winner.

So what about “1/4 Wasted” then? It deviates from the WFF New Vision Award-winner DNA that we’ve come to know but it would have been a waste to give this enthusiastic, energetic film only the Special Mention Award. The film tells the story of a young filmmaking student who, abandoned by his muse for a directing project, takes a trip back to his hometown. Nerdy and nervous as he may be, once questions about his own existence get into his head, an immense, explosive energy begins to build.

“Change your stupid face,” the protagonist’s friends always tell him. He does change it, with a funky haircut and snappy earrings. He later also gives himself the middle finger. “Life is short, dude. Let’s be wasted,” one of his friends motivates him. Even the name of the production company behind the film is a little off-beat: Only One But Rat.

Just because a film is complicated and cerebral doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s creative. But director Myo Thar Khin, a 19-year-old student from the National University of Arts and Culture (NUAC), has harnessed his creative fury perfectly in “1/4 Wasted.” It’s the first time in nine years of WFF that a current NUAC student has won a top prize at the festival. And he deserves it.

Among winners past and present, hardly any have gone to the lengths that “1/4 Wasted” does to make us feel truly defiant of our own finite existence, and to lead us towards self-revolution. Even when the credits rolled, we were left in our seats, ignited in our newly-discovered energy by the beat of No U Turn’s “Ngar Yuu Nay Pi” (“I’m Gonna Get Mad”). If you think life is wasted, it is at least brilliantly and refreshingly wasted here in “1/4 Wasted.”

Myo Thar Khin (center) is seen with famous director Htoo Paing Zaw Oo (second from left) and the juries of the film festival at the award ceremony.

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