FILM IN MYANMAR: ITS HISTORY, GOLDEN AGE AND DECLINE AND MICHELLE YEOH PLAYING AUNG SAN SUU KYI

FILM IN MYANMAR

Many of the 57 movie theaters in Yangon smell like urine and have rats and cockroaches running between the seats. The Burmese or Indian films shown are often a decade old; the images on the screen are blurry; and the dialogue can barely be understood because the sound is so poor. Sometimes the films don’t finish because the film jams in the machine.

Despite this Myanmar has a proud film tradition. In the 1960s, Rangoon (Yangon) had 400 cinemas. watching movies was a popular pastime and many theaters had air conditioning and sofa settees. Burmese filmmakers used to make 80 films a year (now they make about a dozen).

The Los Angeles Times reported: Silent movies, in this time warp of a country remained popular well into the 1950s. An 80-year-old musician who provided musical accompaniment for the films said it was challenging playing guitar, watching the conductor and looking at the screen simultaneously, four shows a day. Periodically they'd mess up the sound effects, leaving the audience to wonder why a bang occurred well after the gunfight ended. "Some of the band leaders were quite drunk, particularly by the late show," he said. "But we managed." [Source: Los Angeles Times, December 26, 2010]

Today, many people in Myanmar watch new Hollywood releases in video theaters. Some are quite large, with seats for 150 people. Some Burmese are completely fluent in English from watching so many Hollywood films. They can converse in English even though they have never met foreigners.

In January 2012, Zarganar, a recently released political prisoner and Burma's best-known comedian, organised a festival of independent films, most of them critical of the Government. One of the winners, Ban That Scene, was a satire on the hypocrisy and corruption of film censorship, but the censors did not even ask to view it. Ms Suu Kyi attended a prize-giving ceremony at the end of a four-day festival. [Source: Kenneth Denby, The Australian, January 6, 2012]

Early History of Burmese-Myanmar Film

The cinema of Burma has a long history dating back to the 1910s. The person who created the first silent film was Ohn Maung (Burma's first producer and director). He is known today as the father of Burmese cinema. Burma's first film was a recording of the funeral of Tun Shein - a leading politician of the 1910s, who campaigned for Burmese independence in London. It was captured with a second-hand camera by Ohn Maung and was screened at the Royal Cinema, near Scott Market (now Bogyoke Market), which belonged to a Mr Achar, a friend of Ohn Maung. Despite its documentary nature, the Burmese public was very proud of the film, which opened with the notice "Please accept our apologies for the poor quality of the film". [Source: Wikipedia +]

Ohn Maung then founded The Burma Film Company to produce and direct more films. He hired Nyi Pu (Burma's first actor) to shoot the first Burmese silent film Myitta Ne Thuya (Love and Liquor) which proved a major success, despite its poor quality due to a fixed camera position and inadequate film accessories. The film opened with the title "Burma Film Presents: Love and Liquor" but there were no credits or mention of the cast. It was based on a story by P Moe Nin about how gambling and alcohol destroyed a man's life. The day the film premiered, 13 October 1920, is commemorated annually as the Myanmar Movie Day. Fox of America asked for Burmese nature study scenes and bought them from Ohn Maung. He also acquired more advanced film accessories and camera from the Kodak Company. +

The first Burmese sound film was produced in 1932 in Bombay, India with the title Ngwe Pay Lo Ma Ya (Money Can't Buy It) and directed by Tote Kyi. Films dealing with social issues and political themes became popular in the 1930s. Parrot Film Company produced films that addressed social issues such as gambling and police corruption, although the films were censored by the British colonial government. There were also films that were banned like Do Daung Lan (Our Peacock Flag) in 1936 and Aung Thabyay (The Triumphant Jambul) in 1937. The political film Boycott was directed by the student leader Ko Nu in 1937 and starred other student leaders such as Aung San and Htun Ohn. The censors allowed this film to be shown. Many of the films from this era no longer exist due to the lack of adequate preservation. +

Burmese Film Industry at Its Height

During the 1920s and 1930s, many Burmese-owned film companies (such as A1, New Burma, British Burma, The Imperial, Bandula and Yan Gyi Aung) made and produced several films. "A1 Film." Myanmar's first movie studio, once known as the Burma Film Co., opened in the 1910s. a century ago. It produced to Burma’s first feature film, "Love and Liquor," which according to to the Los Angeles Times was “a 1920 cautionary tale about gambling and alcoholism that proved a big hit despite its rather monotonous single camera angle. Some of the famous directors of this era were Nyi Pu, Sunny, Tote Kyi, and Tin Pe. [Source: Wikipedia, Los Angeles Times]

"We used to be huge," actor and director Ko Myint, the great-grandson of A1's founder,told the Los Angeles Times, sounding like a Burmese version of "Sunset Boulevard." His mother, Khin Hle, 93, toddled in. Beneath a shelf of dusty family awards, she reminisced about her film debut in 1925 as a child actor, then shuffled off to another room. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2013]

After World War II, Burmese cinema continued to address political themes. Many of the films produced in the early Cold War era had a strong propaganda element to them. The film Palè Myetyay (Tear of Pearl), produced in the wake of the Kuomintang invasion of Burma in the 1950s, highlighted the importance of the armed forces or Tatmadaw to the country. Ludu Aung Than (The People Win Through) featured anti-Communist propaganda. The script was written by U Nu who served as Prime Minister during the 1950s. The famous film maker and author Thukha started producing films during this period. His most famous film is Bawa Thanthaya (The Life Cycle). Burma held its first Academy Awards in 1952. +

Burmese Film Industry in the 1960s and 70s

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “For a while, censors could still be influenced with "tea money" — bribes — and the industry remained relatively vibrant until the mid-1970s. "There was nothing else to do," said actor and director Thein Htut, Ko Myint's brother, sporting long gray sideburns and a Nehru jacket. "There was no TV, the cinemas were full, it was great." Kyaw Yin Myint, bureau chief at the weekly Kumudra Journal newspaper, recalled chomping on seeds — Myanmar's popcorn equivalent — in the early 1970s as oversized ceiling fans battled the tropical humidity."Cinemas were hot, noisy and showed black-and-white films," he said. "It was magical." Some directors tried pushing the limits. On the coup's 10th anniversary, A1 shot "Journey to Piya," about a one-day road trip that becomes 10 after repeated breakdowns, a dig at the country's crippled socialist economy. Censors banned it and put Ko Myint's family on warning."It was worth it," said brother Thein Htut. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2013 ><]

Paul Theroux wrote in “The Great Railway Bazaar”: On the train to Mandalay I met the manager of a Bhamo cinema. "Cowboy films are very popular," he said. An Anthony Quinn Western ran eighteen days, four shows a day, in his cinema. "Maybe the Burmese like Anthony Quinn," I said. No, said the manager: The Visit (Anthony Quinn and Ingrid Bergman) ran only two days. He was returning to Bhamo after a week of film-going in Rangoon and was anxious to discuss the films he had just seen: What A Way to Go (an all-star cast, including Shirley MacLaine, Paul Newman, Robert Mitchum); Our Man Flint ("America's Playboy Hero!"); The Adventurers (Alain Delon, from the book of the same name by Harold Robbins); King Kong Escapes (directed by Ishiro Honda); Five for Hell, Cosa Nostra, An Arch Enemy of the FBI ("The Untold Story of the FBI's Crackdown on the Kings of Crime ..."). There are many Indian and Burmese films, and there is a fairly large Burmese film industry (the pictures of film stars adorn the temples they have visited), but all Burmese films have to include at least 60 percent socialism (a Burman's statistic: I didn't question it).Not surprisingly, the cinema manager had an American accent. He was on his way back to Bhamo to screen That Darn Cat, which he had picked up from the Film Distribution Board of the Revolutionary Government. [Source: Paul Theroux, The Atlantic, November 1, 1971]

Decline of Myanmar's Film Industry

Starting with the Socialist era in 1962, there was strict censorship and control of film scripts. In the era that followed the political events of 1988, the film industry has been increasingly controlled by the government. After the 1989 move by the government to open up the economy, the movie industry was privatized. The film company Mingala became the most powerful company in the industry. Film stars who had been involved in the political activities of the 1980s and 1990s, such as Aung Lwin and Tun Wai, were banned from appearing in films. The films of some directors such as Win Pe have also been banned. The government issues strict rules on censorship and largely determines who produces films, as well as who gets academy awards. +

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Decades of repressive military rule, with its accompanying global isolation, censorship and equipment shortages, left Myanmar's once-proud film industry reeling. "No one even had books to read for 40 years. How could they make good films?" asked Tin May Thein, a consultant helping foreign companies enter the Myanmar market. The long slide of the Burmese film industry began soon after the 1962 coup that brought the military to power. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2013 ><]

“In the 1960s, cinemas were nationalized, acceptable topics were narrowed, and the industry was ordered to "march to Burmese socialism." The government tried to take over film production, but an early effort, "The Beloved Land," flopped. So the government left the creative side in private, and heavily monitored, hands. Over time, directors grew tired of fighting. Self-censorship increased, and in the 1970s and '80s, many retreated to mindless love-triangle stories — Myanmar's "three flowers facing each other" genre — or shamelessly copied foreign stories. ><

“After pro-democracy protests erupted in 1988, which many directors and actors joined, creative license all but disappeared. Myanmar's growing isolation as Western nations imposed economic sanctions also made it increasingly difficult to obtain equipment or film. "Everything was messed up by socialism," said Tin May Thein, the consultant, "and it only got worse." Those who cozied up to the regime — the 1999 TV movie "Our Nation, Happily Prosperous" was well-received by the ruling generals — saw their careers prosper, even as the regime sought to block foreign culture. "Rambo," the fourth movie in the Sylvester Stallone series, was banned in 2008 for depicting the Burmese military as bloodthirsty. "The Simpsons Movie" was blocked because censors, in a bizarre move, had forbidden using the colors yellow and red in films. ><

Sorry State of Myanmar's Film Industry

Over the years, the movie industry has also shifted to producing many lower budget direct-to-video films. Most of the movies produced nowadays are comedies. In 2008, only 12 films worthy of being considered for an Academy Award were made, although at least 800 VCDs were produced. Another issue plaguing the Burmese cinema is a steep decline in the number of theaters in which to screen the films. According to a December 2011 survey, the number of theaters nationwide had declined to just 71 from their peak of 244. The survey also found that most were several-decade-old aging theaters, and that only six "mini-theaters" had been built in 2009–2011. Moreover, the vast majority of the theaters were located in Yangon and Mandalay alone. +

Mark Magnier, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Down a back road in northern Yangon, a sagging teak house fights back the jungle. On the gate, barely noticeable under the weeds, rusty ironwork spells out "A1 Film." Myanmar's first movie studio... on a property that has shrunk from 25 acres to just one. "Indian and Thai actors used to come here because this was where it all happened," said another family member, teacher Aung Si, 68. "Now we Burmese leave for Japan to wash dishes." [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2013 ><]

" Once-grand cinema halls are being torn down for cookie-cutter mini-malls: In December 2011, Myanmar had 71 cinemas, down from a peak of 244. Along cinema row on Bogyoke Road here in the country's old capital, three monuments to celluloid have been leveled; two others are said to be close behind. The culture surrounding the stand-alone movie theater is quickly being stamped out in Yangon, if not all of Burma," said Philip Jablon, author of a blog on Southeast Asian cinema. "I never go to Burmese movies," said Yan Naing, 38, a disc jockey in Mandalay. The homegrown fare, he said, is "silly." And Hollywood is moving in. Last year, "Titanic 3-D" opened in Yangon, the first American film premiere in more than a decade. The market is saturated with pirated Thai, Chinese, South Korean and American DVDs. Video games and changing tastes have undercut a local industry many believe has lost the plot. ><

Myanmar's Film Industry Censorship

Mark Magnier, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Down a back road in northern Yangon, a sagging teak house fights back the jungle. On the gate, barely noticeable under the weeds, rusty ironwork spells out "A1 Film." Myanmar's first movie studio. Once-grand cinema halls are being torn down for cookie-cutter mini-malls: In December 2011, Myanmar had 71 cinemas, down from a peak of 244. Along cinema row on Bogyoke Road here in the country's old capital, three monuments to celluloid have been leveled; two others are said to be close behind. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2013 ><]

“Sometimes the regime displayed its paranoia. In "Like Steel Wool," a mid-1970s A1 production about a runaway daughter, a character asks, "Whose empty chair is that?" Censors read this as a reference to Prime Minister U Nu, who was ousted in the coup."We had to change the plot six times and were interrogated by Special Branch police," Ko Myint said. "They saw things that weren't there." ><

“Guidelines ranged from the predictable to the quirky. The army had to be depicted gloriously. And despite its own reliance on astrologers for major decisions, the regime hated special effects or anything involving spirits, astrology or the supernatural. In the final scene of his 1960s biopic about a famous Burmese writer, director Myo Zaw Aung showed his subject withering away, leaving a skeleton. "They said it was too scary and snipped it," he said. "They never even watched the whole film." ><

Other taboos included actresses in revealing Western clothing, actors in tight pants, depictions of drinking and smoking simultaneously (each was tolerated alone), drunken women who find boyfriends, and people living in bamboo huts. " 'Bamboo huts suggest we have poor people,' they said," said Ai Thein Htut, another director. " 'Myanmar's not poor,' they'd add." ><

Myanmar's Film Industry Improves Under Political Reforms

Mark Magnier, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Down a back road in northern Yangon, a sagging teak house fights back the jungle. On the gate, barely noticeable under the weeds, rusty ironwork spells out "A1 Film." Myanmar's first movie studio. Once-grand cinema halls are being torn down for cookie-cutter mini-malls: In December 2011, Myanmar had 71 cinemas, down from a peak of 244. Along cinema row on Bogyoke Road here in the country's old capital, three monuments to celluloid have been leveled; two others are said to be close behind. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2013 ><]

“Censors are relaxing and international sanctions against the regime are easing in the wake of nominally democratic elections last year, but turning around an industry that saw its golden age six decades ago won't be easy. With the dramatic changes brought about by the elections last spring, restrictions have eased and the film industry has been given seats on the censorship board. The military remains in control, however, and filmmakers still tread warily. ><

"You can't criticize religion," Ai Thein Htut said. "And the military is still off limits, although you can touch corrupt police." Among the industry's biggest problems is its outdated mind-set, said Bill Bowling, a production consultant who has worked in Myanmar. The film establishment is so risk-averse and beaten down that any resurgence is likely to come from more dynamic television producers, he said. "There's so much potential," he said. "It's such a shame." ><

“Some younger filmmakers are taking risks. "Ban That Scene!" an 18-minute short, took first prize at a recent Art of Freedom film festival co-hosted by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The film portrays Myanmar censors gleefully chopping scenes about corruption, street fights and beggars. "If foreigners see this, they'll think Myanmar has beggars," a censor in the movie fumes. "Beggars may exist in real life, but not in movies." The character then shouts down suggestions that electricity is limited just before a blackout hits the projection room. "Ban That Scene!" avoided being banned itself through a technicality: The board screens films for sale, and this film was distributed for free. That's fine for intellectuals, said Maung Maung Thein, a poet and English teacher, but Myanmar still needs better indigenous productions, not silly comedies and action pictures. "Most of it isn't even entertaining," echoed Ma Thida, executive editor of the Myanmar Independent News Journal, a literary weekly. "It's mindless comedy that's not even funny." ><

Making Burmese Movies

Mark Magnier, wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “His rhinestone flip-flops flashing and six gold rings glinting, director Maung Thi observed the preparations on the set of "Gon," took a breath and then shouted the classic Hollywood line: "Action!" And he meant it: The veteran filmmaker had seven days to shoot the film, a C-grade movie headed for small rural theaters or straight to video, one of 15 flicks he's pumped out every year since 1989. (His schedule is considered a luxury compared with those of competitors, who usually have to wrap in 72 hours.) [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, April 2, 2013 ><]

The twisted plot, with a nod to "Romeo and Juliet," centers on two business rivals, one of whom elopes with the other's sister. But Shakespeare it's not. "I fall in love and run away," said leading lady May Kabyar, preening in a fluorescent red jacket. "That's about it, basic stuff."

On making a Burmese film in Japan, Erika Toh wrote in the Asahi Shimbun, “With hopes of encouraging their compatriots in their struggle for democracy, a group of Burmese living in Japan is making a film denouncing the military junta. They hope to distribute DVDs of the film in Myanmar prior. The production is led by Htay Thit, who was involved in filmmaking in Myanmar as an actor, set decorator and makeup artist.The 52-year-old is director of “Kanashii Irawaji” (Sorrows of the Irrawaddy river), which portrays a sister and her brother who lose their parents in floods that lashed the Irrawaddy delta in May 2008. [Source: Erika Toh, Asahi Shimbun, January 5, 2010 ///]

“The 90-minute film blames the government for the people’s plight, depicting the suffering of the two children and the tragic fate awaiting the boy, who is forcibly taken by the military to serve as a soldier. Htay Thit wrote the script. Back in the 1980s, Htay Thit developed a distrust of the military when he took part in the production of a movie commissioned by the junta. While working on a scene in which a military officer was helping villagers, he heard an elderly local man mutter, “It’s a lie.”After the pro-democracy movement was crushed by the army in 1988, Htay Thit was called on to join the production of a film depicting anti-government protesters as villains.Unable to bear life under the junta, he fled to Japan in 1991. ///

“Following the 2007 crackdown on anti-government demonstrations led by monks and ordinary citizens, Htay Thit produced his first DVD in Japan. It combined short stories with footage of news reports The Irrawaddy film is his second. About 80 Japan-based Burmese answered his call for assistance and joined the production. None of the “actors” had previous experience in movie production, but one of his assistants had been involved in film editing in Myanmar. ///

“In the fall, they shot some scenes on the bank of the Edogawa river in Nagareyama, Chiba Prefecture, where trees grow thickly along the flow of the muddy water.In one scene, a man dressed in a traditional Burmese longyi sarong asks an officer in a military uniform about relief supplies. The officer bluntly replies, “I’ve arranged it.”Htay Thit watched as the actors delivered their lines, while his assistants carried microphones and reflector boards around them.The director said he chose the location after he traveled past the river and felt “the landscape was just like my motherland’s.”The production has been strongly supported by the resident Burmese community in Japan. //

Films Related to Burma-Myanmar

“Thingyan Moe” (English: “Rain in the Water Festival) is a 1985 Burmese film directed by Maung Tin Oo and starring Nay Aung, Zin Wine, Khin Than Nu and May Than Nu in pivotal roles. The movie follows the life of a musician from 1959 to 1982, with many of the scenes set against traditional Thingyan celebrations. Thingyan is the Burmese New Year Water Festival and usually falls around mid-April (the Burmese month of Tagu). It is a Buddhist festival celebrated over a period of four to five days culminating in the new year.

“Trading Women” (2003) by David A. Feingold is a documentary narrated by Angelina Jolie “Return to Burma” (Gui lái dí rén, 2011) by Midi Z with Wang Shin-hong, Yang Shu-lan, Chou Jung-kuo is a Chinese-produced drama nominated for the Tiger Award at the 2011 International Film Festival Rotterdam

In the summer of 1996, Columbia released a film about Myanmar called Beyond Rangoon by John Boorman, the director of Hope and Glory and Emerald Forest . The film was described by some critics as "a powerful recreation" of the 1988 demonstrations. Starring Patricia Arquete, it was about an American tourist who accidently gets up in the violence. Most thought it was a terrible film. Richard Corliss of Time described it as "beyond belief."

Rambo Versus the Myanmar Army

In "Rambo,” the fourth film in the Rambo series, John Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone, comes out of retirement in Bangkok to save a group of Christian missionaries taken captive by troops in the jungles of eastern Myanmar. In a review of the film Tom Baker wrote in the Daily Yomiuri, “Sylvester Stallone fans planning to sit back with a cola and some popcorn to enjoy an hour and a half of escapist fun with Stallone's new "Rambo” movie could be in for a nasty shock. The movie, which Stallone wrote, directed and stars in, is set mainly in Myanmar, also known as Burma. It shows the country's military rulers violently suppressing people, especially the Karen ethnic minority. [Source: Tom Baker, Daily Yomiuri, May 30, 2008]

The movie's emotionally jarring prologue is a montage of real footage of violence — including a fleeting glimpse of Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai being gunned down as he tried to cover the suppression of a street demonstration in Yangon in 2007. "I just wanted to take the actual footage — which I have — and depict it or re-enact it exactly the way it is. So, it's supposed to be disturbing. I want people to be upset and understand that unarmed people are living this every day. While you're having your meal or going to an amusement park, there are other people in the world that are being torn to shreds and no one knows about it,” he said.

Describing Myanmar's rulers as "Satan's disciples,” the film appears to have a bleak message. An early scene shows Rambo (Stallone) repeatedly growling, "Go home,” to a well-meaning Christian missionary named Sarah (Julie Benz) who wants him to ferry her group of doctors and teachers up a river from Thailand into Myanmar. When they set out on the journey, gruesome violence inevitably ensues and Rambo sets out to rescue the missionaries. "It's just an ongoing horrible situation that he (Rambo) warned her about. And this is just a fact of life, that unfortunately war is natural and peace is an accident, (a condition) that you have to work at, really work at,” he said.

Stallone is active in a human rights called the U.S. Campaign for Burma. Others involved in the group include Jennifer Aniston, Jackson Browne, Will Ferrell, Woody Harrelson, Eddie Izzard, Sarah Silverman and Stallone's "Rambo” costar Julie Benz.

On the response to the forth Rambo film in Myanmar, Reuters reported: “Police in Myanmar have given DVD hawkers strict orders not to stock the new Rambo movie, a Yangon resident told Reuters on Friday. Despite the prohibition, pirated copies of the movie are widely available on the streets of the former capital, where it is fast becoming a talking point among a population. "People are going crazy with the quote 'Live for nothing, die for something'," one resident said, referring to the tagline of the fourth Rambo installment, which opened in the United States this week. [Source: Reuters, February 1, 2008]

Even though it received lukewarm reviews, it is likely to be a sure-fire hit with opponents of the junta, with some even hoping it could spur a change of regime in the impoverished southeast Asian nation. "This movie could fuel the sentiment of Myanmar people to invite American troops to help save them from the junta," one Yangon resident told Reuters by e-mail. As with previous Rambo films, it is short on plot and long on blood and guts -- although viewers appear to think it is all relative. "Rambo acted very cruelly, but his cruelty is nothing compared to that of the military junta," a Myanmar student in Thailand, who did not wish to be named, told Reuters.

“The Lady”: Film with Michelle Yeoh Playing Aung San Suu Kyi

“The Lady” (2011) is a film about Aung San Suu Kyi as she becomes the center of Myanmar’s pro-democracy movement, and her relationship with her husband, the Oxford academic and Tibet scholar Michael Aris. Directed by Luc Besson, it stars Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi. According to IMDB: “ “The Lady”is an epic love story about how an extraordinary couple and family sacrifice their happiness at great human cost for a higher cause...Despite distance, long separations, and a dangerously hostile regime, their love endures until the very end. A story of devotion and human understanding set against a background of political turmoil, “The Lady” also is the story of the peaceful quest of the woman who is at the core of Burma's democracy movement. At on point, Giuseppe Tornatore was considered to direct the movie. [Source: IMBD]

The film is titled The Lady after Aung San Suu Kyi's nickname in Burma. It , focuses heavily on the personal sacrifices she made. Aris is played the British actor David Thewlis. Parts of the film were shot in France and Britain. Other parst were shot in Thailand, where Aung San Suu Kyi’s house was recreated. The actors in the scenes set in Myanmar were mostly Burmese and Thais and the film crew was largely Thai. The actor who plays Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Aung San, really looks like her father. He's a Burmese from the north of Thailand and was honoured to play Aung San. In one scene set in 1947, Burmese soldiers are shown carrying AK-47s. The production of the assault rifle AK-47 began in 1949.

Thanyarat Doksone of Associated Press wrote: “Michelle Yeoh remembers her pride as a Southeast Asian youth when Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Suu Kyi "was fighting for democracy in a nonviolent way, where passion was the armor and love for liberty was the weapon," Yeoh told The Associated Press. "I've been in the business long enough to recognize what an amazing story that she has that we can tell," she said. "If anybody should play her, it's me." The 49-year-old Yeoh said Suu Kyi is a "very big hero" of hers and she was keen to play her as soon as she heard a film was being made about the life of the 1991 Nobel recipient. [Source: Thanyarat Doksone, Associated Press, February 1, 2012 ++]

Yeoh recalled watching news coverage of Suu Kyi's 2010 release along with director Besson, the other lead actors, and Suu Kyi's son, Kim Aris. She said she played the identical scene of Suu Kyi coming up the gate and waving at the crowd earlier that morning. "We were so crazily happy that finally ... she was freed," she said. ++

Yeoh traveled to Myanmar and met Suu Kyi in December 2010. "I was extremely nervous because I was afraid she would look at me and go 'Whoa, my god, why are you portraying me?'" she said. "But when she was in front of me, all she did was she open her arms, (and) welcome me like a family member." "She's one of those people that you meet and you'll never forget," Yeoh said. Yeoh's enthusiasm for the cinematic Suu Kyi is not entirely requited. Suu Kyi said in an interview at her Yangon home last month that she doesn't plan to see the movie. "I don't really like seeing films which are supposed to be about me," she said. ++

Michelle Yeoh on Playing Aung San Suu Kyi

To prepare for playing Aung San Suu Kyi, Michelle Yeoh spent six months learning Burmese, shed 10 kilograms - and met Suu Kyi in person. She was the only member of the crew granted entry to the country, albeit for just 24 hours. Yeoh old The Nation: “I knew very little about Burma, and all we knew about Suu Kyi was from television news. In 1991 when Daw Suu received her Nobel Peace Prize, I was proud to be an Asian woman because she was the first to receive one. We don't have many iconic heroines. As an actress, you always try to find characters that are very challenging at many different levels, and here you have such an amazing story. [Source: Subhatra Bhumiprabhas, Aree Chaisatien, The Nation February 2, 2012]

“As an actress, you always try to find characters that are very challenging at many different levels, and here you have such an amazing story. The preparations were quite difficult too - gathering all the information with no direct sources. [Suu Kyi's husband] Michael Aris passed away long ago. The family hadn't seen her for 10 years or more. All they had was memories of memories. We had to piece them together, and at the end of the day you have to trust your instinct.

On her reaction to meeting Aung San Suu Kyi, Yeoh said: “She's very curious person, very smart. She loves to know what's going on with you! You are bringing the world to her...And the greatest emotion I felt was when I saw her with her son. They are loving, very passionate.

On Michelle Yeoh being deported from Myanmar, Peter Walker wrote in The Guardian, Yeoh, who has been filming the biopic in neighbouring Thailand, was detained on arriving at Rangoon's airport on 22 June but was sent out on the next flight, Burmese officials said. "She was deported on the same day because she is on a blacklist," an unnamed official told Reuters. In December Yeoh visited Aung San Suu Kyi at her lakeside home in Rangoon, just weeks after the opposition politician was released from a seven-year period of house arrest. The actor spent a day with the pro-democracy leader and her son, British-based Kim Aris. [Source: Peter Walker and agencies, The Guardian, June 28, 2011]

Burma VJ: Reporting from A Closed Country

“Burma VJ: Reporting from A Closed Country” (2008) is a documentary about the 2007 protests in Burma by thousands of monks made using smuggled footage. Directed by Danish director Anders Østergaard, this Oscar nominated documentary was made mainly using handicamns wielded by underground reporters who were at the protests. Burma VJ won the top award at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam in November and was screened at the Sundance Festival and the Human Rights Watch international film festival.

According to Østergaard; “The things we did with theses things could shake up the people of Burma, as well as the people around the world. The footage has been shown on news stations, but this is a collection of the footage showing a complete story. The reporters faced death or life imprisonment to get this footage. Once the military realized that the footage was being sent by the reporters, and not foreign journalists, they systematically hunted them down. Those who were not arrested, spread out through the country. It was a touching story of how the people stood up to oppression. They were not teabaggers, but people willing to die for freedom. [Source: IMDB]

Østergaard wrote in The Guardian: “Burma VJ was supposed to be a modest little film: a half-hour, low-key yet intimate portrait of Joshua, a 26-year-old Burmese video journalist, or VJ. Joshua had decided to do his bit for a better Burma by taking his video camera, usually concealed, on to the streets of Rangoon to document what he could of everyday life. When we started work on the project, in early 2007, the footage Joshua was able to show us was, frankly, totally uneventful: little reports on street kids, life in his village, the miserable state of the railways. [Source: Anders Østergaard, The Guardian, March 19, 2009 >>]

“But since Rangoon is a city packed with informers and secret police, we understood the risk Joshua was taking. However slight, his footage was still a major subversive achievement. Joshua worked as a VJ for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), the broadcaster-in-exile stationed in Oslo. We quickly realised he was an endearing guy, cheeky, wise and well educated. I felt his charismatic commentary, coupled with this footage, would open a tiny peephole on to this isolated, almost forgotten country. >>

“Instead, we ended up crashing right through the main gate. What we got was beyond my wildest imaginings. In the summer of 2007, a few protests grew into an uprising that swept the streets. Soon Joshua and his fellow activists-turned-VJs were feeding CNN, the BBC and the rest of the world's media with stunning videos, showing the Burmese people's fight for freedom and the brutality of the military regime. The VJs underwent a tremendous rite of passage, turning from young, spontaneous activists into war-torn veterans of a media revolution. >>

“Back in the editing room in Copenhagen, our lives also changed. We started off being in full artistic control of a nice little project, but then graphic footage of beatings and shootings by the military and the police began to flood in. We were now chroniclers of world history. Some of the tapes arrived in a fairly organised way, via the DVB. But even months after the uprising, shocking and hitherto unseen footage would still show up, having been smuggled out. These tapes had no labels on them, and came with no information as to where and when they were shot, or by whom. >>

“We had to spend weeks doing "video archaeology" - working out the time and place of bits of footage from the details they contained. One of the most helpful tools turned out to be Google Earth, with its satellite photographs of Rangoon's inner city. By matching street corners, high-rises and pagodas visible in the background of the clips with those on 3D maps, we were able to establish the development of demonstrations as they moved through the city. Slowly, the anatomy of the uprising - and perhaps, indeed, of any uprising - fell into place. >>

“It was fascinating, with each stage clear and well defined. We saw the early, hesitant days when the first groups of protesting monks would start marching at a fast, nervous pace in silence, cautiously applauded by onlookers. The next stage was more daring: the monks would begin their religious chanting and the public joined in, an expression of their yearning for freedom camouflaged in Buddhist generalities. Then came a euphoric outburst of political slogans and direct demands to the government, which echoed through the streets. This defiance turned into panic as the military beast finally got on its feet and struck back. Even though we knew the end of the story all too well, we were still heartbroken to see all those hopes for change and liberation dashed, as the protest transformed into a fight for survival in the course of a single afternoon.>>

“It's conventional wisdom that, in the cutting room, films take on a will of their own: they tell you how they want to be made. But this was an extreme case. It brought home, more than ever, the rare, but incredible rewards of being a documentary film-maker. It's about discovery rather than invention - the wonders of working with something much bigger than yourself. >>

Film: “Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country”

Burma VJ: a Documentary with a Few Staged Bits

Andrew Marshall wrote in Time, “When I recall reporting Burma's doomed pro-democracy uprising for TIME in September 2007, one image stands out. Amid cheering crowds, a monk holds aloft an upturned alms bowl to indicate his brethren's refusal to accept offerings from the military. It's a powerful gesture in a devout Buddhist country, but what strikes me is not the monk but the ordinary Burmese holding aloft cell phones and cameras to record his protest. Images like these were then transmitted out of Burma via the Internet, where they were picked up by major broadcasters and shown to the world. [Source: Andrew Marshall, Time, January 29, 2009 <<]

“One of those cameras perhaps belonged to a video journalist, or VJ, from the Oslo-based broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), whose courageous work is the subject of Burma VJ, a documentary by Danish director Anders stergaard. It is narrated by Joshua, a soft-spoken 27-year-old who, after being fired from a Burmese government newspaper, joins DVB's small but tenacious team. Founded in 1992, DVB is a nonprofit media organization that broadcasts news in English and Burmese via radio, satellite television and the Internet. Sixty of its 140 staff are undercover reporters in Burma. Despite the risks, and probably because of them too, Joshua's new job makes him feel purposeful and alive. "When I pick up the camera, maybe my hands are shaking," he tells us in the opening scene. "But after shooting for a while, it is O.K. ... I have only my subject in my mind, you know?" After filming a small but near-suicidal street protest, Joshua narrowly avoids arrest and leaves the country. When the monks start marching soon after, he coordinates his colleagues back in Burma from a Thai safe house, ensuring the footage they smuggle out reaches the DVB. <<

“The central event of Burma VJ is the 2007 uprising. "Film them! Film them all! So many! So, so many!" cries one protester into a DVB camera, which then pans upward from the crowded streets to show rooftops and balconies packed with more cheering Burmese. It's moving to watch, not least because we know how it all ended. Within days, perhaps a hundred or more people were killed by the junta and thousands arrested. Those carrying cameras were singled out. <<

“The footage provided by DVB is edgy, visceral and raw, as you would expect from VJs who must shoot from the hip and run like hell to evade the junta's thugs. In a dictatorship, even the simple task of interviewing a subject is potentially perilous. How can you tell if your subject is an informer? How do you convince them that you're not one? When one of Joshua's colleagues tries to film an early protest march, a monk shoos him away, perhaps suspecting he's a spy. With its haunting score and slick editing, Burma VJ not only captures the fear, paranoia and exhilaration of the undercover reporter, but also gives a bruising idea of how precarious life is for millions of Burmese. <<

But there's a but. Burma VJ is pitched as a documentary, when it is actually a docudrama relying heavily on dramatic re-enactments. It begins with a disclaimer: "This film is [composed largely of] material shot by undercover reporters in Burma. Some elements of the film have been reconstructed in close co-operation with the actual persons involved." Mixing documentary footage with dramatic reconstructions is said to be a hallmark of stergaard's films. With Burma VJ, that hallmark is a handicap, undermining the film's credibility and dishonoring the very profession its subjects risk their lives to pursue. <<

“No scene is labeled as a reconstruction. Some are convincingly real, yet others are so simply betrayed as re-enactments by their wooden dialogue that soon I began to anxiously question the authenticity of every scene. I felt moved by a sequence showing protesters gathering on a Rangoon backstreet in defiance of the junta. But when I learned that it had been shot from scratch in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, I felt something else: manipulated....It closes with a raid by secret police on DVB's Rangoon secret headquarters — also a reconstruction, although the events it depicts are real and tragic enough. Three reporters were arrested, others went into hiding. Joshua is now in exile, but the authorities know his name — they tortured it out of a friend — and keep his family under surveillance.” <<

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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