Peter Decherney, a professor of film and media at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses his trip to Myanmar and the country’s burgeoning filmmaking and media environment.
I just returned from Myanmar, where I was part of a U.S. State Department delegation charged with strengthening the media industry and helping filmmakers engage with global media networks. My colleagues included veteran international filmmakers Julie Corman and Bill Guttentag, and we followed an earlier delegation headed by CGCS Director Monroe Price that looked at the newspaper industry and new media laws (see blog posts here and here). While attending the Myanmar Motion Picture Academy Awards (which of course everyone there calls the Myanmar Oscars), Professor Price saw the urgency of working with the film industry, and put the trip in motion.
Filmmaking may seem like a luxury for a country rebuilding itself after a half century of isolation and military rule. But if Myanmar is going to address its traumatic history, integrate its divided ethnic and religious groups, and become a democratic nation, I’m convinced that filmmaking will be central to that process.
In Myanmar, we encountered a diverse and active media culture. On the more official side, the state University of Arts and Culture teaches traditional dance and music, and in well-equipped facilities students learn to make safe television documentaries. But the state-run media system is just the beginning of Myanmar’s media environment. Seemingly in another world along 35th street in Yangon, a grassroots studio system has taken hold, resembling Nigeria’s prolific video industry often called Nollywood. Dozens of ragtag production companies make straight-to-DVD comedies and horror films, which had previously been banned by government censors. Many of the 35th Street filmmakers I met also had ambitious scripts in their back pockets ready to take on big political, historical, and ethical topics if only they could get funding. In another part of the city, the small but ambitious Yangon Film School trains budding socially conscious filmmakers from the ethnic regions of the country, insuring that their classes are evenly divided between women and men. The Yangon Film School graduates then return to their hometowns to spread what they have learned.
Despite these efforts, however, virtually no production exists outside of Yangon. That may, however, be changing quickly. Cell phones have become ubiquitous in Myanmar, and even on the impossibly slow cell networks, young people are shooting music videos and short films and uploading them to YouTube and Facebook.
All of these filmmakers are taking advantage of the new speech rights they were given by the government in 2011. But the country and its media industry remain in a state of limbo. The old repressive media institutions continue to exist alongside a growing community of filmmakers. The government censor board still goes through the motions of approving films even if the criteria are relaxed, and the censors are actively hoping to keep their jobs by adopting a rating system. Ministries of Culture and Information continue to regulate the industry, although virtually every piece of media legislation from the country’s copyright act to its telecommunications laws are being rewritten. Tellingly, much of the draft legislation has been translated into English, and the government officials seem genuinely open to international comment and criticism.
In addition to legislative reform, Myanmar’s media industry is struggling to rethink the many protectionist measures that have guided production, distribution, and exhibition. International films, for example, are not subtitled in movie theaters, limiting the audience to English speakers and driving most patrons to the pirated DVD stalls, where you can get badly subtitled versions. As the result of another protectionist policy, Myanmar-made films are shown in theaters in the order in which they are submitted to a queue. All films are eligible and they run on as many as a third of the country’s screens for three weeks whether anyone comes to see them or not. There is currently a two-year backlog, which means that films made since the relaxed censorship policies are just now starting to be shown in theaters. With the explosion of film production, the queue is about to become much longer.
Major U.S. studios are all contemplating moving into this burgeoning media market, while veterans of Myanmar politics remain pessimistic about the future of both the country and its media industry; they have seen their hopes dashed too many times. More commonly, there is a pervasive wait-and-see attitude. Elections are scheduled for early next year, and everyone from filmmakers to government officials are holding on to their draft scripts and legislation until after the election.
Their trepidation has not even been shaken by the encouraging recent news that a constitutional reform might be adopted allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to run for president. For observers both inside and outside of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi continues to be the beacon of hope for the country. She has also been swept up by Myanmar’s film fever, assembling a committee to make an epic biopic about the life of her father, General Aung San, who led the country’s fight for independence from Great Britain after World War II. Everyone in the country seems to know about the General Aung San film project, and we were told many times that we needed to meet Aung San Suu Kyi to talk about her film. We did not set up an official meeting, but serendipitously, when we boarded a small plane from the Mandalay to the capital city of Nay Pyi Taw, standing in the aisle was the Lady herself, as Aung San Suu Kyi is known. She was charismatic and gracious, and I am sure that she will make a great film. But, as I heard one U.S. embassy official put it, Myanmar’s narrative goes much deeper than the often-repeated story of the Lady and the junta. That is true of Myanmar’s media culture as well. It is a country with important stories to tell and filmmakers ready to tell them. I think we can expect a new wave of important Myanmar-made films celebrated on the festival circuit and streaming on Netflix very soon.
Since returning, I have been working with CGCS Director Price and the Center’s staff to plan for next steps. We have grants pending, and we hope to return with a larger delegation in the fall. Stay tuned…
Peter Decherney is a professor of film and media at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Hollywood’s Copyright Wars: From Edison to the Internet. He is co-editor of the forthcoming Iranian Cinema in a Global Context, which builds essays delivered at a CGCS-sponsored conference in Berlin.
Featured Photo from Peter Decherney