‘It’s a story about human dignity and how it suffers’

Before interviewing one of the directors of ­Myanmar diaries at the Berlin Film Festival I knew I would not be told his name. Revealing his identity would put his fellow filmmakers and his family in Myanmar in mortal danger.

Instead, he is introduced as M. He sits with two of the producers, Corinne van Egeraat and Petr Lom, a Dutch couple who lived in Myanmar from 2013 to 2017, teaching film and documentary photography and making feature films. Burma history book. All three have worked in secret to bring this story to the world.

Myanmar diaries is a hybrid documentary made by 10 anonymous Burmese citizens who are part of the Myanmar Film Collective, a group formed to use works of art as acts of resistance and protest.

They have put their freedom and perhaps their lives at risk by shooting in Myanmar, where people have been arrested for simply carrying a camera. With the footage we see in the news protesters detained in Russiathe pictures in Myanmar diaries has gained an eerie resonance as we are reminded of censorship, military power and how people try to cope under dictatorship.

The film that won the award for best documentary by it Berlin Film Festivalopens with a title card saying it is February 1, 2021, the day the military ousted the government for the Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi.

An aerobics instructor moves to the music from an Indonesian dance number as the military begins to roll in behind her on the street. At the time, the clip went viral, and many wondered if it was staged; here it sets the tone in the documentary, which deliberately blurs the line between fact and fiction in an attempt to protect the identity of the filmmakers.

In an attempt to bring in what is happening Myanmar to the West’s attention, the filmmakers have humanized the experience of life under military rule. The collective asked participants to create “first-person” stories about what they see in their everyday lives, or re-creations of things they have seen, heard or experienced.

“Decent people responded to our call to shoot their stories in a way you can not imagine,” says M. Some responded with documentaries, others by portraying their fears in fictional narratives.

One of the film’s most politically sensitive scenes (Photo: The Myanmar Film Collective)

The main rule was not to show the faces of the main characters, such is the fear of retaliation. The film features several arrests recorded on smartphones, including those of a cameraman, a mother and a 60-something protester.

M tells me that the group deliberately chose not to show some of the most heinous moments.

“We have thousands of footage showing really horrific brutality, such as a 10-year-old girl being shot in the head. All the violence in Myanmar diaries takes place off-screen or is implied in some way. We really wanted to show the human side of history, even the secular side. “

The film features images of cats, a fictionalized ghost story and a girl who plans to tell her boyfriend that she pregnant.

“Bad things happened, but on the other hand, you have sore moments, lovers will still be lovers, and you can still beat cancer,” recalls M.

“We all know that military dictatorships are bad, right? Brutality is bad. Why do we want to show dying children? Instead, we want to show how human dignity refuses to be denied, and also try to show how someone is traumatized. To to do that, you have to come up with something creative. ”

As with all Portmanteau projects, things are not always nicely connected, but here fiction and non-fiction combine spectacularly; there is unexpected fun in the middle of the violence.

Still, the most striking scene in the film is a political scene. A man with his head wrapped in a plastic bag stands in front of a wall plastered with calls for action written on A4 sheets: “Respect our voices”, “Stop killing our people” and “Release our leaders.”

“Our leaders” is a difficult subject, as the democratically elected government that led the country had its own poor results in the field of human rights. It is noteworthy that the film does not mention Suu Kyi, who in 2015 led the National League for Democracy (NLD) to victory in Myanmar’s first openly contested election in 25 years, and whose reputation as a peace provider fell during his time in power. Nor does it give a brief history of what happened before the military junta took control last year.

Two of the film’s producers, Corinne van Egeraat and Petr Lom (Photo: Andreas Rentz / Getty Images)

When I ask why Suu Kyi’s reign is not mentioned, M leaves it to Lom to answer. “In a way, we take for granted that the audience knows what happened. Above all, we felt that the film is an expression of the current suffering. So even though it makes it worse to know that the country underwent a democratic transition, it does not change the film if you do not know. ”

It is a defensive response that avoids addressing Suu Kyi and her treatment of the country’s predominantly Muslim Rohingya minority.

In 2017, hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to neighboring Bangladesh after a brutal attack. Myanmar faces a lawsuit accusing the country of genocide before the International Court of Justice.

Suu Kyi personally defended the actions of the army at a hearing in The Hague. She was also criticized for prosecuting journalists and activists by using colonial law.

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“Asking questions about Suu Kyi is not really relevant because we have bigger fish to fry,” says Lom.

One of the collective motives for making the film is that they feel their situation has become invisible. And that was before Russia invaded Ukraine, where daily stories and images of the horrors of life under attack have come to dominate our collective consciousness.

The situation could be seen as yet another example of the struggle between dictatorship and democracy, and it is hard not to wonder whether if Suu Kyi were less controversial, the focus on Myanmar’s situation would be far more marked in the international press.

The documentary reminds us not to let the suffering of leaders affect how we feel about the citizens of a country. M wants Myanmar diaries to force the world to look at the human cost of what is happening there and not get lost in the why and why of politicians’ activities.

M explains: “It’s the story of human dignity and how it suffers in such an unacceptable situation.”

A scene from the movie (Photo: The Myanmar Film Collective)

M is sure the best way to do that is through pictures. “If you think of the Black Lives Matter movement, it [2020 protests] was caused by the footage [of George Floyd’s murder]… Without these images, progress would have taken much longer. “M hopes the film will inspire more people to campaign for an end to military rule in Myanmar.

There is nothing stronger than a photo to bring a message home in war – Thich Quang Duc, who burns himself, still echoes from Vietnam. Will the man with his head in a plastic bag have a similar effect on the Myanmar battle?

“Today we are so saturated with images that it’s harder for all of them to get the effect they deserve, so we have to be more creative,” says M. “But I’m sure authoritarian and oppressive governments are still afraid of images. ”

Myanmar diaries is available for streaming to audiences in the UK and Ireland at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival until March 25, ff.hrw.org/film/myanmar-diaries

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