October 21, 2017
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Reel to Real: Movie making in Myanmar

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Mizzima explores how and when the Myanmar film industry diverged from the rest of the world.

It all began so long ago, back on October 13, 1920, and was said to be “teeming with intense humor and excitement”. There were no words to be heard and, given the topic, there’s another reason why any intense humor would have to be muted somewhat. That day was the premier of the silent-era film Myitta Hnint Thuyar (Love and Liquor), the first movie produced in Myanmar and directed by a Myanmar, Ohn Maung.

He was no strange to filming also made the country’s first documentary, which was about the funeral of a pro-independence Myanmar politician. Love and Liquor, which showed at the Cinema de Paris in Yangon, told the age-old story of how gambling and alcohol can lead one down the path of ruin.

The “star” of this first film was Ba Htay from Pyay who used the screen name of Nyi Pi. Nyi Pi would have quite a long life—born in 1900, he died in 1996—and would be involved in the Myanmar film industry until 1972 when he was chairman of the Myanmar Motion Picture Organization (MMPO).

Twelve years later, the actors received their vocal cords in the country’s first talkie, Ngwe Po La Maya (It’s No Use Giving Money), directed by Tot Gyi. That film starred Chit Tin Gyi, Aye Ko and Khin May Gyi.

The movie was largely shot in Mumbai and Kolkhata with the finished product taken to Yangon. It became something of an early blockbuster and earned in piles of kyat – reportedly 100,000 in the first 8 weeks, which was a large amount at a time. The producer, an Indian named Na Zar Mi was an early example of what has become almost a Hollywood archetype – the hotshot director who hits the big time with a new feature and then bombs utterly with what came next.

Think Michael Cimino who wowed with The Deer Hunter but then raised the yawn factor to a new level with the widely panned financial disaster known as Heaven’s Gate. The trouble was that Na Zar Mi produced two more stinkers in succession for Myanmar’s cinemas and had to leave the business.

Up until the early 1960s large numbers of films were made (600 by 1941) in and for Myanmar. These covered a wide variety of themes that included love stories, moral challenges, war, official corruption, historical dramas, Buddhist stories and the occult. It was after the Army seized power in 1962 that something of a dull thud was imposed upon the industry with the official desire, via censorship, that themes reflect socialist concerns over workers and their works. Imagine Russian shock workers performing their subbotniks (free Saturday labour) transposed to the Golden Land. As for official corruption—what was that?

Parts of the industry were nationalized. One M-ZINE+ writer remembers meeting an interesting character in the mid-1970s at the Yangon YMCA who was making his living buying Johnny Walker Scotch from tourists for resale.

“Before the Army took over, I was a respected and wealthy businessman,” he said. “I owned four of the best cinemas in Rangoon [Yangon]. They took them from me. But today, by the grace of God, I am now a very good black marketeer.”

After 1989, things loosened up a bit in terms of private enterprise being allowed back in to run studios and cinemas, but Big Brother was hardly far away. Scripts were censored—something that usually pushes the most adventurous directors to test the borders of allegory—and political opponents who were actors and actresses had trouble getting screen time and were typically banned.

And, if you did the right thing in terms of being onside with the government’s political or cultural points of view, benefits and notice came your way. At least into the 2000s, government-favoured actors and actresses tended to walk away with trophies at the domestic award ceremonies.

So where are we today, considering that a strong breath of fresh air currently permeates the nation’s political and cultural scenes? Ei Ei Su of M-ZINE+ went out and spoke to those in the know.

For full article, get the March 28 edition of M-ZINE+.

M-ZINE+ is a business weekly available in print in Yangon through Innwa Bookstore and through online subscription at www.mzineplus.com.

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