Chiang Mai (Mizzima) - An 11-year-old Shan girl with no previous acting experience is being applauded at film festivals around the world for her portrayal of a Karen refugee fleeing the brutality of the Burmese army.
Ronnachai Mai Whittio—Mai for short—was chosen for the role in 'Crossing Salween' through ‘street casting’, where movie producers look for natural talent among non-professionals, as seen in the casting of slum children in the 2008 Hollywood hit, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’.
‘Mai was a natural’, Irish film producer Gary Moore told Mizzima on a recent visit to Chiang Mai. ‘She gives an astonishing performance’. Movie enthusiasts and critics at several international film festivals agree.
Mai lives with her parents in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, where most of the casting for the film, ‘Crossing Salween’, took place.
Now a 20-minute ‘pilot’ based on a short story written by Moore, the film caught the attention of the Irish Film Board. He and his company, Dublin-based Red Rage Films, hope to develop the film into a full-length feature—and, judging by the positive reception it has received at several major film festivals, they should have little difficulty realizing that aim, assuming they raise the necessary funding.
Moore became concerned about the plight of Karen villagers, caught up since 1949 in the world’s longest civil war, when he was asked to mount a photographic exhibition on Burmese refugees. He visited the Thai-Burmese border region, and on his return to Ireland wrote a short story, titled ‘Ko Reh’, the name of its central character, a 9-year-old Karen girl who flees into the jungle when Burmese government forces burn down her village and slaughter the inhabitants. With the aid of a mysterious hunter, she sets out on an arduous trek to the safety of Thailand.
On an impulse, Moore and scriptwriter Brian O’Malley submitted a film treatment of the story to the Irish Film Board. ‘Brian wrote a screenplay in four hours, just making the deadline’, said Moore. ‘It came top out of 183 submissions’.
The short film was released coincidently on November 13, 2010, the day when Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her latest term of house arrest in Rangoon.
Since then, ‘Crossing Salween’ has been shown in festivals in Berlin, Dublin, Cork, Sydney and the US city of Fort Wayne, winning accolades at each screening. Further screenings are planned at other film festivals over the next 18 months, while Moore and his team look for the 1.5 million Euros or US$ 2.1 million to make a full-length feature.
Humanity, not politics, is the main thrust of both the pilot and planned full-length feature film.
‘This isn’t a political film or an anthropological study’, said Moore. ‘It’s a human story that also throws light on the reality of Karen life and, by proxy, the lives of the Burmese in general. We hope it raises awareness of the situation there in the wider world’.