Myanmar Debates Censorship Again

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SUBIR BHAUMIK

The Memory Film Festival, whose fifth edition just concluded in Yangon, is ‘about opening up minds”, says Séverine Wemaere, co-founder of MEMORY! Festival with Gilles Duval.

In an interview to Subir Bhaumik, Séverine said the festival that started in 2014 in Myanmar, has been designed not merely to bring great films from the region and across the world to the Burmese audience, but also to rake up debates on key issues like censorship and prepare Myanmar’s talented young directors for participation in major film festivals like Cannes., Berlin, Locarno and Busan (in Korea).

Myanmar is opening up, and I am hopeful that the revised law would make things much better. The censorship debate is closely linked to the issue of transition to democracy

The French lady has film in her heart, wears it on her sleeves and is passionate about restoring Burma’s long film heritage. The moment I told her I am from Calcutta, her eyes lighted up and she started talking about great Bengali directors Satyajit Ray and Ritwick Ghatak. And she gladly accepted my proposal to bring “Sabyasachi” to next year’s Memory festival. This film is based on Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s great novel “Pather Dabi” dealing with the life and times of great Bengali revolutionary Sabyasachi Mallick in Burma where he maintained close relations with Burmese revolutionaries and from where he contacted the German embassy in Dutch-ruled Indonesia to bring weapons for an armed revolution in India.

Séverine Wemaere

Immortal Bengali actors Uttam Kumar and Supriya Chowdhury (whose family lived in Burma) play the lead roles in the film. Interestingly, the founder of the Burmese Communist Party is a Bengali, the late H N Ghoshal or Thakin Ba Tin.

 

Subir: What drives the Memory festival and why did you organise it in Myanmar ?

Séverine: We wanted to bring back to Myanmar the magic power of films all over again. The country has a long film tradition, but that was kind of under the carpet for a long while. I do not have to tell you why, you know it, but now Myanmar is opening up, and we thought it as the right time to provide to the very interested and enthusiastic audience here what they have missed for a long, long time. Myanmar has got a huge catching up to do in access to films, almost fifty years and we therefore decided to come to this country which suffers from the limitation of access to quality films. The audience is very virgin but very interested.  We want to provide the audience here with something universal, we want local filmmaking talent to flourish, the local film industry to flourish and grow and we want the debate on censorship that we organised this year to yield results.

 

Subir: How ?

Séverine: Myanmar is in the process of revising its Motion Picture law of 1996, and we hope the points raised by our debate this year will provide some food for thought for Burmese policymakers. Looking through the past in the field of Censorship, in various countries and at various times seemed to us an interesting experience. Most who joined the debate including Burmese filmmakers pitched for classification, not censorship, but even classification

audience is very virgin but very interested.  We want to provide the audience here with something universal, we want local filmmaking talent to flourish, the local film industry to flourish and grow and we want the debate on censorship

may have a flip side. So, we want the policymakers to take into account all the issues on censorship raised, and we are happy to find the stakeholders seemingly very open to ideas. The fact that we could screen ‘The Great Dictator’ at Maha Bandoola Park , the fact that Singapore film maker, Tan Pin Pin’s films, could be screened ( which had to be stopped in Bangkok and Penang festivals), the fact that we could screen the restored Burmese films, all points to the development of Memory festival in Myanmar. We are very impressed with the response this year.

 

Subir: Why do you think films like ‘Twilight’ are still facing the axe of censorship  ?

Séverine: Films are often ahead of their times, they do not tell the truth as the historian does, but they reflect the time in which it is made. Film Makers in all countries have had to face the wrath of censors because they often come up with ideas that are still not acceptable to society. But Myanmar is opening up, and I am hopeful that the revised law would make things much better. The censorship debate is closely linked to the issue of transition to democracy, and so we are happy to have raised an issue which was much wider ramifications than just filmmaking and marketing. We are happy to be working with the government here, with the ministry of information and we find the situation here really opening up. The fact that we could organise a focussed section like the one on Banned Films here in Myanmar is a great achievement. 22 banned films were screened at the Memory festival 2017.

Still from “Twilight”

Subir: Let us talk about the two other projects of yours — the Myanmar Script Fund and the Myanmar Film Restoration project.

Séverine: “The Myanmar Script Fund does not fund new films, as many may misconstrue, but it prepares local directors for big film festivals in the world. We subject new filmmakers to intense scrutiny by an international jury and once they pass the test and their scripts are accepted, they are already well prepared for the big stage. This year, we had 25 proposals, from which seven were selected. Now these seven directors will be coached, should we say trained, so they can fine tune their script, make the film to global standards and then participate in festivals like Cannes and Berlin, Busan and Locarno in a meaningful way. This year, Myanmar-born and Taiwan-based director Midi Z was the chairperson of the jury. Nurturing local talent will go a long way to revive the film industry in Myanmar.

 

Subir: And the Myanmar Film Heritage project !

Séverine: That is a great thing. Cinema is in the DNA of the people here, and it never stopped. We now want to contribute to restore the early Burmese films and give it back to the people so that they get to treasure their national heritage. These films belong to Myanmar and ‘Sayarma’ Grace Swe Zin Htaik, the award-winning Myanmar actress, is our “passport” to the treasures. Grace is actively involved in all our programs and in particular the restoration program, having in mind the 100th anniversary of Myanmar Cinema in 2020. We have already restored, with considerable difficulty and expenses, the 1934 Maung Tin Maung’s “Mya Ga Naing” (Emerald Jungle) and the 1950 Tin Myint’s Pyo Chit Lin (My Darling).

moment I told her I am from Calcutta,  her eyes lighted up and she started talking about great Bengali directors Satyajit Ray and Ritwick Ghatak. And she gladly accepted my proposal to bring “Sabyasachi” to next year’s Memory festival

Having screened these films at the inaugural ceremony of the last two Memory Festivals, our wish now is to give them back officially to the Burmese people by doing a special screening in the parliament for MPS and Ministers and officials. We will be happy if Information Minister Dr Pe Myint presides over such a ceremonial event.

 

Subir: Are you restoring more such Burmese films ?

Séverine: Oh yes, we want many of them restored so that we have enough when the 100 years of Burmese Cinema is observed in 2020. We want to give back to Myanmar a bit of their glorious past, especially the old films, so that people understand the magic of cinema and that the Big Screen is not an I-Phone and the viewing experience is different.

Broadly, we want to take Myanmar to the world by highlighting Myanmar old and new films abroad and the world to Myanmar by gathering more and more international delegations to MEMORY Festival, when it comes to films. ■

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