Poetry is a national pastime in Myanmar, but it’s a dangerous pursuit that has landed many exponents in prison. Filmmaking couple Petr Lom and Corinne van Egeraat address this literary minefield in their documentary Burma Storybook.
It chronicles the shifting political landscape in the 24 months since the country’s first openly contested elections in 25 years.
The film charts the travails of Maung Aung Pwint, the country’s most celebrated living dissident poet, who has been imprisoned many times by the military regime.
In one of the most poignant scenes, the poet and his wife – perched among piles of books in their ramshackle flat – pine for the return of their son, Nyein Chan Aung, a student activist who has been living in exile in Finland for 20 years.
“At its core, this is a film about resilience – how extraordinary people were able to survive the dictatorship. And how art has the power to both express the pain of the past, and also to help one heal,” says Lom, an independent filmmaker and producer who hails from the Czech Republic.
And the theme of resilience goes beyond the film. Emotionally moved by the family’s plight, a viewer in the Netherlands paid for the son’s flight so he could be reunited with his parents.
“We went to Burma to show the film to the main characters – someone had seen the film in a cinema in the Netherlands and paid for the son to return to Burma so he could watch the film together with his parents. This was the most extraordinary thing I have ever done in my film career,” he says.
And in a touching gesture, Lom screened the documentary in the same room in which much of it was filmed.
“We set up a screen and a projector in Maung Aung Pwint’s tiny living room [in Burma], the room you see in the film, so the cinema was like a mirror of reality,” says Lom. “The screening was amazing. Magical. They liked it so much they wanted to see it a second time,” he says.
But Lom was not content to merely tell a personal story. To give a more panoramic view of a society in rapid transition, he introduces elements of cinema verite: a sky lantern flying into the dead of the night; local folk discussing the old regime; the emergence of the internet; a lorry playing songs supporting Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy and now State Counselor.
I had wanted to make a film in Myanmar for a long time – since at least the failed saffron revolution of 2008. But the dictatorship made filming there impossible
Petr Lom, co-director
“I had wanted to make a film in Myanmar for a long time – since at least the failed saffron revolution of 2008. But the dictatorship made filming there impossible. In 2012, when things were beginning to change, I was invited to show one of my films in Myanmar’s first human rights film festival. I found the experience extraordinary and the people in Myanmar wonderful – characterized above all by a curiosity and thirst to learn – and so I wanted to return,” says Lom in the film’s director statement.
Lom and van Egeraat began shooting in 2012.
Human rights and creative pursuits are hot topics in the country these days. In 2012, it held the first edition of The Art of Freedom film festival, an event that pushes the limits of what was and is considered acceptable subjects for discourse in the country. The Human Rights Dignity International Film Festival is also entering its fifth year. And guests at the opening of a photo exhibition held in the capital in March this year heard the Mayor of Yangon proclaim “there is no censorship.”
Lom’s film will have to pass muster with the country’s censorship board before a public screening is allowed in Myanmar, but he believes that will not be a problem.
“We don’t think it will be banned, but of course we have to get permission to screen the film from the censor board – we’re hoping that will not be a problem.”
Lom also hopes to publish a companion book on the poets featured in the film, including photo portraits of his subjects.
“We are trying to raise money to cover the printing costs for the book we are making,” said Lom.
Following that he will kickstart another campaign for a free screening tour to begin after the premiere in Yangon, which he hopes will “help the country deal with its past, and perhaps begin to heal.”
For more information about the crowdfunding campaign, go to the Burma Storybook Kickstarter page. The campaign runs until May 29.