The recent public screening of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ at Yangon’s Mahabandoola Park never would have happened under authoritarian military rule.

The film’s comic portrayal of a hapless heavy-handed ruler would have simply hit too close to home for the previous junta-led regime.

Myanmar’s transition from military to democratic rule has opened certain new spaces, none more revealing than the 60 movies viewed by over 5,000 people at certain screenings at the recently concluded Memory International Film Heritage Festival 2017, or Memory Film Festival for short.

“That shows Myanmar is opening up,” said the festival’s chairperson and co-founder Severine Wemaere, who says she made a “special effort” to show 22 previously banned films at this year’s event held from November 3-12.

Wemaere and co-founder Giles Duval started the Memory Festival in Yangon in 2014 to “bring world cinema to Myanmar and take Myanmar’s talented new film makers to the world,” she says.

“Cinema is in the DNA of the [Myanmar] people, it never died, but it suffered due to stringent censorship under military rule,” said Wemaere in an interview. “So, the [Myanmar] audience has a lot to catch up on.”

Mandalay, Myanmar - May 1, 2007: monks watch the advertising of a cimena in Mandalay, Myanmar. Every young man in Burma joins a monastery for one Year.
Buddhist novices look at painted movie posters at a cinema in Mandalay, Myanmar. Photo: iStock/Getty Images

Myanmar had been severely censored, from newspapers to books to films, since the 1962 imposition of military rule. Successive military regimes tightly controlled and regulated information, particularly on religious, ethnic, political, and alleged moral grounds.

Until August 2012, every publication was pre-censored by the Press Scrutiny and Registration Division (PSRB), a division of the Ministry of Information that regularly scrapped any items that could be perceived as critical of military rule or its policies.

While pre-publication censorship was lifted in August 2012, freedom of speech and the press is still not guaranteed under law, including for filmmakers. Officials continue to use colonial era laws regulating expression to intimidate and jail journalists, writers and videographers.

The Memory Film Festival event fed into the debate about film censorship in Myanmar by bringing together Myanmar film makers and many directors and film critics from elsewhere in Southeast Asia as well as the West.

Lawmakers are currently deliberating to replace the 1996 Motion Picture Law – one of many tools censors have used to suppress free expression in Myanmar – with new regulating legislation.

It’s still unclear, though, how much artistic freedom legislators are prepared to allow, particularly when dealing the country’s past military rule and abuses.

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Award-winning actress Grace Swe Zin Htaik. Photo: Courtesy of Memory Film Festival

The festival’s moving spirit and award-winning Myanmar actress Grace Swe Zin Htaik said the government should at the most aim for ‘very moderate censorship’ to control extreme cases of religious incitement, hate speech and obscenity.

“But it should not hurt the foundation of free speech, which is key to democracy and artistic creation,” she said.

Young Myanmar film maker Shin Daewe described the Motion Picture Law as “outdated and anachronistic” and said it must be replaced by a more liberal one. “We hope the new law will reflect the spirit of emerging democracy in Myanmar,” she said.

Shin Daewe, director of ‘Take Me Home’ and ‘Now I Am Thirteen’, said her film ‘Twilight’ was inexplicably banned last year. “That should not happen, no film should be axed,” she said. “They should give directors the chance to tweak it in a way that the original message is not diluted.

“We want a transparent classification system, not censorship, that belongs to a world gone by and is unsuited to our times marked by liberalization and globalization,” she said.

Film critic and festival director Thu Thu Shein said the composition of the censorship board is particularly important.

Film – Charlie Chaplin – Great Dictator – Wikimedia Commons
Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ was one of the previously banned films screened at the recent festival. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

“If it is filled with too many retired officials, we will get an awful censorship regime because such people are not able to figure the changing times,” Thu Thu Sein said, calling for more liberal lawyers and industry representatives on the body.

Singaporean film maker Tan Pin Pin, whose films have not been allowed to screen publicly in her tightly controlled homeland, said the bogey of national security is often used to stifle creative film making.

“That is a real danger, especially in the current volatile situation, but I would advise the Myanmar government not to follow Singapore on this issue,” said Tan Pin Pin, whose films have also been blocked by authorities at separate film festivals held in Bangkok and Penang.

Myanmar is emerging as a comparatively open venue for controversial films. “The fact that it did not happen here and we could screen two of her films without obstruction proves how much Myanmar has changed,” said event organizer Wemaere.

The Memory Film Festival is unique in Asia because of its non-film screening components.

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Myanmar viewers gather for a screening of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Great Dictator’ at a Yangon park at the Memory Film Festival. Photo: Memory Film Festival

The Myanmar Script Fund, another part of the festival, promotes and trains young directors to showcase their films at big international film festivals like Cannes, Berlin, Locarno or Busan.

Another component, the Memory Film Heritage project, aims to preserve classic local films. Two old local films – the Maung Tin Maung’s 1934 ‘Mya Ga Naing’ (Emerald Jungle) and Tin Myint’s 1950 ‘Pyo Chit Lin’, have already been restored with international expertise and assistance.

Several other titles are in the restorative works in preparation for the 100th anniversary of Myanmar films in 2020.

“Our wish now is to give [the films] back officially to the [Myanmar] people by doing a special screening in the parliament for lawmakers, ministers and officials,” Wemaere said. “This is their national treasure and we are only giving it back to them.”