Venice 2021: Sad Film by Vasili
An interview with the producers of Vasili's Sad Film that screens Out of Competition at Venice 2021
Producer Corinne van Egeraat and partner Petr Lom talk to SEE NL about their controversial new short film, directed by an anonymous protester in the wake of demonstrations following the military coup in Myanmar and arrest of the country’s democratically elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
In their 2017 documentary Burma Storybook**, filmmakers Corinne van Egeraat and Petr Lom celebrated the poetic traditions in a country that was (then) emerging from years of dictatorship. Its main character was the poet and dissident Maung Aung Pwint, who had spent many years in prison. He was old and frail but free and defiant. Less than five years later, the situation in Myanmar has changed radically. At the start of February, the government was toppled in a military coup and the democratically elected leader of the country, Aung San Suu Kyi, was arrested. Protesters have taken to the streets but have been treated in brutal fashion by the soldiers.
Now, Van Egeraat (who lived in Myanmar from 2013 to 2017) has produced a new short, titled Sad Film*, directed by one of those protesters using the pseudonym “Vasili”. The film, which premieres at the Venice Festival, shows its subject taking part in the resistance. Against a backcloth of bloodshed and violence, Vasili bravely continues to create art. Van Egeraat’s partner Petr Lom is the film’s editor and creative storytelling coach and describes Sad Film not so much as a natural continuation of their former work in the country as “an unnatural continuation,” prompted by the “horror show” now underway in Myanmar. The filmmakers, who are based in the Netherlands, still have close contacts in Myanmar.
“Right after the coup, some of our former students approached us and asked if we could help them.”
They immediately agreed to assist the students in any way they could. They are behind the setting up of a new underground, anonymous group which they have called the Myanmar Film Collective. Through this organisation, Van Egeraat is producing an omnibus feature film, made up of shorts shot by the students under the new military dictatorship. “They are extremely self-sufficient. They all have their own equipment,” Lom says. When they are at rough cut stage, the students send their material to Lom and Van Egeraat, trusting them to put together the material in “a creative and interesting way.”
Sad Film is separate from the feature. Initially, Vasili had sent Corinne and Petr a four-minute trailer. They were immediately enthusiastic and showed it to broadcaster HUMAN who shared their excitement. The documentary was being made in very hazardous circumstances. As the situation in Myanmar deteriorated, Vasili had become so terrified that he sent Corinne and Petr all the material he had shot, telling them he had now deleted it from his hard drive. “Can you please just edit the film,” he asked.
Contact between the director in Myanmar and his mentors in The Netherlands was limited. They could sometimes speak via the encrypted messaging and audio app Signal but, as Lom points out, that was itself dangerous. “If they [the military] arrest you and say I want to see your password and your communication on Signal, then that’s a problem.”
No, Vasili will not make it to the Lido for the Venice Festival. Nor will he be able to participate remotely in press events. “For a filmmaker, it is one of the worst things imaginable. You get into one of the fanciest film festivals in the world and you cannot go or make your voice heard. It is too risky,” Lom laments.
The director had decided not to do any media interviews himself. He has asked his Dutch partners to speak on his behalf and has also issued a statement expressing his pride at being selected for Venice. He wrote in his statement:
“As a filmmaker in Myanmar, I am afraid not to be able to make films, in times of COVID and the coup. This film is about my feelings of fear, guilt and sadness. I put all my feelings in it, trying to express my dilemma: can I still make films or do I give up my dreams? I worry about not being able to be an artist. Because I feel that if I cannot be creative, I cannot breathe. Art is like breathing for me.”
There is already disturbing evidence of artists and filmmakers being targeted by the military regime. For example, writer and producer Ma Aeint (who had a film screening in Locarno) was arrested in June. “It is a small world in Myanmar, the filmmaking world, so it is pretty terrifying,” Lom suggests of the predicament facing the country’s movie industry.
Van Egeraat points out that filmmakers like Vasili are frightened on two different levels. First, there is the natural wariness about what the military might do to them, and then there is the equally daunting apprehension that their film careers may suddenly be brought to a halt. “It just breaks our heart,” Lom and Van Egeraat say of seeing former students having their personal and creative freedom stolen away from them.
Towards the end of Sad Film, Vasili shows himself trying to hide in a tiny suitcase. It is a poignant moment which can be read as expressing his anxieties about having to live in exile. The film also shows him joining the street protests where the marchers bang their pots and pans in the name of liberty.
Van Egeraat suggests that the other short films being made by the Myanmar Film Collective are “much more political.” One positive consequence of the coup is that the many minorities in the country, who are often bitterly opposed to one another in more normal times, are now united in their opposition to the military dictatorship.
Ask Lom and Van Egeraat if they are surprised by what has happened in Myanmar and they acknowledge that they did not expect the coup. “It seems so utterly irrational.” However, they and everyone else also realised that the army “had enormous power and was never going to be willing to give it up.”
As well as helping Vasili and the Myanmar Collective, the two filmmakers are working on their own short documentary Letter To San Zaw Htway, celebrating an inspirational old dissident/artist they all admired and loved, and who recently died. (This dissident appeared briefly in their film Burma Storybook). “He was 42 when he died. He spent 13 years in jail as a political dissident,” Lom says of the friend.
Meanwhile, the two filmmakers have plenty of other projects that are not Myanmar-related. They are already in production on two films about their “relationship to nature.” One takes place in Cape Verde and is called The Coriolis Effect**. This looks at hurricanes and alarming meteorological shifts. (“It is a film about the world spinning out of control.”) The other is about the Whanganui River in New Zealand, which, in 2017 was granted “personhood rights” in order to protect it from environmental damage and destruction.
Sad Film is produced by ZIN Documentaire for the Myanmar Film Collective. International sales are handled by SND Films.
*Film is supported by the Netherlands Film Fund
**Film is supported by the Netherlands Film Fund and Netherlands Film Production Incentive