Berlinale Panorama Dokumente: Myanmar Diaries
ZIN Documentaire's director Petr Lom and producer Corinne van Egeraat talk to Geoffrey MacNab about the documentary Myanmar Diaries, which is directed by the Myanmar Film Collective
It is an extraordinary achievement. The three Burmese projects that Corinne van Egeraat’s Netherlands-based ZIN Documentaire, director Petr Lom and a team of Dutch professionals collaborated on, together with the Myanmar Film Collective, have screened at Venice, IDFA and now, in Berlin. The projects were made in the wake of the military coup in Myanmar last year.
Myanmar Diaries by The Myanmar Film Collective
Sad Film*, a short directed by one of the protesters against the coup, premiered at Venice. Letter to San Zaw Htway, which Lom directed and was about an inspirational artist and former student activist, was at IDFA.
Now comes the first feature, Myanmar Diaries* (a world premiere in Berlinale Panorama). The film consists of material shot anonymously, often at great personal risk, by young filmmakers in the Collective. They reveal in graphic, terrifying and sometimes tender and humorous fashion, what it is like to live under a brutal military dictatorship.
The film (picked up for world sales by Autlook just before Berlinale began) opens with the famous scene, much shared on social media, of a female fitness instructor doing her exercises as the military vehicles are driving out behind her to arrest the government. The sheer absurdity caught the imagination of one of the filmmakers.
As the diaries make clear, crimes against humanity are currently being committed on a daily basis in Myanmar - but the western world doesn’t seem to be paying much attention.
Van Egeraat produced and Lom edited Myanmar Diaries from the footage sent to them by the Collective. This was an act of trust on behalf of the filmmakers in Myanmar. It was not safe to send footage back and forth.
“This is a feature-length film. It is so emotionally powerful, so raw and such an expression of pain that we really hope this film can do a lot to change international opinion about what is happening in the country,” says Lom.
Why is there such apathy and indifference? Van Egeraat and Lom point to the decline in reporting. Western media outlets simply are not covering the Myanmar atrocities in the same depth they once would have.
“Some of it [the indifference] is [also] to do with the Corona times. People are basically… self-absorbed is a mean way to say it, but just ‘self-involved’ because life is so full of difficulties now that you have less emotional space to look outside you,” Lom adds. “And part of it is the geo-politics. Myanmar really does not have a lot of oil. It is not Saudi Arabia. It is not an important country geo-politically.”
The Myanmar Film Collective filmmakers also speculate that there has been a backlash to the Rohingya crisis, when the Muslim ethnic minority were targeted by the Myanmar government in what some saw as genocide. The outside world has less sympathy for the country because of the crimes committed. This is absurd, argue the filmmakers. The protesters now being so savagely treated by the military had nothing to do with these crimes - and yet the two issues are tied together by outsiders.
When they were structuring the film, Van Egeraat and Lom were determined not to turn it into what they call “a pornography of violence.” Atrocities are happening - and some are shown - but the emphasis is often on the protesters’ lives at home. Apart from anything else, it was often too dangerous for the protesters to shoot outside their homes. That is why their cameras are so often turned inward. However, there is some extraordinary footage shot in the jungle with the resistance.
The soldiers we see in the film seem brain-washed and indoctrinated. Thousands have defected but thousands more continue to obey the generals’ orders.
Since the coup, living standards have plummeted. 45% of the population is estimated to be below the poverty line. There is immense suffering.
Myanmar Diaries is not going to solve any problems on its own but it is likely to shock and shame viewers in Berlin and wherever it is shown.
Ask van Egeraat and Lom if they wish more attention was paid to the craftsmanship with which they have put the diaries together and they dismiss the question. “We want to be invisible,” they say. They did not want their name on the film at all and would have preferred there were no credits at all. In fact, all westerners collaborating are anonymous as well, out of solidarity with the filmmakers - we are one big collective.”
“We want to give the spotlight just to the filmmakers,” they declare. “It seems like the decent thing to do. We really want just to give them the stage.”
For more information on the Berlinale, click here. Have a look at the full Berlinale and European Film Market selection here.
*Film is supported by the Netherlands Film Fund