In a country where truth-seekers have been brutally repressed, the Yangon Film School (YFS) is something of an oasis – a place where free expression is actively encouraged through documentary.
When students take the school’s ‘True Fictions’ subject, they learn how to make a fiction film with a “documentary sensibility”, using non-actors, filming on location and acting out scripted storylines.
At the YFS headquarters in a Yangon, a comfortable two-storey house where students can both live and study, 28-year-old film producer Hnin Ei Hlaing – who also goes by the one-word English translation of her name, Snow – explains how true fiction is a category unto itself.
“We can do whatever we want and also be very realistic. I don’t like over-acting, so we can find out the reality from people…it is very realistic and pure – very clear,” Snow says.
True fiction may sound like a contradiction, but it is a way of using real-life situations and documentary techniques while also using tools from non-documentary film, like screenwriting.
In straight documentaries, it’s not hard to get people to speak to the camera, but in a climate of censorship, what is said can take some unravelling.
“We have to find out the underlying truth from the film-maker. You know, people are really willing to speak out but we have to find out if what they speak is right or wrong,” Snow says.
If the film-maker is right or wrong? I ask.
“No, the protagonist,” she says.
“Because the people here are so used to telling what you want to hear,” teacher Regina Bärtschi adds.
“This was also in the beginning a big difficulty for me as a teacher … I often felt that they just told me what I wanted to hear. It wasn’t a country where their own opinion was cultivated…”
Self-censorship existed alongside state censorship under Myanmar’s ruling junta. In August 2012 the government announced it would end media censorship, which had been in place for 50 years. The effect has been relatively swift.
In the past year, a relaxation has changed the scope of the student film-makers, says German film editor Bärtschi, a regular visitor to the school and teacher.
Last August, a former student organised the country’s first film festival, the Wathan film festival.
“The first time they sent all the films [to the censorship board] and they were not sure if it will be OK because here we have some that are rather critical – next year … they didn’t even have to send the list for the films. So really, the changes have been enormous in this short time,” Bärtschi says.
As an example, she tells the story of a student who was arrested after filming the 2008 monks’ pro-democracy march.
Now, the same cameraman is employed by an NGO, making a film about a government midwife and her challenges working in rural Myanmar – issues that would not have been possible to film or else heavily monitored.
Now in its eighth year, YSF trains 12 students, six men and six women, on all aspects of documentary film-making over three years, with an emphasis on recruiting students from many ethnic minorities in Myanmar, also known as Burma. Many students have no experience with film and are taught by a range of experienced film-makers. As well as hands-on workshops, the young students study film analysis and film history, they have access to a DVD library of classic documentary and feature films.
The school was founded in 2005 by Anglo-Burmese filmmaker Lyndsey Merrison, who was struck by how much interest young people took in her activities while filming a documentary about her own family history in the country. Over time, Merrison, basing herself in Berlin, started the non-profit film school with funding from Germany and various donors.
Though there is a small but thriving local feature film industry [under the approval of the government], most students – including herself – want to forge careers in documentary, Snow says.
“They want to become documentary film directors because most of our documentary films are shown to an international audience. After my film finished I couldn’t show it to a Burmese audience because we have lots of censorship. If I showed, somebody would know that they can cut [the screening] easily, so we are really afraid to show our films.”
Snow’s most recent film, Burmese Butterfly about transgender young people in Yangon, was also not without hassles and required her to do something uncustomary for a female in the country: stay out past 10pm. But she was able to make and screen the work.
Last year YSF students’ documentary, Nargis, When Time Stops Breathing, on the devastating cyclone, an hour-and-a-half-long feature shot in the aftermath of the disaster – which killed more than 100,000 and for which the government’s response to was heavily criticised – was finally shown with the film-makers’ real names, without fear of persecution.
Those who work at the school never tell the students to examine controversial issues simply because they are controversial, says Bärtschi.
“This is also sometimes the criticism we get from Europe: why don’t you make more critical films? And then I say: go there and see. Our students live here. It’s really tough and if you get in conflict with the censorship from the government and it’s not about us to judge about if they have to do it or not.”
Film-makers don’t set out to be critical of the government, agrees Merrison, but portraying society’s injustices is bound to invite critical thinking.
“We work on each and every project on its own merit,” she says, speaking over the phone from Berlin. “I think it’s what everyone would do – whether they work in Beirut or Burma.”