Two years ago this month, the Southeast Asian nation of Myanmar witnessed a coup d’état, in which the Tatmadaw (the military) seized power from the democratically elected National League for Democracy and its leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
Since then, the military has brutally set about maintaining its power, cracking down on all dissenters including artists and the press. The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma), a non-profit that tracks events as they unfold, estimates that more than 9,000 political prisoners have been arrested, charged or sentenced by the regime, and more than 1,500 have been killed.
The situation may be grave, but many are beginning to resist the regime and fight back, despite the potentially lethal cost. An underground resistance movement has been making inroads, forming the National Unity Government (NUG), which in September declared a people’s “resistance war” against the military.
Others making their mark include the anonymous Myanmar Film Collective, a group of local filmmakers who are working tirelessly to expose the crimes committed by the military. Their efforts have resulted in Myanmar Diaries, a hybrid doc-fiction feature that shows viewers first-hand what is happening in the country. Ahead of the film’s premiere in the Berlin International Film Festival’s Panorama program on February 13, Deadline got in touch with the collective via an intermediary to find out more about their actions.
As they tell us below, the very act of filmmaking could result in imprisonment, or even death, and their efforts are becoming riskier by the day as the junta continues to repress all forms of journalism and artistic expression.
Autlook Film Sales is handling rights to the project.
DEADLINE: Your film is a mixture of different types of footage, including some shot on phones – where did you source everything?
MYANMAR FILM COLLECTIVE: The short films are made by the ten anonymous filmmakers in our collective; they are all personal stories that we filmed, mostly inside houses, and part of them are acted. We also received citizen journalism from the internet; people started recording on the streets when international communities requested they film crimes against humanity committed by the military.
DEADLINE: Alongside the documentary footage, you have sections that utilize other forms of filmmaking, such as montages of still images, or the scene with the masked man – tell us a bit about combining these artforms?
MYANMAR FILM COLLECTIVE: These ideas and combination of styles is an art form born out of desperation. We need to do with what we have, and with what is possible and safe. You need to realize, shooting outside with a camera is extremely dangerous, just carrying a camera outdoors is not possible. The junta has arrested journalists, some were even tortured to death just because they were seen holding a camera.
DEADLINE: How did you smuggle the footage out? I am assuming internet activity is strictly limited where you are.
MYANMAR FILM COLLECTIVE: There are many ways to work through the internet, although the military limit the access. This is becoming riskier by the day.
DEADLINE: What do you hope your film could achieve? Does the prominence of an international premiere at somewhere like Berlin help to spread awareness?
MYANMAR FILM COLLECTIVE: Yes, absolutely. Obviously, we are desperately hoping for international attention. We want to be seen. Hopefully we can show audiences worldwide, but also law-makers and politicians, the living circumstances of the people of Myanmar through our film. We show personal stories – on how the current violence affects our daily lives, and we show how much we have to all endure.
We are storytellers, we wanted to show this in our film, we want to express our pain and suffering. There is so much more going on, so much more misery than presented in our film. We want the world to understand our struggles. We want the world to show solidarity with us. We want people to take action. We want accountability for the atrocities the junta is committing. We want responsibility from the international world, we want people to stop all the support given to the military. There are many people who have lost their homes, war refugees are piling up at the border of Myanmar. At the very least, sending aid would be a tremendous help. Now it is winter, people are lacking clothing, food, sanitized water and women need hygienic products.
DEADLINE: Many people have been arrested including filmmakers, journalists and artists – what has happened to these people? Have any been released?
MYANMAR FILM COLLECTIVE: Getting captured by the military is the end of it. You will never hear any news from people who get arrested. Before being trialed or sentenced to prison, people are taken to detention centers, where most are tortured. In the worst cases, the families of those detained are contacted already the next day by the military: to collect the dead body. Family members can’t ask the cause of death, there is no accountability. Myanmar filmmaker Ma Eaint was detained last year, she has been hospitalized after being severely tortured. The only journalist we know who has been released by the military is an American.
DEADLINE: The situation in Myanmar seems to have been largely overlooked internationally – why do you think this is? Is it in part due to the pandemic?
MYANMAR FILM COLLECTIVE: General Min Aung Hlaing took advantage of the pandemic from the beginning and planned the coup. And there are many other elements, obviously. We also think Covid makes people abroad very inward looking, they are less attentive to misery in other countries, so this is also to the advantage of the junta. People are still protesting even though the military crackdown the protests inhumanely. In one case, soliders ran over the protesters group with a pick-up truck. And people are still striking, like on the ‘silent strike’ on February 1, which was the one-year anniversary of the staged coup.
DEADLINE: How has it been experiencing Covid in Myanmar? Have there been restrictions in place?
MYANMAR FILM COLLECTIVE: There are no restrictions due to Covid, nothing is being done to protect people. The military initially used Covid like a bio weapon. We have to take care of ourselves. When the third wave hit, even medical staff were captured, tortured and beaten. Still the way we see it, Covid is the least of our problems.
DEADLINE: The situation in Myanmar seems to be getting worse as the military attempts to crack down on the civilian uprising – what is the latest?
MYANMAR FILM COLLECTIVE: Yes, the crackdown is now worse than ever, people (even children and physically challenged people) are being tortured, burnt alive, towns and villages are burnt to ashes, there are bombings. But the NUG (underground resistance government) politicians and us believe that the junta is throwing a tantrum as they know they are going to lose. Because violence is their only strategy from the beginning, the military think shooting a young girl (Mya Thwal Thwal Khaing, the first victim) in the back is going to scare the people of Myanmar. But in fact, the uprising is getting bigger.
Now they have declared war against every ethnic armed organization in all parts of the country; there are many resistance rebel armies: people’s defense forces are operating underground in every town. Military soldiers burned down villages and towns, causing many war refugees. And there is a growing number of soldiers joining the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM); hundreds have now joined the revolutionary armies and ethnic armed organizations. According to the runaway soldiers the military is demoralized, tired, and in panic. Most military want to leave the army, but the difficulty is they are all based in army camps together with their families, who are this way being held hostage, it is forcing the soldiers to stay with the army and fight.
DEADLINE: Is there hope that the military dictatorship could be overthrown? Is there any end in sight?
MYANMAR FILM COLLECTIVE: Yes, we strongly believe that we will win, and end this. Myanmar has never had this level of unity: all people of all cultural groups (there are 135 minorities in Myanmar) are united. For over 70 years, the military has created conflicts: between Buddhist and Muslims, ethnic groups and the majority ‘Baman’ Burmese; so that they could divide and conquer us, but the revolution unites us all. There is only people who want democracy, not the military junta. Also, we must win or we will be left with nothing but ashes.
DEADLINE: Is your collective working on further films or other content?
MYANMAR FILM COLLECTIVE: Yes, we are developing ideas for further projects. Should people outside Myanmar wish support the Myanmar Film Collective (any Myanmar filmmaker can join us): we are now setting up a platform where we will be fundraising for new projects, and film professionals around the world are invited to support us in content and advise. The platform will be released in April – for information look at: http://www.myanmardiaries.com