Postcard from Yangon: JALANAN director Daniel Ziv reports from Myanmar

Last night in Yangon we experienced one of our most powerful overseas JALANAN screenings so far. It was our second showing at the Burma Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival, to a packed theater at the Junction Square shopping mall cinema in Yangon. Burmese from a range of ages and social classes had gathered to watch our tale of street musicians in faraway Indonesia, and JALANAN editor Ernest Hariyanto and I had no idea what the reactions would be. 

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In other Asian countries like Korea and Taiwan, audience engagement had been relatively reserved: viewers watched in silence  and concentration, and it was only after the screenings, during the Q&A sessions, that we understood from their comments and questions how engaged they actually were and how much they enjoyed the film.

Myanmar was a very different story. Like Indonesia a few years ago, the Burmese are on the cusp of a fragile yet dramatic transition from dictatorship to (hopefully) democracy and from isolation to globalization. So in Yangon the other night, we encountered an audience that felt almost Indonesian. The laughed, they snickered, and in certain scenes they burst into whooping applause. Ernest and I could hardly believe what we were witnessing. 

The audience clearly felt the same anger and frustration and cynicism about corruption and injustice and power that Indonesians feel when they watch the film. And the same delight in witnessing representatives of the marginalized poor come alive on screen as subversive role models who unapologetically celebrate life. For an hour and forty seven minutes, it felt like the Yangon viewers were experiencing Burma through Indonesia, through a foreign yet intimate fable that somehow mirrored their own situation. 

At the start of the Q&A session I was overcome with emotion. To the audience I said: "I could feel you feeling our movie. And in your reactions to our story I could sense your frustrations and your hopes and your love for your own country." What ensued was by far the most active Q&A session we've ever had, with non-stop questions from the audience that continued until the theater ushers had to politely ask us to wrap the session up so that the next screening could begin.

The dynamic exchanges continued in the theater lobby outside, where at least four different Burmese viewers approached me and said: "Can you please make a JALANAN for Burma?" Rarely have I felt my film so profoundly understood and appreciated across cultures. I could never make a JALANAN for Burma, because I don't know Burma nearly well enough. But I sure hope somebody does, because its people are clearly ready for it. 

We've been part of the Burma Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival for three days now, and it's been a fantastic experience. They operate on a tiny budget, but pack more enthusiasm and courage and commitment than many festivals five times their size. Young volunteers line the main street outside the vintage Waziyar cinema and solicit passersby to come in and view a movie for free. Amazingly, many people do, some of them perhaps watching a documentary for the first time in their lives. This is audience outreach at its finest. They’ve been consistently packing theaters, even on weekdays at 10AM and at 10PM. There is clearly hunger and appreciation here both for good storytelling and harsh doses of human rights reality.

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I've now been to Burma three times, at 10-year intervals. I visited in 1995 as a backpacker and had the great privilege of witnessing Aung San Suu Kyi - then under house arrest - standing behind her front house gate to address thousands of her adoring followers who were camped out on University Avenue while being closely monitored by junta soldiers and spies. In 2004 I returned for another visit and encountered a similarly repressed society in which little had changed. Back then, Burma was mostly famous as a place where time stood still.

2014 is if course a very different story. I stopped dead in my tracks when I reached Sule Pagoda Road and saw a huge billboard for the film festival with a photo of Aung San Suu Kyi looming large. Just a few years ago displaying her image in public would have been not just unthinkable, but totally illegal. She is now the founding patron of this Human Rights Film Festival, and we’re honored to be part of it.

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But Burma’s transition is far from smooth, and some would argue far from real. A festival viewer confided in me yesterday: “They say everything has changed, but it’s actually a game, and everyone is just pretending. The same people still control us.” And there’s a side to Burma’s celebrated transition that’s darker still: anti-Muslim violence, particularly against the minority Rohingya, has been on the rise. And nobody – including Aung San Suu Kyi herself – seems ready to condemn it. Racism and religious tensions run deep here.  

‘The Open Sky’, a Burmese short film on anti-Muslim violence was paired with JALANAN & scheduled to screen immediately after us yesterday at the Human Rights Film Festival. Sadly it was pulled due to controversy, intimidation and safety concerns. I opened both our post-screening Q&A sessions by addressing the incident and expressing solidarity with the young filmmaker, who is part Muslim. Here’s a good write-up of the incident in The Irrawady, and here’s an important new New York Times piece describing the overall situation.

Last night Ernest and I took a break from the festival to visit Yangon’s famed Shwedagon Pagoda. We’d both been before, but were struck by how the magic of the place never gets old. We arrived at dusk to a light drizzle, as worshippers shuffled carefully along the wet marble surface to place offerings and make merit at the temple’s many colorful altars. Here, the city traffic din was replaced by steady Buddhist chanting that emanated from nearly every corner. A dramatic sunset in stark blue and purple hues revealed itself as if on cue. Here, The Open Sky was still uninterrupted and glorious.  It was heartening to see that for all the country’s growing pains, this was a part of Burma that would possibly always remain the same.