I was recently in Kathmandu, Nepal, where I was Script Mentor on Clinik, a South Asian Filmmakers’ Lab organised by Docskool. Of the nine projects chosen, five filmmakers were able to make it to Kathmandu, with promising scripts from Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Afghanistan and Myanmar.
I have not had the pleasure of knowing any Burmese, and was deeply humbled to meet the young filmmaker from Myanmar (Mee-an-mar, formerly Burma), Thi Ha (not his real name), who was always smiling. Yet, at 29, he had already been to jail for working on a political documentary.
His script, about Dr San, a woman who was desperate to prevent her brother Ko Si from joining the army, is based on a true story. “Dr San is of the older generation like me (he’s just 29 himself!), and I’m worried about the younger generation, many of whom are keen to join the army, but have no idea what it is all about. I do not want to talk against the military government, but through a personal story, create awareness of the role played by the army in Myanmar,” he said.
Thi Ha has made movies on socio-political issues like human rights violations. In the picture, a group of land owners who lost their land stage a protest as they wait to meet with Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi outside her residence. Pic/AFP
Thi Ha’s genial nature gave no clue of his real story. “My uncle joined the army 15 years ago, but was never heard of again. Once you join the army, you can disappear forever. He could be dead, we just don’t know,” he said. “With a military government, we have a plastic democracy. There are only government newspapers and TV channels telling lies, and for long they had banned the internet. There is surveillance, with army men planted in plainclothes everywhere, creating a constant air of suspicion. You cannot even be sure if your girlfriend is not an agent.”
There is no film school or film institute in Myanmar, he said, so he learnt about filmmaking from books and watching movies. “Later I learnt filmmaking through a secret film workshop conducted at a foreign embassy library in Yangon, while pretending to be busy reading books,” he said. He has made nine documentaries and short films, mostly on socio-political issues like human rights violations, sometimes using an alias.
In 2007, when he was just 22, he was jailed for three months for helping make a political documentary that was later released on YouTube. He was beaten, rods were inserted into his body, and he was not allowed to sleep. Reflecting on his jail term, he smiles and says, “I am a Buddhist and I meditate every day. People are worse off in Congo, Sudan or North Korea. We cannot just think of ourselves. We have to focus on the future. And it’s fine if other filmmakers can study filmmaking in New York. But I can afford more of my personal energy to make films. If he sleeps eight hours, I will sleep three hours and learn to be a good filmmaker.”
Thi Ha speaks amazingly good English for someone who has had no opportunity to learn the language in school. “I learnt English entirely by figuring out online music lyrics and watching movies,” he told me. “I learn songs, I have an English dictionary, and I taught myself the meanings.” “Of course, when I make these films, I’m afraid,” he admitted, “But this is history. How will the next generation know what happened? If I don’t shoot these films, who will?”
Meenakshi Shedde is India Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, an award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide, and journalist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.