Three Myanmar Shorts: On Diaspora, Freedom and Loss

September 23, 2022, 2:15pm

by Phoo Myet Che (Pearl)

“သူတို့က ခေါင်းကို ပစ်တယ်
တော်လှန်ရေးက နှလုံးသားမှာရှိတာ
သူတို့ မသိကြဘူး”

English Translation:
“They shoot at heads
But they do not know
That revolution lives in the heart.”

This famous verse by Khet Thi, one of the many poets killed in the current revolution, encapsulates the hearts of many Burmese people who yearn for a life free from oppression. Since the military coup against the elected civilian government that took place on 1 Feb 2021, dissent has been ripe on the streets. Bloodshed has turned the Irrawaddy River red as the fascist military institution continues to commit mass violence, detaining the very people it swore to protect. As international sanctions and condemnations of the junta fall short of any viable change in preventing them from committing human rights crimes, youths have taken up arms by joining the People’s Defence Force and ethnic armed organisations to protect themselves and their loved ones. Despite the arbitrary killings and burning of villages across the country, the courageous people of Myanmar and its diaspora continue to resist in hopes that this revolution ends with their generation.

This short film programme curated by Moe Myat May Zarchi as part of the Asian Film Archive’s Radical Whispers programme can be seen as fragments of the emotional debris from the indelible stain left by the oppressive regime of the military in Myanmar.

Invisible by Joy

Image still from Invisible (2021, dir. Joy). Image courtesy of Joy

Invisible is a black and white, three channel video where the main character, Joy, unveils the story of a young revolutionist who had to seek refuge from the ongoing atrocities back home. Trapped within the confines of an abandoned unit, the 11-minute film is intentionally ritualistic in conveying melancholy. Joy meditatively perches around in the bare room, rhythmically knocking on the wall, and carefully peels off layers of paint on the walls with bare hands before proceeding to lay her head gently against the wall. The theatrical sequence of Joy’s gestures preludes to uncovering traces of connection with a previously unknown inhabitant of the space. Paralleling scenes of an archaeological site, the imagery of the four walls with peeling paint, cobwebs on pairs of boots and discombobulating choir of flies steadily build up a textural world of decay. As the film progresses, Joy proceeds to read the writings on the wall left behind in silence:

“If something happens on the way, I can never go back home. When I am home, I will be with my mom. I miss my mother’s cooking.”

These words are laced with fear, anxiety, and homesickness from the apparent displacement of those who bravely oppose the military regime. Joy’s performance of honouring these words ties them both to a shared emotional space which renders the pain of the young revolutionist tangible. The film then cuts to disconcerting interplays of the removal of a cow’s innards, superimposing bright flames onto piles of military uniforms and an overexposed landscape of buildings set against a backdrop of mountains.

In most reports of the coup, stories of collective grief take precedence over individual ones. Through Joy, this film surfaces and holds space for the grief from an individual perspective which would have otherwise remained invisible.

A Letter to Bird

Image still from A Letter to a Bird (2017, dir. FilmBuff Collective). Courtesy of FilmBuff Collective

A Letter to a Bird is a 6-minute stylistic film woven together by a group of young filmmakers based in Yangon. It poetically untangles the emotions that boil and simmer from the seismic shift of having to cope with the loss of a friend. Following snippets of home videos and serene shots of nature landscapes, the film forlornly searches for beauty and freedom in life amidst the heavy tension of death. The narrator introduces her friend through a watercolour animation of a girl hoisted with strings by a flock of white doves after she escapes from a detention cell by jumping down from a building.

“သူမ မရိုတော့ အရာရာ ဘာမှ မဟုတ်တော့ဘူး ၊
ပျော်ရွှင်မှု ၊ ဝမ်းနည်မှု ၊ ကြောက်လန့် မှု ၊ ထိတ်လန့်မှု ၊ ရှင်သန်မှု ၊ သေခြင်းတရား ဆိုတာတွေ ဘာမှ  မရှိတော့ဘူး။”

English translation:

“Nothing else matters after she’s gone. Happiness, sorrow, fear, living, death. All gone.”

She reflects on the emptiness and absence as she talks to her friend in her dreams, hoping to store their conversations in the fifth dimension where she could find her conveniently.


“တကယ်တော့ ကို့ အလှတရား က သူမပဲ ၊
ကို့ရဲ့ငြိမ်းချမ်းချင်း ဟာလည်း သူမပဲ ၊
တကယ် တော့ သူမ က အရင်လွတ်မြောက်သွားတာ ၊
ကိုလွတ်မြောက်ဖို့ လမ်းတွေ သူမ ရှာပေးသွားတာ။”

English translation:

“The truth is she is my beauty. She is my peace. The truth is she is the one free. She found the way to my freedom.”

In an act of reconciliation, the narrator finds meaning in life amongst other definitions through the selflessness of her friend who paved the path of freedom. The film concludes with the blowing out of the candle in solidarity with the friend who gave her life to the revolution. The smoke drifts along with her departure but her presence lingers on in the narrator’s life. 

The act of grieving stems from love. The two films, Invisible and Letter to a Bird, are emblematic of how in the wake of a military coup, the response from the people is to reach out and empathise with others. Acts of care are also extended by the Burmese diaspora scattered across different continents who continue to contribute to the cause in different capacities. As a Burmese person living in Singapore, I recall the snaking queues at shops in Peninsula Plaza of people sending  goods to Myanmar during the height of the pandemic as the death toll rose with many experiencing hypoxia due to limited access to oxygen. Many were desperately sending oxygen machines and oximeters to prolong the lives of their loved ones back home. I witnessed the mobilisation strategies implemented by the Burmese community to channel humanitarian aid back to the country within the confines of Singapore. There are multiple online fundraising campaigns where millions of dollars have been raised1 and food sales from a physical shop at Peninsula Plaza that garners thousands of dollars every weekend2. I have gotten acquainted with other Burmese youths who are involved in activism overseas, as well as in Singapore, who have utilised their creative talents by selling art prints and crafts to raise funds. It is heartening to see the unity of the Burmese diaspora fighting in tandem. The site of revolution becomes destabilising in nature; there is life and death, grief and hope, comfort and danger. It divides people of different ideologies — in this context; supporters of the military institution and civilians who are fighting for democracy — but brings together people with shared ideals closer.

Freedom of Clouds

Image still from Freedom of Clouds (2022, dir. Moe Myat May Zarchi & Itö). Courtesy of Moe Myat May Zarchi & Itö

Freedom of Clouds is an assemblage of sonic landscapes accompanied by a visual metamorphosis of glitches. The concrete buildings that make up the urban cityscape of Yangon are presented alongside particles and atoms in the clouds moving spontaneously. The buildings presumably serve as a metaphor of the institutions and systems that dictate the lives of citizens in Yangon while the atoms and particles that form the clouds could represent ways of being by citizens. The accompanying narration of Taoist concepts provides context for every being establishing its own way intuitively and letting nature take control. As the film journeys through an ascension of ambient sounds and a symphony of particles in the configuration of clouds, the buildings glitch and dematerialise. This could allude to the reformation of systems and reminds us that nothing is ever set in stone. Our way of life cannot be fully prescribed by systems in place and offers a possibility in taking ownership of our own freedom, like particles in the cloud – always in flux, changing and transforming.

The filmmakers bear agency in portraying the aesthetics of politics neatly framed in relation to the current political situation in Myanmar. As a result, the films are weighted heavily in grief, trauma, and loss, and serve as a testament of their lived realities. It takes a lot of courage to resist and to continue resisting despite potential implications, requiring an endurance moulded in steel. As a viewer, we may be far removed from the immediate dangers of political upheaval, but I hope that the film programme serves as a call to action to honour the people lost in the revolution and to contribute to the fight of Burmese people towards liberation from tyranny.


About the Writer

Phoo Myet Che, Pearl (she/her) is an artist and arts manager who uses photography and moving image to explore a relationship to wider cultural systems in which belonging is fragmentary. As a queer Burmese person living in Singapore, she incorporates everyday objects and rituals in examining areas of dislocation within a society. Phoo is passionate to work on projects that bridge art and social transformation while engaging meaningfully with various communities.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of the Asian Film Archive.

Note: The author is aware of the linguistic and historical contentions between the use of “Myanmar”, a name the military institution has adopted in 1989 and “Burma”, a name used under the British colonial rule. The author used “Myanmar” to describe the country as it is widely acknowledged internationally. “Burmese” refers to the ethnic majority of the country who speak the Burmese language. As there are no other satisfactory terms to describe the majority ethnic group and the minority ethnic groups, the author used “Burmese” to refer to the people of the country.


Footnotes

Hui Yee, Tan. “Myanmar activists raising millions via Singapore to fight junta.” The Straits Times April 21, 2022 https://www.straitstimes.com/asia/se-asia/myanmar-activists-raising-millions-via-singapore-to-fight-junta

“Inside the global drive to fund a revolution in Myanmar” Bloomberg Feb 23, 2022 https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2022/02/23/asia-pacific/myanmar-funding-revolution/