BANGKOK (AlertNet) – The film opens with a pretty, sombre-looking young woman dressed in the traditional garb of the Chin ethnic group from northwestern Myanmar – a maroon outfit with a shawl around her lower arms – staring solemnly at the camera.
Her mother joins her, asking to have her picture taken with her daughter.
This is “Bungkus,” a film shot in the Chin language about a young women living in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city, who is facing a dilemma.
She could save her mother from going blind by marrying a man in Malaysia who has sent money for eye surgery but whom she’s never met, or stay in Myanmar and make things work with her sweet young boyfriend. Her mother prefers the man in Malaysia, a fellow Chin, as a husband for her daughter.
Bungkus means ‘parcel’ in Malay and refers to young women who are sent abroad to marry a man they may never have met so that they can send money back to their families in Myanmar.
Directed by Lay Thida, a member of the non-profit Yangon Film School (YFS), it is based on a script by a Chin writer which itself was inspired by an event in 2007. Saying more would give away the ending.
The film was shown at the first Thammasat Human Rights Film Festival organised by students at the Faculty of Political Science at Thammasat University, a one-day event on Dec 2 that showcased nine films from the region under the banner “Myanmar and Beyond”.
The four entries by Burmese film makers are a testament to the unprecedented changes that have taken place in Myanmar over the past 18 months.
Expectations were low when the military-backed government took over in March 2011 after an election that many said was neither free nor fair, ending decades of authoritarian rule by a military junta.
But President Thein Sein, a former military man himself, surprised everyone by freeing hundreds of dissidents, loosening restrictions on the political opposition and abolishing pre-publication censorship – reforms which led to an easing of Western sanctions.
“Butterfly”, a film by another YFS member, is an example of how the country’s political opening has affected society.
It chronicles the turbulent childhood and adolescence of 21-year-old hairdresser Phyo Lay and shows how difficult it is to come out as gay in deeply conservative Myanmar. In the end, Phyo Lay is able to make peace with himself and his family, who now support him.
Films like Bungkus and Butterfly, both produced in 2011, wouldn’t have been possible a couple of years ago because they touch on inequality, human rights and discrimination, issues the former military junta were keen not to publicise. Now such films are able to raise awareness of these issues with local communities, donors and civil society, said Lay Thida.
The directors are still waiting for the chance to show them on national television, however, where viewers still face a steady diet of singing shows, Korean dramas and old, clunky, unrealistic Burmese dramas.
CRITICISM FROM ABROAD
The former, directed by an exiled student, depicts the lives of Burmese families at a refuse dump in Mae Sot in northern Thailand, sorting out garbage by day and cooking, eating and sleeping among the mountain of rubbish by night.
Despite the danger to their health, the constant bad smell and the poor pay, many choose to remain there, saying life in a garbage dump is better than being back home in Myanmar where they were harassed by the authorities and the army.
The latter tells the story of a photographer who covered the protests against the junta in 2007, dubbed “the Saffron Revolution”, whose photos made the front pages of newspapers around the world. Law Eh Soe, hunted by the authorities, went into exile.
The short, powerful film is a reminder of Myanmar’s brutal past and of how the long struggle for democracy continues.
In January the film won an award for Best Documentary at The Art of Freedom Festival, organised by comedian and former political prisoner Zarganar. It was Myanmar’s first film festival and the first time films that were uncensored and critical of the former military junta were shown openly.
Things may be changing after all.