Mon 19 Mar 2012
Filed under: Arts,International,Media
In 2010, when foreign journalists were still largely exiled from Myanmar, two Australian filmmakers set out to document the country’s first general elections in two decades through the experiences of reporters working at the Myanmar Times, the country’s only local newspaper with foreign investment.What followed was a series of bizarre and unexpected difficulties, even for Myanmar, including the deportation of filmmakers Hugh Piper and Helen Barrow. Having made a film about the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia, the pair initially planned to revisit the country in light of the recent Khmer Rouge tribunal trials there, but they soon grew even more interested in the paper’s Myanmar cousin, which is also partly owned by Australian Ross Dunkley.
Switching gears, the filmmakers were somewhat surprised when Mr. Dunkley, also the paper’s editor-in-chief, invited them inside his newsroom in the lead-up to the country’s 2010 elections. The train went off the rails, though, when Mr. Dunkley was arrested on charges of assault, which he denied, and the filmmakers themselves were kicked out of Myanmar for concealing the purpose of their visit to authorities. (Mr. Dunkley was held for more than 40 days, but later released, and continues as the paper’s editor-in-chief).
Much has happened since the 2010 elections – which were widely decried as fraudulent – and Mr. Piper and Ms. Barrow’s film. The country now boasts a nominally-civilian government and has kick-started a series of celebrated – though still largely untested – reforms, including the release of hundreds of political prisoners, ceasefires with some of the country’s long-persecuted ethnic groups, and even talk of new censorship-free media laws.
But some dissidents remain doubtful of the government’s sincerity, and the documentary’s release – it was screened for the first time in Southeast Asia during the Southeast Asian Film Festival in Singapore in early March – might be a reminder of why. When the filmmakers were deported, they had 40 hours of film, enough for a movie, but decided to follow the Dunkley trial because they thought it was newsworthy. From that point on they continued to receive new footage from a cameraman inside the country, though the decision also forced the filmmakers to postpone the documentary’s preview during the Sydney Film Festival in June last year.
The filmmakers were afraid that Mr. Dunkley’s comments in the film would affect his legal case, which his supporters said was politically motivated to run him out of the country. Myanmar officials denied those charges.
The filmmakers had the permission of Mr. Dunkley (but not the government), and often shadowed reporters from the Myanmar Times as they tried to get material from military-backed candidates campaigning for election. Authorities within the country soon found out, and after a month working within the country, the filmmakers were deported.
“The dramatic changes in Burma since we made the film are very exciting, but it is still very much a question of whether those changes are real and long term, or simply cosmetic to get rid of the sanctions,” said Hugh Piper, the film’s writer and director, in an email interview.
“In this context, the ongoing value of the film is that it keeps a spotlight on how mindlessly repressive things used to be,” he added, saying that it could serve “as a warning” for investors excitedly considering future investment in fast-changing Myanmar, which is also known as Burma.
Myanmar officials have repeatedly insisted their latest reforms are irreversible and that the country is embarked on a path towards full, open democracy.
The paper followed by the documentarians has long been a subject of controversy. Some dissidents say they believe the paper pulls punches when writing about the government in order to stay open and protect its backers’ business interests, but Mr. Dunkley – and many readers – have dismissed those concerns, saying the Myanmar Times has done everything it can do to write hard-hitting reports given Myanmar’s strict censorship rules. Among other things, reporters have been forced to submit their stories to censors before publication, with material deemed offensive to the government removed, though journalists say the restrictions have eased somewhat over the past year.
In the documentary, draft versions of the paper are seen coming back with angry red cross marks after being sent to military censors up to the general elections in 2010; in other cases, editors had to pull entire articles. The film also shows Mr. Dunkley criticizing his business partner, Dr. Tin Tun Oo, who ran for election under the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party’s ticket in 2010, and lost.
Perhaps the greatest sign of the risk of operating within Myanmar’s media industry was the unwillingness of many of the paper’s local journalists to get involved in the making of the documentary. Most Burmese journalists were reluctant to go on camera – with the exception of Myo Myo, a 30-year old journalist who contributed to both the English and Myanmar language editions of the paper, who allowed filmmakers to come to her home and interview her mother. She also helped the filmmakers get footage of the 2010 general elections and managed to escape military police officers who wanted to get the names of Mr. Piper and Ms. Barrow.
This, she says, was driven not out of fearlessness or bravado, but simply because she wanted to help the directors.
“I was just happy to have a chance to help them tell the story they wanted to tell,” said Ms. Myo in an interview after the film’s screening in Singapore. A journalist for the last five years, she is now on a three month journalism fellowship program at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University in partnership with the Temasek Foundation. This training, she says, is a luxury — without journalism schools within her country and with limited media freedoms, she had to teach herself how to write news by simply reading all the news she could get her hands on.
“Since I came of age, I wanted to tell the story of Myanmar to people outside,” she said, noting that as a local journalist she often had “less chance” to cover stories given censorship rules and a higher chance of arrest.
Unlike the documentary’s filmmakers, Ms. Myo remains a little more optimistic about the media future within her country, and is convinced that despite years of repression and controls on the press, many more young Burmese people are itching to join the news industry. Government officials have said repeatedly in recent months that they intend to strip away much if not all of their censorship, though many dissidents remain unsure.
“There are positive developments in many sectors. I believe that press laws will start emerging which will help the freedoms [we have as journalists],” she said. “I am very excited.”