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Myanmar 1: Academy Awards

February 16, 2010
A Crowd watches the Myanmar Academy Awards in Yangoon in front of an old cinema house

A small crowd watches the Myanmar Academy Awards in Yangoon in front of an old cinema house

I went to Myanmar last week, partly for tourism, but also to find out more about the cinema scene there. There is a lot to be said about the pros and cons of travelling to this country, that has been ruled by a military junta for almost the last 50 years, but that is not the subject of this report. Censorship and other economical woes that result out of the economic embargo against the country as well as government missmanagment have taken their toll on the film industry, too, though. Some directors had to leave the country, while others are not allowed to work right now.

The majority of the films are very simple comedies with an occasional melodrama or historical piece thrown in occasionally.  Most films are shot on 35 mm, even though there are some independent producers who work on digital video and a growing number of directors who release their work directly on DVD as the censorship is less harsh on these films. Otherwise both the original script and the final film have to be submitted to the board of censors, a colonial legacy of the British. Supposedly there is a list of things that are not allowed in Myanmar movies, but this list has never been made public, so it is a hit-and-miss-affair for the film producers. Apparently, they are not allowed to show thatched roofs and naked breasts, among other things…

While until the 1990s, the film industry was sponsored by the government, today producers have to finance their films completely by themselves now, and therefore most films are cheapo productions that are shot in a week or ten days. They are released in a number of run-down movie houses, of which Yangoon has almost 50, a lot of them in the “cinema row” opposite the main station. These cinemas also show old Hong Kong and recent Bollywood productions, and even occasionally Hollywood films that are somehow smuggled into the country despite the embargo. When I was there, “Ninja Assassins” with Korean heart throb Rain was playing in the choicest of the old cinemas, and before the movie they showed trailers for the last “Star trek” movie and for “Surrogates”.

There is only very rudimentary information available on the net (or in books, for that matter), the best resource being this one.

From that, I knew that there was a small film industry with a considerable output and that the film history goes back to the 1920 and that there was a “Golden Age” in the 1950s and 1960s. They even have a film museum there! And it is pretty extensive too, actually the biggest in all of Southeast Asia. While I was not able to actually find any of those old films, I did find some newer ones with subtitles on DVD.

When I arrived, fortunately or unfortunately, it was the day before the local Academy Awards, a big affair, that takes place in the new capital Naypyidaw, so most people from the film industry, including the people from the Myanmar Motion Picture Association that I had approached for information, were about to leave the city. Therefore, I was not able to find anybody to interview over the weekend.

To give people an idea of what a big event in this poor and desolate country, here are some of the newspapers reports on the event, including one fashion magazine that just focussed on what the actors and actresses wore for the occasion:

Reports on the Myanmar Academy Awards in local newspapers and magazines

Reports on the Myanmar Academy Awards in local newspapers and magazines

The Myanmar Times has a pictorial on the event, here is a brief history of the Academy Awards, and here is a short preview of the event (in a newspaper from Pakistan!). A brief report with the names of the winners (for 2008!) is here. The last word on the whole affair, however, comes from the English-language government mouth piece “The Light of Myanmar”, and is available in all its glory here as a pdf, including the complete speech by Minister for Information Brig-Gen Kyaw Hsan.  One should by all means read the whole paper, not just the report on the Awards. There aren´t many papers like that anymore in the world.

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