Myanmar comedy shows struggle for national image

May 1, 2012, 6:06 AM

Associated Press

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) – When Burmese filmmaker Htun Zaw Win decided to make a short comedy about the tragically bizarre process of getting movies made in his oppressed homeland, he knew exactly what to base it on: Real life.

“Ban That Scene!” makes a daring mockery of Myanmar’s dreaded film censorship board, whose members are cast as comical guardians of a tyrannical state’s idealized image of itself.

Sunk into the faux-leather chairs of a government screening theater, they face off against a sputtering film projector that bathes them in the dim reality of their own fallen nation. The officials are offended at everything that appears on screen _ beggars, corruption, power outages, even a street fight _ because they all allegedly make the state look “undignified.”

“Ban that scene! Remove it!” the bespectacled censor boss bellows over and over, jabbing an index finger through the twilit darkness with a triumphant, lips-pursed “hrrrrummph.”

Beyond its highly satirical take on modern day filmmaking in Myanmar, what’s most striking about the movie by Htun Zaw Win, who goes by the name Wyne, is that it was made at all.

It’s existence, coupled with the fact that Wyne has seen no jail time, offers proof that some artists are growing brave enough to criticize the establishment as the nation’s new reform-minded government begins allowing a level of free expression that was unheard of here during decades of suffocating military rule.

But the film also proves just how much here remains unchanged. Wyne says he never submitted “Ban That Scene!” to the government’s Film and Video Censor Board for approval because they would almost certainly have, well, banned the entire thing.

The board’s mandate is limited to screening films made for sale, and Wyne says he chose to forgo all profit to ensure it would be produced uncut. The sacrifice was essential, he said, “to show the public both at home and abroad what barriers filmmakers are facing.”

The 18-minute short was first shown in the former capital Yangon in January during a film festival dubbed “Art of Freedom” that was hosted by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the prominent local comedian Zarganar.

It has been posted on YouTube and Wyne has so far distributed about 10,000 copies on DVD for free. But the movie’s impact has been limited. It cannot be shown in local cinemas, and the vast majority of Myanmar’s 60 million people are out of reach _ living in thatched huts without electricity or Internet lines in a rural countryside that’s remained almost untouched for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.

Still, the work is remarkable for what it contrasts brilliantly throughout: on one hand, the sanitized image of Myanmar that the nation’s xenophobic former regime once wanted to portray to the world; on the other, the tumbledown reality of just how far this place fell under their rule.

In one scene, the main government censor’s eyes widen in horror as a disheveled, limping man appears on screen begging for money to look for a job abroad.

“That makes the state less dignified,” the censor growls. “If people abroad see it, they would think that beggars exist in Myanmar!”

When another bespectacled censor _ acting as a muse of commonsense _ timidly suggests that that everybody knows beggars do exist here, the boss gives up only the slightest ground. They “just exist in real life! Not in this movie!”

In another sequence, the censors are taken aback when the power goes out during a love scene _ an affront, they say, to the Ministry of Electricity.

When another official notes that outages are commonplace, the boss trumpets the government line: Myanmar is not short on power; it has so much, it has to sell it abroad. (The sad reality: About 75 percent of people here spend their nights in darkness. The country exports much of what it produces because so little infrastructure has been built to channel electricity to those who need it).

Amid the debate, the movie shows the screening theater’s lights promptly dying; by the time a generator sputters to life, the boss is snoring loudly.

Wyne, 39, said he has been surprised at the positive response to the film he has received from a few top officials in the country’s post-junta regime, which is made up largely of military officers who retired to join the civilian government.

Wyne said one told him: “This needs to be shown in public. People need to know what’s happening. Because if we keep banning scenes like this, we’ll have nothing left to watch.”

Wyne declined to identify the man or any others who’ve offered praise, however, underscoring the sensitivity of the subject.

The censor board itself could not be reached for comment. Zarganar, the comedian, called the satire “an important work” that shows artists are truly becoming independent again.

For now, though, getting movies made requires a lot of cash, and not just for production expenses.

Transparency International ranks Myanmar the third-most corrupt on Earth, and Wyne says that even banned scenes can be still get made if substantial bribes are paid.

In one of the movie’s final skits, the censors are aghast at a sequence showing a civil servant accepting a box of withered currency bills; their horror turns to delight when baskets filled with flowers and whiskey are brought into the screening room _ a gift from a desperate producer.

Wyne ends the movie with three hopeful words: “We Can Change.”

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

World News

People search a collapsed building following an earthquake in Azmarin town, Idlib province, norther...
Associated Press

Death toll soars after powerful earthquake rocks Turkey and Syria

A powerful 7.8 magnitude earthquake rocked wide swaths of Turkey and neighboring Syria on Monday, killing and injuring thousands of people.
23 hours ago
FILE - A fuel trucks drives along a highway in Frankfurt, Germany, Jan. 27, 2023. European Union go...
Associated Press

Europe bans Russian diesel, other oil products over Ukraine

The new sanctions create uncertainty about prices as the 27-nation European Union finds new supplies of diesel from the U.S., Middle East and India.
2 days ago
(Photo by John Phillips/Getty Images for BoF VOICES)...
Associated Press

Vivienne Westwood, influential fashion maverick, dies at 81

Vivienne Westwood, an influential fashion maverick who played a key role in the punk movement, died Thursday at 81.
1 month ago
FILE - British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during his first Cabinet meeting flanked by his ...
Associated Press

Rishi Sunak: UK’s ex-Treasury chief gets his shot at PM job

LONDON (AP) — Rishi Sunak ran for Britain’s top job and lost. Then he got another shot — and the chance to say “I told you so.” The former U.K. Treasury chief was runner-up to Liz Truss in the contest to replace the scandal-plagued Boris Johnson as Conservative Party leader and prime minister. But Truss […]
4 months ago
Britain's Prime Minister Liz Truss addresses the media in Downing Street in London, Thursday, Oct. ...
Associated Press

Truss quits, but UK’s political and economic turmoil persist

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Liz Truss quit Thursday after a tumultuous and historically brief term marred by economic policies that roiled financial markets and a rebellion in her political party that obliterated her authority. After just 45 days in office, Truss became the third Conservative prime minister to be toppled in as many […]
4 months ago
People receive medical treatment at the scene of Russian shelling, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Oct. 1...
Associated Press

Russia unleashes biggest attacks in Ukraine in months

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russia retaliated Monday for an attack on a critical bridge by unleashing its most widespread strikes against Ukraine in months, a lethal barrage that smashed civilian targets, knocked out power and water, shattered buildings and killed at least 14 people. Ukraine’s Emergency Service said nearly 100 people were wounded in the […]
4 months ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Company looking for oldest air conditioner and wants to reward homeowner with new one

Does your air conditioner make weird noises or a burning smell when it starts? If so, you may be due for an AC unit replacement.
...
Fiesta Bowl Foundation

Celebrate 50 years of Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade magic!

Since its first production in the early 1970s, the Vrbo Fiesta Bowl Parade presented by Lerner & Rowe has been a staple of Valley traditions, bringing family fun and excitement to downtown Phoenix.
...
Quantum Fiber

Stream 4K and more with powerful, high-speed fiber internet

Picking which streaming services to subscribe to are difficult choices, and there is no room for internet that cannot handle increased demands.
Myanmar comedy shows struggle for national image