Myat Moe: 缅甸电影中的少数民族
Myat Moe: Ethnic Minorities in Myanmarese Cinema
多亏数字技术，从2010年开始，我们本土的电影业有了一点改善。技术、表现以及总体的艺术素养开始提高。2012年前后，一位名叫Aung Ko Latt的导演决定拍摄一部叫做《克扬美女》的电影。这部电影是关于居住在缅甸东部边境的因长脖颈女性而闻名的克扬族的。导演决定在克扬人居住的实际地点进行拍摄。
另一部上映于2018年的电影，《吉拉（Gila）》，导演的名字叫D Htel De，他是缅甸北部的日旺族。他决定拍摄一部动作冒险片，由日旺族的演员主演。
D Htel De是一位作家、导演和剪辑师，他特别棒。这部影片的背景是19世纪。导演了解地形、了解丛林、了解人民、了解语言和文化背景，这是完美的。他在2017年拍摄了这部电影，电影于2018年上映——这是一次小小的成功，因为它当然没有大明星。不幸的是，我一直鼓励导演将它提交给国际电影节，但他不知道怎么做这些事。我们帮助了他，但由于某些原因，他对国际电影节不太感兴趣，尽管这部电影应该在国际电影节上放映。最终，除了上缅甸的院线，这部电影没有走得更远。
同样，我们有一个非常著名的说唱歌手和演员，名叫Sai Sai Kham Leng，他是掸族人。但从未有人请他扮演掸族角色。
Shorthand Typist: Yutong Lin
Editor: Chen Hongyu
My primary occupation is a filmmaker and scriptwriter. Therefore, I am not specialized in archaeology or ethnic identity. If you are one of those scholars, my talk may probably be a little superficial for you. In this talk, I am going to talk about the representation of different ethnic groups in Burmese films, it is not going to be a lecture about ethnicity.
I will provide some historical background for you first. As you know, we have many different ethnic groups in Burma. We are very diverse with different cultures and different languages. Even though we have many different ethnic groups, cultures, and languages, the dominant group is what we call the Bamar people. In fact, when the British colonized the country, they misnamed the country Burma, which is the name of the majority ethnic group. Unfortunately, the name stayed in time, which made Burma the official name of the country until 1990 when the ruling military government changed the name to Myanmar.
After we gain independence from Britain, the prime minister—U Nu, was a very devoted Buddhist and a very proud Bamar guy. He either consciously or unconsciously, forced the Bamar ideology, Bamar customs, and Bamar culture into people’s everyday life. That didn’t go very well with other ethnic group members. Soon afterward under the new ruling power of General Ne Win, he was more right-wing, more conservative, and more aggressive in pushing the Bamar identity as the official identity of the country. It was what we called the Bamarnization process.
It was also reflected in our movies and films. Soon after our independence, the civil war happened. The government wanted to make movies about the civil war. From the period of 1950s to the 1990s, we had pro-military propaganda movies in which the brave government army soldiers fought with unknown enemies, because Because they don’t want to show the army of ethnic minorities. In those movies, you do know the fighting, but you don’t know who the enemy is. Because we’re not allowed to portray the enemy as those who belong to a certain group.
Of course, in these films, there exist problems of cultural appropriation. It means you portray people from an ethnic culture in a very cliche way, such as speaking in an accent or dressing in costumes. When one starts changing their accent, or talk slower, they start to become an ethnic group member, which is ridiculous.
Negative Stereotypes and Positive Stereotypes
when you are talking about stereotypes, there are negative stereotypes as well as positive stereotypes. Everyone knows what negative stereotypes are. So, I’m not going to go over it.
Rather, I want to talk about positive stereotypes. Positive stereotypes are a condescending attitude towards ethnic people. In Burma, we do have the stereotypical assumptions that ethnic group members from the countryside are very “simple:”
“They are very simple!”
“They live with nature!”
“They don’t have any greed; they don’t have any flaws!”
“They are very kind, good-hearted, and very honest!”
These kinds of positive stereotypes were artificially created also risk simplifying things. Ethnic people are also human beings, right? Human beings are very complex in nature. They can be good, they can be bad, they can be evil, sometimes they can be mean as well. They have all kinds of social problems. They have double standards. These are human nature. But when you reinforce this kind of positive stereotypes about the ethnic groups, you are losing the complexity of the ethnic groups. In that kind of film, ethnic people just become very simple, honest, and good-hearted folks. Are they really human beings in that sense? Humans become humans when some of them are mean, some of them have negative flaws, some of them have problems.
But the filmmakers were required, “no, no, no!” “Just keep it simple, ethnic people are very honest, very good!” That is the problem we have in our movies.
The decline of Burmese Cinema and the Rise of Filming Technology
From the 1960s to 1970s, Burmese cinema is relative in good shape across south-east Asia. Actually, more than 100 theatrical films had been produced during that time. But after the 1980s, due to the country became very poor, the production started to decline due to the lack of film stocks and equipment. By 1990, our film industry became non-existent almost. We were then only able to produce around 10 films a year. It was the official decline of Burmese Cinema.
But on the other hand, we indeed had the exciting new technology—the VHS videos. So, people started to do movies on VHS tapes. They distributed them through the video rental shops instead of going to the theater. The good thing about the VHS production was what we called “street video movies” emerged. But at the same time, the quality started to decline because of this very cheap and low-quality nature of those street VHS tapes.
When your movies started to decline in quality, which didn’t just mean the technical decline, but also meant the artistic decline, the quality filmmakers simply didn’t want to work in the film industry anymore. The people who replaced these artists, however, are only making films for popularity. They didn’t care about the artistic quality of the film.
In fact, we didn’t even have statistics on how many Street video movies were produced during the 1990s-2010s, because they were just simply way too many. It can be made in two to five days. You can imagine the kind of quality of these street videos. In those street videos, they started to portray ethnic people in many biased and offensive ways.
Representation Matters in Burmese Cinema
Things actually started to improve around 2010. People were then sick of low-quality street videos. Besides, we started to have digital technology during that time. With digital technology, we no longer need expensive film stocks. It is much cheaper and also technologically possible to make movies.
Thanks to digital technology, starting in 2010, our local film industry improved a little. It started to improve their technology, their presentation, and also their general artistic quality. Around 2012, the director named Aung Ko Latt decided to make a film called Kayan Beauties. It is about the long-neck Kayan people who live on the eastern border of Myanmar. The director decided to make the film in the actual location where the Kayan people live.
This film was started in 2012, due to the lack of money and other difficulties, by the time the film came out, it was already 2014, or 2015. Still, we appreciated this film, because, for the very first time in many years, we finally have this respectful portraiture of ethnic minority people. It is not some Bamar people trying to dress up as Kayan people, but actual Kayan people living in the Kayan region.
As I said, it is not perfect. The film is still not very good in our opinion. When it was shown in Burma, nobody really liked it, including me. Because it has a lot of problems, the script has a lot of flaws, as well as flaws in how the film was shot—even though they used digital technology, it was still very old-fashioned. So, the film was not a success.
Though we did not like the movie, we actually appreciated the efforts of the filmmaker because nobody had done that before. Quite frankly, not a lot of people can do that even now, because it is a very costly and difficult process. Kayan Beauties is unique in the sense it was groundbreaking. But another problem with Kayan Beauties is that the scriptwriter is an American, and the director Aung Ko Latt himself is not Kayan. So, there were controversial misinterpretations. They were honest mistakes, but they ended up creating a lot of positive and negative stereotypes as well, which is one of the weaknesses of Kayan Beauties.
Many years later, in 2017 or 2018, a lot of ethnic filmmakers started to shoot movies, they want to tell their own stories in their own voices. The films made by these people are much more authentic because they know what they are talking about. They know what they are making.
Another film called Gila made in 2018. The director’s name is D Htel De. He is an ethnic Rawang in the northern part of Burma. He decided to make an action-adventure film starring people from the Rawang ethnic group.
The writer, director, and editor—D Htel De, is amazing. The film was set in the 19th century. The director knows the terrain, knows the jungle, knows the people, knows the language and culture, which was perfect. He made the movie in 2017. It hit the theater in 2018, which was a modest success since it didn’t have big stars of course. Unfortunately, I encouraged the director to submit it to international film festivals. In the beginning, he didn’t know how to do these things. We helped him with that. But for some reason, he was not too keen on international film festivals, even though it deserves to be shown in international film festivals. In the end, it didn’t go anywhere beyond the theatrical release in Burma.
It was my favorite 2018's Burmese movie. Now, more and more ethnic members are making films in their own language, in their own region. In fact, we recently have some short films are made by ethnic directors about their own ethnic culture. So, I think the future is very exciting.
In Burma, we do have famous actors, actresses, and superstars. I am going to show a picture of the most famous actor in Burma. His name is Nay Toe. I don’t know if you know about the ethnic Rakhine people in western Burma. He is a Rakhine actually. He has a very strong Rakhine accent when he speaks.
(By the way, this is a very good assemblage of cultural appropriation. When a Burmese actor wants to represent ethnic people, they just changed the head-dresses and the costumes. This is a big problem in Burma.)
He has been a film star for 20 years. But in 20 years of his career, he has never portrayed himself as a Rakhine person. He has only acted as the Bamar guy in a Bamar dress with a very forced Bamar accent. Actually, I got to talk to him last year, I asked him why you are not playing any Rakhine person in any of your movies in 20 years of your career?
He said, “I just simply did not get any offer.”
Nobody offered him to play a Rakhine guy. In fact, I don’t think we have any movie about Rakhine people. Even if we have, he was not cast in. The situation was messed up in that way.
Likewise, we have a very famous rapper and actor called Sai Sai Kham Leng. He is an ethnic Shan person, but he was never offered to play a Shan character.
Actresses face the same situation as well. We do have actresses from different ethnic backgrounds, but they are not offered to play anything other than Bamar characters in our mainstream films. This is the problem that the Myanmar mainstream films need to work on. Our “Myanmar” films are basically Bamar films. We are not making films about other ethnic groups in our country. We are only making films about Bamar people and Bamar culture. I am actually a Bamar myself, part of the majority, part of the guilty group.
Stereotypes about Majority
But what about the majority Bamar people themselves? Do they suffer from stereotypes as well in our films? My answer is yes. In the Bamar films, we suffer from a lot of positive and negative stereotypes as well.
When we are talking about Bamar in the films, they are often the proper, polite, well-dressed, and well-composed kind of people. They are not supposed to have feelings. They are not supposed to have a relationship that is not approved by their parents. In the film "Mudras Calling" which was made in 2018, we can see the two main characters were in a winery. The American guy, he was drinking wine. But what she was drinking is a strawberry shake, which is just ridiculous. This is another stereotype that Bamarnese women don’t drink. It is not lady-like for Bamarnese women to drink alcohol.
When the American guy was saying, “I am in love with you, why don’t you be my girlfriend?”
The girl said, “don’t you know, I am not supposed to have a relationship with an outsider, I am a proper and elegant Bamarnese woman who loves my country.”
I just want to clarify that not just ethnic minorities suffer from positive and negative stereotypes, but also, the majority Bamar people in mainstream Burmese films.
Before wrapping up, I want to talk about censorship. In my opinion, according to my research, I think our film censorship is possibly the strictest and craziest in Asia. I think I can confidently make the statement because I also study censorship in other countries. Ours is the worst. Our censorship is crazy because we don’t have any specific rules or regulations.
We have an examination committee in our film censorship with 30 members involved. They need to see the film depend on their respective tasks to ensure that the film could comply with the requests. Those requests represent different departments of the government. And of course, each sector has a different agenda. The Ministry of the interior looks at a film from their perspective, the Ministry of transportation looks at a film from their perspective, and other departments view a movie from their own perspective.
The film, Gila, the censor cut one scene in that film. The film was set in the jungle in the 19th century. Back in the time, in those places, when you cut yourself, you stopped the bleeding by putting mud or dirt on your wound, which was the normal practice for them. But the censor thinks it is not in accordance with our regulation, so we have to cut that scene. The censorship also tends to add problems to stereotypes as well. As I said at the beginning of my talk when we portray an ethnic character in a very humanly complex way, the censor will think, ethnic people are not supposed to be bad people, we need to build co-existence with ethnic people. “You cannot have this ethnic person killing the Bamar guy!” “You cannot kill this ethnic character! Because they will be pissed off.”The villain is not supposed to dress in an ethnic dress!” So, I think our censors also contributed to the problems we have.