Four young men file into a conference room in downtown Rangoon, dressed in 1940s military uniform, and stand in front of a panel of Burma’s top cultural figures. Some of the panel members have recently been released from prison — among them is democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The grilling they now give the young men is the culmination of a four-and-a-half month process to choose the lead for a film that, just a few years ago, would have seemed beyond belief: a big-budget feature, produced by Suu Kyi, about her revolutionary father, General Aung San.
It’s a movie that is over 60 years in the making. Aung San was a student leader who rose to become the founder of the modern Burmese army and the chief negotiator of Burma’s independence from Britain. He was assassinated just before that independence was obtained. His daughter, who was 2 at the time, says he remained an influence on her life. “He was very much in my life,” she told TIME’s Hannah Beech during an interview conducted in 2010, shortly after her release from house arrest. “Although he died, people spoke about him all the time. I was told I was his favorite because I was the youngest and only girl.”
Aung San’s legacy was glossed over by previous governments of Burma (also called Myanmar) because of the fear that it would add luster to his activist daughter. His photos, and recordings of his speeches, vanished into obscurity. But with the reformist, quasi-civilian government that took power in early 2011, Suu Kyi has been transformed from an outlawed activist into a mainstream politician, and her father’s life story is no longer a taboo subject. “We’d love to give the message to the world: this is a real Burmese leader,” says Zarganar, the famous Burmese actor and comedian who now sits on the film’s executive board. “Now we’ve got that chance.” Unsurprisingly, Suu Kyi’s influence pervades the entire project; she is listed as “executive producer,” but, Grace Swe Zin Htaik, a former actress who is a member of the film committee says, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate is taking a much more hands-on role. “I’ve seen her becoming involved in lines, the story treatment, and she finalized the actors and actresses selection,” she says, “so I think she’s actually more personally involved in it.”
That Aung San is being made at all is remarkable, but it is also being made against the backdrop of a film industry ravaged by decades of oppression. From its inception in the early 1920s until the coup of 1962, Burma’s movie industry was a regional powerhouse, producing historical epics and lavish dramas at a rate of 100 or more per year. But after a socialist government came to power in 1962, filmmakers and artists of all kinds found themselves under the watchful eye of the censorship committee — a situation that got worse in ’88 when the junta took over.
Censorship was bad enough, but the advent of VCDs and DVDs — and an “entertainment tax” levied on cinemagoers — delivered the coup de grâce to a movie industry ill equipped to withstand competition. Most of the motion-picture companies closed down, as did the majority of the movie theaters: in Rangoon, Burma’s largest city and home to 4.3 million people, there are now just eight cinemas; in the country’s second biggest city Mandalay, population 1.3 million, there are two. Today, out of every 10 movies made in Burma, only one makes money. Most people who work in the movie business do so as dilettantes, funding their projects themselves (a movie in Burma generally costs about $15,000 to make, mostly on older equipment, with films shot and edited in as little as two weeks). There is a state body dealing with movies, the Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprise, allied to the Ministry of Information, but the government provides no funding. Apart from censoring scenes, its remit is limited to granting licenses and shooting permissions.
“There are a lot of rules here. It makes our work very difficult,” says Zine Wyne, chairman of the nongovernmental Myanmar Motion Picture Organization. All of this is reflected in the movies themselves, most of which are poorly shot, badly acted comedies (a popular genre with filmmakers because it allows them to skirt sensitive topics and so largely escape censorial attention). The films mostly go straight to DVD or VCD. Only about 10 locally made films a year are deemed worthy of cinematic release.
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Aung San sets its sights on a far grander stage. According to Suu Kyi, it will be “an epic movie that will become world famous,” to be filmed not only in Burma but also on location in Japan and England. Its makers have plans for international distribution, and they hope to submit it to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film category. Comparisons have been drawn by producers to the 1982 Oscar-winning biopic Gandhi. But given the meager state of local talent, these are wildly extravagant claims.
“I’m very surprised, they don’t even know what is the synopsis, what is the treatment, what is the script,” says local director Midi Z. “So it’s a little strange. They want to make a huge film, a huge-budget film. They’re full of desire, full of emotion, full of passion. But in reality they have no knowledge of making films.” A director is yet to be chosen. The screenwriters understandably want to get the script right (the recent Hollywood biopic of Aung San Suu Kyi, The Lady, is widely disliked in Burma because of supposed inaccuracies in the scenes portraying Aung San). But the script is, as yet, unfinished, with six writers working on it — a recipe for disaster, if ever there was one.
Another problem is that few people involved in the film have knowledge of modern techniques. In July 2012, Bill Bowling, a Hollywood production manager who works with the Asian Film Commissions Network, gave a workshop for the crew of Aung San in Rangoon. Bowling was reduced to explaining basic terms such as montage and establishing shot, but his audience seemed nonetheless reluctant to accept foreign help. “They seem to want to have just Burmese people involved in the making of the film,” says Bowling. “Because they view it as a Burmese project. To make it a big film, model it on an epic film, make it on a big scale, that means bringing in some foreign experts, and they were kind of resistant to that.”
Another alarm bell: the cast is made up of amateurs, chosen for their appearance, attitude and nationalism, rather than acting ability. Kyaw Kyaw Myo, who will play the film’s title character, is a soccer player for Kanbawza FC in the Myanmar National League; Aung San’s wife is played by a primary-school teacher. Thierry Bleu, an acting coach from Paris, was invited to train the amateurs to an international standard. “I got results with some of them,” he says. But he also says he is disappointed that he was only able to work with them for a month and hasn’t been asked to return.
The mere novelty of Aung San will guarantee it a measure of local success, of course. But if Burma’s movie industry is to return to anywhere near the status it enjoyed throughout a large part of the last century, it seems more likely that that renaissance will stem not from one single overblown big-budget epic, but from the country’s emerging crop of young filmmakers, many of them working in Burma’s booming television sector where they are being trained in-house. Benefiting from Burmese TV’s growing advertising revenues, they have all the latest digital technology at their disposal, which people in the movie industry generally do not. And with seemingly every aspect of the project presided over by Suu Kyi, it’s entirely possible that this, more than anything, is a film being made to prove a political point. “It’s just another kind of propaganda film,” says Midi Z. “It’s a dangerous way to make a film.”