What ails the Myanmar film industry:
The jagged trail from censor board to cinemas
High hopes, Bad Dreams
It was his dream, no, it was his obsession to make a low budget artistic film.
This was all in the head of D Htel De when he created his first feature film “Gila” (The Hero), a mixed genre of action and docudrama about Rawang ethnic group in Kachin state.
“I can’t afford a huge sum of money, between K20 million (US$12,600) and K30 million, to pay for superstar actors to give my film a good first impression. What I believe in is the effort and passion in creating arts,” he said.
D Htel De is a musician-turned filmmaker and film producer from the Rawang tribe. He committed every bit of himself to the film so that it can be different from substandard mainstream films in Myanmar.
The movie, in the Rawang language and set in the early 19th century in Kachin State, portrays the Rawang people and their nomadic way of life in Myanmar’s Himalayan region.
Despite shooting in dense forests and harsh weather, D Htel De masterfully played with natural light in this low budget film to put the pristine beauty of his native town, Puta-o in exquisite frames.
Nevertheless, these captivating scenes did not appeal much to the highly critical eyes of the censor board. Some of the action scenes shot in deep forests had to be snipped off because one person representing the health department on the 25-member censor board saw them as “unhealthy”.
The director argued that the film is a semi-historical docudrama so it is quite natural to see bloodshed between ethnic tribes sometimes, but the argument was rejected. Eventually the film was able to get the nod of the board last December.
Lost in the new system
But the censor’s approval came one month after the old queuing system with censor numbers was terminated and the cinemas were given a choice to screen films that they like.
D Htel De’s film was one of those lost in this chaotic new system. This means that the screening of “Gila” will now be at the mercy of cinema owners now.
“It took everything of me to produce the film and to pass the censor board only to discover the censor number would no longer get me assurance of having my film shown in the cinemas,” said the director.
In fact, the cost of getting a censor number in Myanmar was as expensive as ensuring the technical quality of the film.
The price of changing the film format into Digital Cinema Package (DCP) was K4.5 million, according to the Stark School of Visual Arts in Yangon which runs a DCP business.
Although the formatting could be done by producers and filmmakers themselves, the Ministry of Information only allows a particular film to be reviewed by the censor board after it has been formatted by a registered DCP formatting company.
“The problem is there are very few, only around four or five, licensed DCP businesses here when I was making the film. This was far fewer than needed to serve the hundreds of films produced every year, and so they were pretty much busy. They didn’t want to work on it again when we went back to delete the scenes the censors didn’t want to see,” D Htel De said.
For DCP specialists, it is not just a simple nuisance but a serious technical problem as they have to redesign the sound of the film and reformat it again.
“When a particular scene is cut, the sound gets broken. It takes really painstaking and delicate work to structure the continuity of the sounds again,” said Kyaw Lin Tun, producer of Shwe Sin Oo Motion Picture which also has licensed DCP company.
Making sense of the new system
The production community has asked the Myanmar Motion Picture Organisation (MMPO) to mediate between them and cinema owners to help them find ways for their films to get screened in movie houses.
The MMPO and four major cinema groups in Yangon later resolved to pick two films that have not been screened from the old censor-number system and intersperse them in three cinema film choices every five weeks.
“At first I considered waiting until my censor number come, but after seeing there were nearly 290 films ahead of me on the waitlist, I just couldn’t do wait-and-see. It would be ages before my turn comes,” D Htel De said.
Moreover, D Htel De added that even before the new system, there were good examples of a handful of ethnic films such as “Jade World from Manaw Land” that never appeared on cinema screens in Myanmar. These ethnic films just ended up showing in one or two cinemas in their own regions for unknown reasons.
“The world is spinning fast, and so are the changes in film policies here. I can’t take the censor number for granted anymore and wait for screening opportunity, say four or five years later,” D Htel De said.
The alternative is for producers who cannot wait for their censor number to arrive to directly negotiate with cinema owners themselves in the hopes of jumping the queue.
Trying His Luck
Holding “Gila” in his hand, D Htel De walked into every door of four giant cinema groups in Yangon: Mingalar, Mega Ace, JCGV and Paradiso.
“Before meeting with them, I had this confident notion that if my film was really good, they would give me a chance for screening,” the director said.
So in January this year, D Htel De tried his luck and went into Mega Ace Cinema group to market his film. “Once they heard it was an ethnic film, their interest was gone. They just said my film doesn’t have actors and actresses,” D Htel De said grimly, noting that the cast in his film were local Rawangs with no prior acting experience.
Metro called a film distribution agent, who is also a committee member of the MMPO, to ask about other factors that the major cinemas can consider when they choose a film, besides looking at whether a film has celebrities or not. He refused to give an answer and also added that it is best not to write this story.
D Htel De then moved on to Paradiso Cinema Group where he was told that though the quality of the film was good, they were not sure whether the film would be commercially viable. The Mingalar Group just told him to wait until his censor number comes.
“JCVG asked me to send the film’s trailer. but one of their officials told me he can’t open the film in his computer because of some kind of error. I sent the trailer again but I never heard from them until now,” D Htel De said, adding that his film has little chance of being screed in other big cities
like Mandalay because all cinemas there are controlled by the decision of cinema groups in Yangon.
Demoralised, he headed to Kachin to gather his wits and think about his next move.
Fortunately, Aya Cinema, a family-own film theatre in Kachin, warmly welcomed the film, and ‘Gila’ was screened and tickets were sold out for two days in a row.
It was also screened in Bamaw township in Kachin State and in Lashio Township, Shan State in February this year. All the screenings got favourable receptions.
But D Htel De admitted the revenue collected from showing the film in these local theaters merely covered only one-fifth of the production cost.
“There are over 120 cinemas across the country, and 42 percent of them are in Yangon. The revenue of showings in three cinemas cannot compete with that of screenings in a major city,” he said.
Wisdom from the pros U Maung Maung Oo, a veteran producer and director with Snow White Film Production, said the cinema groups’ predictions can be wrong. There have been times a film with little promise of financial return outperformed star-studded films, especially when the film is good in both content and context.
“I welcome this new system because chances are that film quality will probably get better this way. Now film producers have to invest sufficient time in pre-production to ensure the future of their films. But the most important thing is cinemas really have to be able to choose good films,” U Maung Maung Oo said.
Film production and distribution of the old days in Myanmar stand as a good example.
U Zaw Myint Oo, MMPO associate secretary, said during Myanmar film’s golden age – from after World War II until the 1950s – film production and cinemas were affiliated under a single company. Only their own productions were screened in their own theatres, and the quality of a film was assured from day one in pre-production.
“All the proposed stories were thoroughly evaluated by experienced directors, script writers and actors. And a selected script was shot to their best ability. This was a very economically sound and artistically trusty system,” U Zaw Myint Oo said.
However, U Zaw Myint Oo added that he is not sure whether cinema owners will adopt such a system in the future.
“Considering the current situation, whether or not cinemas will choose a film depends much on the big names and expensive faces. This carries the risk of letting the spirit of our new generation down, especially for low budget filmmakers,” he said.