What ails the Myan­mar film in­dus­try:

The jagged trail from cen­sor board to cin­e­mas

The Myanmar Times - - Metro - MYINT MYAT THU

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.

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