How a Secret Group of Filmmakers Take on a Brutal Dictatorship

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Winner of this year’s Berlinale Documentary Award and recipient of the first-ever Tony Elliott Impact Award, the remarkable Myanmar Diaries is the work of an anonymous and, of necessity, secretive group of young Burmese filmmakers known as the Myanmar Film Collective. They share the story behind it.

Myanmar Newspapers started in the first week of the coup in the country. It was February 2021 and ten of us – friends and friends of friends – decided to document life in this dire situation. We initially considered publishing poetry or photography, but a film was quicker and more ambitious. We Were Inspired By (Oscar-nominated documentary) Burma VJ, who had recorded the 2007 protests in his country, but we didn’t want to make a strictly citizen journalism-style documentary. We all had different backgrounds and different styles. So we said to ourselves: let’s make an omnibus of ten diverse and intertwined films.

The first scene is a viral video of an aerobics instructor dancing as the army moves behind her. To us, that summed up the absurdity of the coup: it’s just a meaningless ego exercise on the part of the military. Unfortunately, we still see it with Putin, although that is another story. In 2021, the power structure of the military was not even in question – they had become millionaires and their children are now very successful businessmen, so there was no need to make a fuss State. We did not expect it, yet it happened before our eyes.

Photography: The Myanmar Film CollectiveArrests made at gunpoint at the height of the coup are captured on screen

We had hundreds of hours of footage, mostly shot with DSLRs, cell phones, and even old-school traditional cameras, but nothing too professional. Each member of the collective had complete freedom over what they filmed. The only restriction we imposed was to remain anonymous – including the actors. We were looking for clever ways to portray the psychological horror that people go through.

If we had been caught, we would have been arrested, with the risk of being tortured or even killed

If we had been caught, we would have been arrested, with the risk of being tortured or even killed, so we took a lot of precautions. We had two or three lookouts behind the camera when filming in the streets, using Bluetooth to stay in constant contact. At one point the crowd noticed a police informant filming one of us. Fortunately, we all wore masks. There were certainly attempts to trace the people documenting the coup.

Myanmar Newspapers
Photography: The Myanmar Film CollectiveMyanmar Diaries captures guerrilla response to country’s military junta

Our ultimate goal was to highlight the importance of telling stories wherever injustice takes place. They don’t have to be groundbreaking stories or ones that even highlight ongoing suffering, just simple, ordinary human stories: people feeding their cats, lovers holding hands in the park. They are what keeps humanity alive in this crazy, crazy situation.

Interview with Phil de Semlyen

Myanmar Diaries is the first winner of the Tony Elliott Impact Award, supported by Time Out. It is screened virtually at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. March 17-25. £6.

Sign up for more information about Myanmar Diaries and Myanmar Film Collective projects on the official website. Watch the trailer here.

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