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Film for Social Change?

13 October 2014

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Yangon

Film makers in Burma/Myanmar use film to try to move beyond communal violence with a beautiful, healing story.

Why did it cause such resentment?

 

“Open Sky” is a gentle film made by three Myanmar film-makers. It tells a story of inter-community help and friendship, of healing and of how to move beyond conflict and violence. It has a quiet, considered beauty which asks us all to reflect on our prejudices and seek a new path.

 

“Open Sky” was withdrawn from the Yangon Human Rights film festival after threats made against the film makers and against the cinema where it was to be shown.

 

Watching it I just could not believe or understand what there was to protest about.

 

The film is just 20 minutes and a quite simple story, based in real life.  A young woman travels to a small town to visit her aunt and her uncle. They live in a house they have inhabited for many years but which now has no roof. It was torched in communal violence not long before. The young woman talks to her aunt and follows her on her daily routine. The aunt tells how a crowd from the other community attacked their house, how they fled and returned. When the violence erupted again a friend from the same “other” community rescued her, gave her shelter and hid her from the mob.

 

The film shows the aunt visiting this friend where she works in the market, chatting peacefully to her. It shows her praying and telling that she prays for everyone; those killed in the violence from all communities, and she prays that peace will return and they leave this madness behind them.

 

It is a film of healing and of looking to the future rather than digging at old wounds.

 

I would have said it is a film which should be shown everywhere there is violence but when it received its first ever public screening at the British Council in Yangon it became clear that many want it banned.

 

For this is film about a Muslim woman rescued from a Buddhist mob by a Buddhist friend, and that, apparently, invites anger.

 

In the post screening discussion there were those who praised the film along the lines I have done but the vast majority of comments were angry and bitter. Why had a Muslim woman been chosen? Why did the film not show a Buddhist family suffering, why did it not tell of a Buddhist monastery which gave shelter to Muslims? Why was it not balanced? Why was it so biased?

 

These angry questions came from Buddhist monks, who studiously filmed the responses, as well as from normal Myanmar people, presumably Buddhist, who were clearly angry at this perceived propaganda.

The film makers and Human Rights Festival director, one Muslim, the others Buddhist, consistently said that this was a story they felt needed to be told, that they had set out to avoid sparking more division (there could easily have been a more angry, revenge filled film made) by making a conciliatory film and to initiate discussion around how to move beyond violence. They were thoughtful, humble and earnest, but the majority seemed not convinced.

 

And then, when there was time for one more question, a young woman stood up, controlled but intense. She told us she had been in that town as a Reuters journalist just two days after the violence. She had seen the smouldering ruins and seen body parts on the roads. She told us that she was 100% Myanmar and 100% Buddhist and she told us it was a great shame she had to say that to prove her credentials and be believed. She told us that yes, some Buddhists had suffered but that the shocking reality was that for every Buddhist who was affected, tens of people from the minority Muslim community had been affected, displaced, murdered.

 

That would be the balance that would have to be shown.

 

A sobering silence hit the room.

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