From Myanmar to China, the Cinema Industry Tests the Limits of Censorship

By Bagenal, Flora | The Christian Science Monitor, August 24, 2013 | Go to article overview

From Myanmar to China, the Cinema Industry Tests the Limits of Censorship


Bagenal, Flora, The Christian Science Monitor


It's a soggy afternoon in Yangon, the commercial capital of Myanmar, and a group of young filmmakers are sheltering under umbrellas on set. The director runs through lines with the lead actor - a spotty teenager with a shy smile. Nearby, his on-screen love interest shelters in the back of a car listening to pop songs on her phone.

There's nothing remotely risque - even by conservative local standards - about the film they are making, a soap opera-style drama about a man having an affair. But the fact these filmmakers and actors are here today is testament to a changing cinema industry in Myanmar - one that is benefiting from a new sense of freedom.

"Today we can make everything from action movies, to comedy and thriller," says Soe Moe, a veteran filmmaker in his 70s and a patron of the Myanmar Motion Picture Studio.

He says Myanmar's once-celebrated film industry is enjoying a revival after years of funding shortages and suffocating censorship. Since assuming office two years ago, President Thein Sein has overseen sweeping changes to media freedoms. Some local filmmakers have responded by pushing the boundaries of what appears in their films.

There's now more sex, violence, and corruption making it into scripts, according to Mr. Soe Moe, and several major movies currently in production deal with political subjects that just a few years ago would have been completely off limits. Notable among them is a big budget biopic produced by opposition leader Aung San Su Kyi about her revolutionary father, and a film about the 1988 student uprising.

What's happening to film in Myanmar mirrors developments elsewhere in Asia, where countries like China, Vietnam, and Laos with notoriously austere censorship laws, have also seen a rise in the number of independent filmmakers prepared to push the boundaries of what's officially allowed on screen. There has been so much push- back in the industry that some film critics and directors say it could be a catalyst for lasting change to cinema freedom in the region.

"Directors find different ways of telling a story in order to say what they want to say," says Vivienne Chow, cultural editor for the South China Morning Post. She says cult filmmakers in mainland China are practiced at getting around stringent censorship regulations that require a film to be vetted at every stage from storyboard to the final cut. The Internet is the go-to place for films that would never get approval from the government, and micro movies - designed to be watched on the Web via a mobile phone - have proved to be something of a revolution for directors with an artistic, quirky, or controversial slant.

Another way directors in China get around censorship laws is to produce films without official permission - risking government disapproval - and showcasing abroad, often at international film festivals. Ms. Chow says publicity gained by directors whose films are banned in China may have encouraged censors to take a more liberal approach in the long run. The obvious example she says, is the director Lou Ye, who was banned from filming in China for six years in 2006 for taking his film "Summer Palace" (which featured scenes of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre) to Cannes in France without government consent. …

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