Citizen Journalists Paint a Harrowing Scene in ‘Myanmar Diaries’

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The 67-year-old woman stands alongside an open-backed truck in a city under martial law fearlessly berating the young paramilitary policemen sat impassively behind the wood and steel bars that hold them back – for now.

She is somebody’s daughter, probably wife, mother, grandmother.

“You’re protecting the dictator, General Min Aung Hlaing!” she shouts wagging her finger like a fierce school ma’am of old.

The at times shaky mobile phone footage is among the viscerally powerful opening shots of Berlinale Panorama documentary “Myanmar Diaries.”

“We cry for the girl that was shot in the head. They shot her on purpose…. Don’t follow orders blindly, you should know what is right or wrong!”

Yangon, Myanmar: Less than three weeks after a military government under General Hlaing had seized power in a coup d’état Feb. 1, 2021. The COVID-19 pandemic is at its height and everyone is wearing masks to protect against Coronavirus.

At least 1,549 people have been killed by the junta and more than 9,130 arrested, charged or sentenced since then.

The film – described by Berlinale artistic director Carlo Chatrian as being “politically very relevant” – world premiered Saturday.

The danger of making such a film in a country where even raising a mobile phone to film police brutality can be a death sentence, is such that none of those who filmed “Myanmar Diaries” are credited, and (in solidarity) nor are those individual Europeans from Dutch producers ZINdoc, or supporters that include the Netherlands Film Fund.

But there are representatives of the Burmese team – the Myanmar Film Collective (MFC) – in Berlin.

Variety  talked to one.

“The military had been planning the coup for a long time – ever since 2015 when they lost very badly in the general elections,” the MFC member says, referring to Myanmar’s first free elections in a quarter of a century.

“Then in November 2020, when [democratically elected leader] Aung San Suu Kyi was declining in international popularity, they were banking on regaining some seats. But they lost even more than in 2015.”

When General Hlaing demanded a senior position in the new government Aung San sent him packing. She was among the first arrested and imprisoned when the coup was launched.

For ordinary Burmese people after a brief few years of freedom and economic growth, the shock of being thrust back under rule by a cabal of military thugs was too much – and they took to the streets in their thousands, banging pots and pans in protest.

The police and army responded with live rounds and the slaughter began.

Things gathered pace: “Young people adopted the three-fingered salute – first borrowed from Hollywood movie “The Hunger Games” by Thai protestors and students in Hong Kong,” the MFC member says.

The 70 minute-long film combines raw mobile phone footage and reconstructions based on true events. A father, holding his dead little boy in his arms, weeps as he cries: “They have killed my son!”

Young women cry in terror as their father is marched away from his village home by a group of rifle toting soldiers.

A black and white montage of the junta leader is sandwiched between micro-second clips of a dead protestor – his head blown apart by a bullet.

In a reconstruction, a grieving husband observes a blood-spattered construction hard hat and blood-soaked T-shirt that belonged to his wife, before – naked – he methodically cleans the bathroom before creating an altar, in front of which he burns the dead woman’s clothing.

In a perplexing scene, he then presses her panties to his face to inhale her sexual scent one last time, before he gets into his car, straps his fingers into the three-fingered salute, starts the motor and gases himself via a rubber tube attached to the vehicle’s exhaust pipe.

The anonymous Burmese filmmaker explains: “Burmese society is incredibly conservative. The naked actor is totally subversive. Older, conservative men believe that walking beneath women’s underwear [on a washing line, for example] robs you of your virility. The junta does not have a sense of humor and sexual references are particularly unwelcome.”

The brutal crackdown by a junta that producers Petr Lom and his wife Corinne van Egeraat describe as a “total kleptocracy… this is basically resources capture by a mafia,” has only served to unite the country against the dictatorship, and armed militias are now training in remote jungles to take the fight back to the junta.

“Sometimes you need to meet fire with fire,” the anonymous filmmaker says. “If the other side has no sense of humanity – you have no choice.”

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