The 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, by necessity, secretive group of young Burmese filmmakers known as the Myanmar Film Collective. They share the story behind it.
‘Myanmar Diaries got underway in the first week of the country’s coup. It was February 2021 and ten of us – friends and friends of friends – decided to document life in this extreme situation. We initially considered publishing poetry or photographs, but a film was quicker and more far-reaching. We were inspired by (Oscar-nominated documentary) Burma VJ, which had recorded its country’s 2007 protests, but we didn’t want to do a strictly citizen journalism-style documentary. All of us had different backgrounds and different styles. So we thought: let’s do an omnibus of ten diverse, interwoven films instead.
The first scene is a viral video of an aerobics instructor dancing as the military moves in behind her. For us, it summed up the absurdity of the coup: it’s just a meaningless exercise in ego from the military. Unfortunately, we are seeing that again with Putin, although that’s a different story. In 2021, the military’s power structure wasn’t even being challenged – they’d become millionaires and their children are now very successful business people, so there was no need for a coup. We weren’t expecting it, yet there it was, happening right in front of our eyes.
We had hundreds of hours of footage, mostly shot with DSLRs, cellphones and even some traditional old-fashioned 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 depict the psychological horror being suffered by the people.
If we’d been caught we would have been arrested, with a risk of being tortured or even killed
If we’d been caught we would have been arrested, with a risk of being tortured or even killed, so we took a lot of precautions. We’d have two or three lookout people behind the camera when we were filming in the streets, using Bluetooth to keep in constant contact. At one point, the crowd noticed a police informer filming one of us. Fortunately, we were all wearing masks. There were definitely attempts to track down people who were documenting the coup.
Our ultimate goal was to emphasise the importance of telling stories wherever injustice is taking place. They don’t need to be revolutionary stories or ones that even highlight the suffering going on, just simple, ordinary human stories: people feeding their cats, lovers holding hands in the park. They’re what keeps humanity alive in this mad, mad situation.’
Interview by Phil de Semlyen
Myanmar Diaries was the inaugural winner of the Tony Elliott Impact Award, supported by Time Out. It’s released at the ICA and other UK cinemas on Feb 10, 2023.
Sign up for more information on Myanmar Diaries and on the Myanmar Film Collective’s projects at the official site. Watch the trailer here.