Think of Buddhists and you don’t normally conjure up images of genocide. Yet it is widely known that the Rohingya, the Muslim minority of the mainly Buddhist country of Myanmar, is one of the most oppressed people on the planet. They’ve been subjected to ethnic cleansing since 2016, beginning during Aung San Suu Kyi’s time at the head of government, and it’s only intensified since the 2021 coup that overthrew and imprisoned her.
Against this complex backdrop of ethnic rivalries, Islamophobia (even the pop music contains anti-Muslim propaganda) and regular civil war flare-ups, first-time director Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing trains her lens beyond the country’s breathtaking landscapes to zero in on a on a tiny microcosm of Myanmar province Rakhine State: a makeshift gynaecological clinic run by Buddhist midwife Hla and her young Muslim apprentice Nyo Nyo.
It’s thoughtful, empathetic and powerful insight into the region – and its women
Hla is determined to help Muslim mothers survive one of the world’s highest maternal mortality rates – at significant risk to her own wellbeing, given the disapproval of local Buddhists. Yet for all her selfless actions, prejudices still run deep; Hla regularly belittles Nyo Nyo and refers to by the racial slur ‘kalar’ (‘darkie’). Nothing in Myanmar is straightforward, it seems.
With no narration and little contextualisation, Midwives offers a complex picture of life in the region. The people’s many contradictions slowly emerge: such as when a teacher unironically wears an England shirt while instructing children in Britain’s brutal history in the old Burma.
The situation in Myanmar remains tense and ethnic cleansing continues, yet Snow Hnin finds grace notes of optimism to offset the bitterness of the film’s backdrop. It makes Midwives a thoughtful, empathetic and powerful insight into the region – and its women.
In UK cinemas now.