Supporting independent cinema in Myanmar

Article, 04.08.2016

Director Maung Okkar and producer May Zin Myo, both from Myanmar, will be newcomers at the Open Doors section of the Locarno Festival, which is backed by the SDC. This is a chance of a lifetime to meet international professionals from the film world and contribute to the development of contemporary cinema in Myanmar, a country undergoing a transition to democracy.

A young director from Myanmar shooting a film.
Okkar, the young twenty-nine-year-old director from Myanmar shoots his first feature film ‘Craving’ selected for Locarno’s Open Doors section. © Maung Okkar

Short dramas and documentaries – the young director Maung Okkar and his partner and producer May Zin, both from Myanmar, are full of ideas on how to resurrect Myanmar’s independent cinema, which has been hampered by decades of dictatorship. They already have a number of films to their name. This year, their first feature-length film ‘Craving’ was selected for the Open Doors section of the Locarno International Film Festival, which has had the SDC as a partner since its inception (see box).

“Myanmar has tons of stories to tell”

In the Maung family, filmmaking has been passed down from father to son. Okkar is no exception. Having featured in some of his father’s films, Okkar attended a course in film studies at Yangon Film School. He then moved behind the camera and began to direct his own films. 

“I try to draw on my own experiences in my work. After decades of military dictatorship, the people of Myanmar have tons of stories that have been locked away and never been told. I wanted to uncover these accounts and turn them into art films,” explains Okkar. 

“It’s an incredible opportunity to be part of Open Doors. It’s given me the chance to meet other professionals from around the world and will allow me to draw on this experience in all areas of my work as a director – from writing to pre-production and filming through to post-production.”

Upholding a tradition

Myanmar has a cinematic tradition that is almost one hundred years old and began in the 1930s. At the time, cinema was flourishing in the country and provided an outlet for many schools of thought and various political, social and cultural views. Strict censorship was imposed following the military coup in 1962. However, since 2011, the country has witnessed a slow transition towards democracy. 

“Unfortunate political changes have had a profound effect on cinema in Myanmar. This is the right time to revive it,” highlights Okkar. 

“Film production in Myanmar receives no subsidies from the government or local organisations. The crews work hard. We have fascinating stories to tell and talented actors and actresses. Our films have an unique aesthetic quality and style. However, Myanmar’s film industry has a shortage of professionals. For many years, Myanmar had neither a film school, nor a company leasing equipment, nor even a production company. An obsession with profit also prevented quality independent cinema from flourishing. 

Our film industry once had a golden age. As a young director, my mission is to do my utmost to make the best possible films.”

“Conveying the flavour and culture of Myanmar to the rest of the world”

May Zin Myo manages the Pan Wai Wai company that produces Okkar’s films. She would like to produce films for an international audience while conveying something of the flavours and culture of Myanmar. 

“It’s important for me to take part in Locarno’s Open Doors section. It allows me to connect to an international network. It’s not easy to produce a film. To ensure quality, our crew needs professionals for every stage of the production.” 

May Zin sums up the importance of cinema for Myanmar’s society. “Cinema is a mirror to a country, its culture, traditions and politics. If we can improve our film industry, we will be making a contribution to developing our country as a whole. Films are more than just entertainment. They help to educate people. 

As a young producer, I am doing everything I can to contribute to my country’s cinematographic creativity,” she explains. 

What can cinema do for freedom and democracy?

Delivering cultural initiatives in developing countries helps to promote democracy on the ground. Switzerland has a long tradition of supporting arts and culture in partner countries. Promoting independent cinema encourages freedom of expression and contributes to peacebuilding and sustainable development. 

In addition to its Open Doors partnership, the FDFA also supports Yangon Film School through the Swiss Embassy in Yangon’s cultural programme. Switzerland is helping the school develop its own financing plan. Funds have also been allocated to restore Myanmar’s oldest surviving original film negative (Mya Ganaing/The Emerald Jungle, 1934).This film will be screened at Locarno.

Open Doors 2016–2018: Exploring South Asia

The Locarno Festival’s Open Doors section raises the profile of film projects from directors in emerging countries and countries that have no local support for their film industry. Open Doors provides an opportunity for meetings with potential producers and other film industry partners who may make a substantial contribution to developing these projects. This 14th edition will take place on 4–9 August. In 2016, films from four countries – Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Myanmar – were screened during the festival. 

On 7 August, the spotlight will be on a feature film from Myanmar – ‘The Monk’. The showing will be followed by a round-table discussion on the status of young people in Myanmar and the role of cinema in the country’s political and social change. The screening and discussion will take place in a partnership with the FDFA’s Democracy without Borders initiative, launched in 2014 by Federal Councillor Didier Burkhalter.

A portrait of young May Zin Myo from Myanmar, who manages a film production company in Yangon.
Young May Zin Myo from Myanmar manages a film production company in Yangon. © May Zin Myo.

Current projects in Myanmar

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Planned project

Primary Health Care

01.01.2023 - 31.10.2024

After years of underinvestment in the social sectors and decades of civil war, access to basic services is low, in particular in the rural areas of the southeast of Myanmar. This project aims to improve people’s health through a primary health care approach in selected townships of the region, both in Government and Ethnic Armed Group controlled areas, strengthening basic services, empowering communities and supporting convergence of health systems.


Strengthening democratic local governance

01.01.2022 - 30.06.2026

The project aims at supporting the democratic transition and the peace efforts in Myanmar. Using a decentralized budget support approach to all townships of one state in the Southeast of the country, it will strengthen township’s participatory planning and budgeting capacity. The project will also deepen the community’s capacity to demand public services. Additionally it will support national level policy discussions based on this experience.


Support to the International Women’s Rights Action Watch Asia Pacific (IWRAW AP)

01.07.2021 - 31.12.2024

Gender inequalities persist and are a major barrier for poverty reduction and sustainable inclusive development. SDC supports the International Women’s Rights Action Watch (IWRAW) Asia Pacific, a non-governmental organisation working nationally, regionally, and globally towards the achievement of women's human rights, especially through the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) mechanism.


Support to Parliamentary Centre of Asia

01.04.2021 - 31.12.2024

The Parliamentary Centre of Asia (PCAsia) builds the capacities of Parliaments in ASEAN countries in particular Cambodia and Laos plus Myanmar if the situation allows (CLM) to promote democratic accountability in the region. Complemented by the technical assistance of the Swiss Parliamentary Services (SPS), the Swiss contribution to PCAsia will support the capacity building of professional, non-partisan, ethical and accountable parliamentary services.


CORIGAP: Closing Rice Yield Gaps in Asia

01.04.2021 - 31.12.2022

SDC supports the International Rice Research Institute and national research and extension partners in six countries in Asia (China, Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Vietnam) to develop quantitative tools and methods to optimize the sustainability of irrigated systems in order to enhance regional food security while minimizing the environmental footprint of rice production. Through this contribution, Switzerland has initiated the development of sustainable rice production indicators which are now adopted by more than 100 private and public organisations.


Skills for Local Economic Development SLED

01.01.2021 - 31.12.2030

Switzerland will explore opportunities for supporting local economic development through vocational skills development in predominantly rural areas in Southern Shan. A focus on market-oriented skills opportunities accessible to young women and men, especially from vulnerable groups will be identified that open life-long learning opportunities to improve livelihood options and support peace building and security in conflict-affected areas.


Joint Peace Fund

01.01.2021 - 31.12.2027

After 60 years of conflict, the government and 8 Ethnic Armed Groups have signed a National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in October 2015, opening up a unique opportunity to find lasting peace. The Joint Peace Fund is a multi-donor fund set up to channel coordinated international support for such efforts, including the implementation of the NCA and following political dialogue of the peace process, a requirement for development especially in border areas.


P4H – Global Network for Health Financing and Social Protection

01.01.2021 - 30.04.2024

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the need for sustainable financing of health systems so that they can adequately respond to shocks and maintain quality essential services even during a health crisis. The Global Network for Health Financing and Social Protection (P4H) provides coordinated support of multilateral and bilateral partners to low and middle-income countries that want to raise more domestic resources for health and use available financing effectively for key health priorities.


Access to COVID-19 Diagnostics

01.09.2020 - 31.12.2023

Testing the right people, at the right moment and with the right tool is essential for the Covid-19 pandemic management. Both the Swiss international cooperation and the Swiss pharmaceutical sector have a long-standing experience and interest in supporting R&D, access and manufacturing of diagnostics.. The Foundation for Innovative New Diagnostics (FIND) is leading the global effort (ACT-A Dx Partnership) in the development of affordable COVID-19 diagnostics and local manufacturing capacity for and in LMICs.  


WFP/UNHAS common services for Southeast Asia during COVID-19

12.06.2020 - 31.12.2020

Contribution by two funding entities (Humanitarian Aid and South Cooperation) to support WFP/UNHAS in Southeast  Asia in the framework of the COVID-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan in terms of passenger services, light cargo and MEDEVAC. With passenger planes and air ambulances (air base: Subang/Kuala Lumpur) the freedom of movement of humanitarian and development workers as well as other supporters to the Global Humanitarian Response Plan who got into “land-locked” situations where no commercial capacity is available or possible to use is enhanced by WFP/UNHAS’ air or sea transport services. 


Women and Girls First

01.05.2020 - 31.12.2022

SDC up-scales the “Women and Girls First” program of its priority partner UN Population Fund in southern Shan, where no other donor is present. The program strengthens government, civil society and ethnic health providers’ systems to be responsive to the needs of young people related to sexual reproductive health and rights. It improves access to comprehensive gender-based violence, mental health and psychosocial support services, and enhances social cohesion.


Swiss Water and Sanitation Consortium

01.04.2020 - 30.09.2023

The Swiss Water and Sanitation Consortium (SWSC) contributes to improving the livelihoods of the most vulnerable communities in least developed and developing countries by increasing drinking water and sanitation coverage with a specific focus on WASH in schools and health care facilities. It also contributes to triggering innovation and knowledge sharing between the Swiss NGOs as well as strengthening the Swiss profile in advocacy and policy.

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