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From Myanmar to China, the cinema industry tests the limits of censorship

Myanmar's once-celebrated film industry is enjoying a revival after years of funding shortages and suffocating censorship, highlighting a quiet effort that could change Asia.

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A man cleans items displayed at the Film Museum in downtown Yangon July 17, 2013. Myanmar movie director Zay Par is doing what would have been unthinkable two years ago - putting the finishing touches to a film that harks back to a 1988 student uprising brutally put down by military rulers.

Jared Ferrie/Reuters

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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 risqué – 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, a cultural critic based in Hong Kong. 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. Mr. Lou built up a huge cult following on the back of his ban and when he returned to make a film in China six years later, the censors allowed it to be screened with cuts made to some of the more violent scenes.

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In Laos, a relatively thriving film scene was all but wiped out when the Communist government took over in 1975. Today there is only one cinema in the capital Vientiane. But all that may soon change if a new organization, Laos New Wave Cinema, have their way.

“We saw what was happening to film in Vietnam and China and we wanted to encourage the same to happen here,” says the group’s founder, Anysay Keola. He directed Laos’ first thriller, “At the Horizon” in 2011, a relatively controversial film for Laos about a spoilt rich child and a working class mechanic.

The film was initially banned for being too violent but then later screened with some changes. For Mr. Keola, that was a sign of great progress. “I see it as a five or 10 year process,” he says. “We still have a long way to go, but I think there is a great future for our cinema industry.”

The big hurdle the Laos New Wave Cinema and other indie filmmakers all over Asia face is finance. Asia’s multi-billion-dollar cinema industry is one of the biggest in the world but it’s driven by ticket sales of blockbusters, which more than ever are produced or altered to comply with government censorship regulations.

This not only has the effect of normalizing the idea that politics should be kept out of cinema, argues Burmese film festival curator, Min Htin, it also stifles creativity.

“The reason Myanmar’s film industry has declined is not because of the censor board,” he worries. “It’s because filmmakers are not interested in making films that would attract international recognition. They are only interested in making money.”

In the short run, says Mr. Min Htin, popular dramas like the film being made in Yangon right now may reflect a greater sense of freedom felt by filmmakers to cover everyday subjects that in the past were taboo, but they do little to add to the political landscape.

He recently staged Myanmar’s first human rights festival in June, with little resistance from the government and says he hopes it helps inspire a new generation of filmmakers in Myanmar to truly take advantage of increased media freedoms.

“The censors didn’t cut a frame of any of the films we screened,” he says. “I hope some of the young guys who came to see the human rights films will be inspired to go away and make their own projects that really reflect what’s going on in this country.”


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