CRF Blog

The Reckoning

by Bill Hayes

In The Reckoning for Foreign Policy magazine, Francis Wade reports on the re-emergence of the film industry in Burma.

Although the majority of Burmese had never seen one until recently, provocative and artistic films are in Burma’s very nature. As early as 1906, 21 years after Britain took control of the entire country, crowds gathered under the stars in Yangon’s narrow back streets to watch grainy images projected onto cotton sheets. But what started as pure theater evolved into a film scene far more substantial — and political.

By 1920, Britain’s hold on the country was tight. Not only did a small number of British companies dominate the country’s economy, but Indian laborers were brought in to work the country’s jobs, fueling widespread indigenous unemployment. Film became an outlet for nationalist sentiment. In 1931, Parrot Film Co. — led by U Sunny, a hardened patriot unafraid of beaming his anti-British sentiment onto the big screen — debuted 36 Animals, a film exposing the complicity of the colonial police force in illegal gambling.

Other filmmakers soon began casting a critical eye on British rule in Burma. These exposés helped fuel a movement for independence that gathered pace with protests in Yangon and Mandalay by the late 1930s. In 1948, as they shed their colonial possessions in a postwar retrenchment, the British withdrew and Burma became an independent democracy.

But Burma’s brief flirtation with representative government was cut short by a 1962 coup that left the military in charge. It wasn’t until the 1968 rollout of the Film Council, an outfit tasked with using cinema to promote the regime’s ultranationalism, that the dictatorship actively constricted artistic freedom …. [more]