Borbála Kálmán joins one of the most famous actresses of the Myanmar movie industry for an unforgetta-
ble tour in the Motion Picture Museum of Yangon. Well-known as an activist focusing on health education, award-winning Grace Swe Zin Htaik opens the doors of a magical place: the story of a unique and amazing collection about the once golden ages of Burmese cinema is to unfold…
It happened on 13th October 1920. The Royal Cinema, a ‘unique theatre’ in Yangon, presented Love & Liquor: the ‘most costly exclusive Burmese photoplay … the first successful attempt at filmmaking by the Burmans under the directorship of Maung Ohn Maung .. which took months in the making’ – states a sad photocopy of the original document, pinned on the wall of the Myanmar Motion Picture Museum (MMPM) at Wingaba Road, north of Kandawgyi Lake.
An Incomplete Inventory
The old wooden villa hides a remarkable collection of Burmese-related film relics: movie posters, flyers, hand-painted photographs, cameras, post-production machines, costumes, accessories; a category is missing though, the reels themselves. “The socialist regime founded a film council which in 1988 offered its office building for museum purposes; we accepted it as it was, with zero budget. Later, we drafted a constitution to form an organisation. I still believe in the need for a collective voice in the film community,” says Grace Swe Zin Htaik, the only woman among the twenty founders. “Back then, there were no productions for two 0r twenty years – we had no job. Hence we tried to switch from film to video format, which went through a boom in 1990: this is when we requested material from all around – people were in a good mood to collaborate.” This was the making of today’s independent association’s collection.
“The problem is that in Myanmar there is a lack of technical expertise,” continues Grace, “and the sad part of the film industry is that old films are not valued, so they disappear. The Revolutionary Council nationalised the film industry in 1968 – they kept the duplicates of all the films. But due to the lack of constant electric power and the knowledge to control humidity, the preservation and storage of these films did not succeed. The main cause of their disappearance however was a fire that destroyed the archives in the early 80s, the same happened in Mandalay earlier. We used to produce up 70 or 80 movies a year – most of them are gone, negatives and positives as well. It’s just really sad and it’s almost impossible to have access to the limited content that is left,” she adds.
Although the younger film-loving generation of Myanmar has heard of Grace, almost nobody has seen her films. The older generation says the same about the Fifties cinema stars. The once cherished actors and actresses still smile back from shabby magazine-covers sold in the streets, but they have become ghosts. Even the old cinema theatres, those colonial structures that are slowly and tragically being swept away by the newly built, non-aesthetically pleasing condos, screen the latest releases. The old ‘photoplays’ and classics are nowhere today, and with time it becomes even more challenging and expensive to restore the ones that are still ‘alive’. Albeit, the Memory Film Festival Yangon organised for the third time recently in 2015, has made some attempts to save some over half-century old material – all need restoration, if accessible.
The Golden Reels of the Industry
Grace started her career as an actress in 1971 and acted in more than 200 films. In 1991 she stopped, to work in the backstage of the film industry. She knows its history by heart without reading the captions on the Museum walls (sadly only in Burmese today). “In earlier times, when no one had television, movies were the only entertainment. During the first golden age, a decorated car used to go through towns distributing flyers and promoting the stories of the new releases with megaphones, before even the picture was screened. In these days, five studios worked in Myanmar, as well as 108 film production companies; in the early 1960s, every state and division had theatres, over 200 around the country.”
As for statistics, in 1955 for instance, from the 61 produced films, 39 were silent, 19 talkies, and 3 musicals. Silent films then slowly disappeared to give way to talkies, and soon, colour pictures, the first around 1960. “I made my first colour movie in 1986,” says Daw Grace who sometimes worked in productions that were specifically adapted around her, like the film inspired by Chaplin’s The Kid, a picture she highly admires. “From the various characters I played, I preferred to perform strong female characters who have self-confidence, who dare to point out problems,” she remarks with a laugh, convinced that the local film industry never really accepted “smart ladies with a sense of leadership.”
Grace works today as an international relations advisor for the Myanmar film industry. She tries to encourage the younger generation to experiment with animation film, reviving the tradition of Burmese cartoons: the first was created in 1927 – the last was made in 1982, 33 years ago. She also mentions the project of two Myanmar technicians being stationed at Technicolor in Paris that she contributed to: the aim is to bring back some knowledge in film-restoration. “I try to travel the globe and learn about museum practices.”
Self-Preservation if Nothing Else
The Motion Picture Museum of Yangon has truly become the example of ‘self-preservation’ and hence it is a rare pearl. Far away from the world’s latest scenographic and curatorial trends, a slice of Burmese museum customs and practices has been safeguarded there since the late 80s. On the second floor, tiny men gesticulate to a fellow hanging from a flying balloon, while cameras catch the moment; a cameraman swings in a chairlift from a dusty rope, between two hills, capturing the love of a traditionally dressed couple. These charming didactic displays recount the technical process of film shooting through plaster figurines, how directors had to work out some puzzling situations (not being allowed or technically not prepared to go out on locations), or how they had to fight nature when on location. Within the studios, “there was a tight collaboration between painters and filmmakers, especially with directors and cameramen as they had to work out major visual issues to get the right scenes done. Everything was handmade,” says Grace, surrounded by a delightful and perfect model-world.
The Motion Picture Museum of Yangon, albeit the seductiveness of its ‘vintage’ exhibition halls, could certainly tolerate a little more care and less dust without having to give up its distinctive character. It is more important to conserve the remaining facets of the Myanmar movie industry as long as the last rays of this once golden world enlighten the present. The theatres that have been built with the purpose to screen movie films should be part of the country’s heritage without having to fear disappearance. The Southeast Asia Movie Theatre Project, led by Philip Jablon, is visible by means of a blog that shares the results of his research on the stand-alone movie theatres, highlighting venues of Asian cultural hubs, including Yangon. The blog’s photos, taken a only a few years ago, capture cinema facades that today have vanished or are close going. It’s sad that the Myanmar Motion Picture Museum cannot welcome these buildings into its valuable and enchanting spaces. But there is still a place to travel back in time: direction … Wingaba Road!
This article was previously published in MYANMORE’s monthly lifestyle magazine, InDepth #9, July 2015