Filmmakers from Myanmar and Russia on collaborating across borders

    • Festival
    • November 25, 2021
    • By Vladan Petkovic

    The IDFA Industry Talk "Filmmaking collaborations across borders in a dangerous world" took place on Sunday at the Brakke Grond, with Nina Guseva, Petr Lom, Corinne van Egeraat and Bo Thet Htun, where in an engaging and emotional discussion they spoke about dangers of making political films under authoritarian regimes, and their hopes for the future.

    The talk featured Russian director Nina Guseva whose film The Case and three filmmakers behind the short film Letter to San Zaw Htway: director Petr Lom, producer Corinne van Egeraat, and cinematographer Bo Thet Htun. Both films world-premiered in the Frontlight section.

    Moderator Margje de Koning, Artistic Director of Movies that Matter festival, opened the conversation by inviting Guseva to speak about her film, in which she follows human rights lawyer Maria Eismont as she defends political activist Konstantin Kotov who has been sentenced to four years in prison for taking part in the peaceful protests in Moscow in July 2019.

    Guseva studied at the independent Moscow Documentary Film School and says she wasn't interested in politics until her diploma project required her to find a hero for her film.

    "When Maria was working as a journalist she wrote about torture in Russian prisons, and I was really shocked and interested, so I texted her and I started to follow her with a camera. Two months later, the Moscow protests happened and this is where the story of my film begins," she explained.

    Risking a spoiler, the moderator and the director revealed that after Eismont drew a lot of media attention to the case, a journalist asked Putin about it. The verdict was suddenly changed to one and a half years of prison.

    "I was often asked if it was Putin who decided to change the sentence, but it is very hard to tell. It was at the same time, Maria applied to Constitutional Court, and the same month Putin was asked this question. So, it is difficult to tell what worked," Guseva said.

    The director explained that journalists are under huge pressure in Russia today, and that for filmmakers it is not so bad, but that she feels this might change any day and she herself might be threatened.

    "Right now nobody knows what I did, nobody has seen the film. Maybe I will have problems but maybe no one will notice. It's very hard to predict what is going to happen next, every day in Russia is a new surprise for people, lawyers, journalists," she explained.

    Myanmar Coup and Dutch filmmakers

    Based in the Netherlands, Czech-born director Petr Lom and his producer and wife Corinne van Egeraat talked about how they are helping Myanmar filmmakers and journalists get their stories and films out in the world after the military coup that happened in February this year and reintroduced dictatorship in the country for the first time after 2012.

    "Myanmar was a dictatorship until 2012 and then things started radically changing," Lom explained. "They had just started the Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival in Yangon, and we were invited to teach young filmmakers to make films about human rights."

    When the coup happened, many filmmakers reached out to them, looking for help to make films and get them out. Since then, Lom and van Egeraat have been working on three collaborative projects. The first was a short film made by an anonymous director about living in fear and what it's like to still try be creative in these circumstances. This film, entitled Sad Film, went to Venice Film Festival.

    The second project was Letter to San Zaw Htway, about a political prisoner and activist who survived years of torture and got out of prison unbroken. He was an inspiration to human rights activists and creative people all over Myanmar, but he died a few years later from consequences of unsanitary prison conditions. The filmmakers decided to ask his comrades and family to write letters to San Zaw Htway, and used them as a voice over for footage that Lom shot in earlier years, and new segments filmed by Bo Thet Htun, one of their former students.

    "For the first two weeks after the coup we were able to film freely, to take very close shots, but after that it was nearly impossible," Bo Thet Htun recalled. "Once the police saw you with a camera they'd arrest you, even if you were not shooting. If they catch you with footage or photos of the coup or soldiers, they'd arrest you and frame journalists as if they took this footage by force."

    Fearing for his safety, Bo Thet Htun fled to Bangkok in July.

    "We were approached by some of our former students, including Bo," van Egeraat recalled. "They were sending us clips and films and we were trying to see what we can do with this. We came up with the idea to call it the Myanmar Film Collective and that everyone would be anonymous."

    "It's so horrific what's happening in Myanmar and there's so little media attention for it, so we wanted to put the spotlight on it," said Lom.

    Their biggest project, Myanmar Diaries, started out as a short film omnibus. They were sent all kinds of materials in different formats, sometimes rough cuts, sometimes just raw footage, and the filmmakers trusted them to put all this together in a creative way.

    "Now we have picture lock and it's a hybrid film where you go from fiction to documentary in seamless whole, with a lot of citizen-shot footage that's on social media but no one sees it because it's in Burmese," explained Lom.

    Ways to help filmmakers in dangerous countries

    Asked by the moderator what can be done to help Russian filmmakers with getting their films made, Guseva said that the IDFA Bertha Funding she received was crucial to finish her documentary, but that it can be risky.

    "When journalists get funding from European institutions, they get called traitors and foreign agents," she explained.

    However, exposure at IDFA made her hopeful.

    "When I started dealing with this topic I was passionate about it but I felt lonely. When the IBF supported me I was surprised and inspired that people are going to see it," she said.

    Speaking about filmmakers in Myanmar, van Egeraat said: "Bo helped a lot because he is a really good archive researcher and he found a lot of the images that we have collected. That's one way to give attention, if you form it into something that's creative.

    "We already have a trust-based relationship with them, and I guess that festivals and Westerners working in dangerous countries always get to know filmmakers, and I would like to advocate for some kind of buddying up. If you have time and energy there's always ways to help each other. It's a simple formula, and the way we do it by making everybody anonymous. With Myanmar Film Collective, nobody will take a credit.

    "All these prods are low-budget, but we got amazing support from two broadcasters and Dutch Film Fund gave us a special contribution," she explained. "We're getting exposure at Venice and IDFA, that is really encouraging for us and filmmakers who can get their films seen."

    Both films are co-productions with Mette Cheng Munthe-Kaas of the Norwegian company Ten Thousand Images, with the Fritt Ord Freedom of Expression Foundation in Norway as an important supporter.

    Asked what gives him hope, Bo Thet Htun said: "All our news sources are polluted, on one side is government who tells lies and on the other people like me who are trying to show the truth. I can only do what my expertise is: holding a camera and shooting. I don't know a lot about politics but I see that people are suffering and I want to show the truth through my lens. Not only through my lens, but the lens of everyone who is fighting for revolution. Many brave people are shooting, writing, doing everything to make things better."

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