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

Object 1 – 12 of 32

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

01.01.2021 - 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.


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.


Skills for Local Economic Development SLED

01.07.2020 - 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.


Livelihoods and Food Security Fund - LIFT

01.07.2019 - 30.06.2024

The Livelihoods and Food Security Fund (LIFT) is a multi-donor fund, coordinating and contributing aid to rural development in Myanmar. Within its strategy period 2019-2023 LIFT will benefit 3.7 million additionl people with a strong focus on leaving no one behind, while working on more inclusive government policies and supporting the private sector. As chair for the LIFT Fund Board in the coming 12 months, Switzerland will ensure LIFT’s conflict-sensitivity and benefit from additional access to key decision makers.


Choosing coffee over poppy - a public-private partnership (Myanmar)

01.06.2019 - 31.05.2023

In Southern Shan State infrastructure, access to basic services and income opportunities are scarce. Poverty and malnutrition are omnipresent and out-migration is high. Building on a private-public partnership with Malongo, a French coffee company and Walter Matter SA, a Swiss logistics firm, SDC supports the Green Gold coffee cooperative and its 900 members to become a sustainable and business-oriented organisation.


International Humanitarian Law, Security Sector Governance and Leadership in Transition

15.03.2019 - 31.12.2019

The project aims to increase the capacities of middle-ranked officers of the Myanmar Defence Forces to (1) drive forward reforms which improve the adherence of the Myanmar Defence Forces to Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law, (2) to improve protection of civilians in armed conflict and (3) to support reforms towards democratic control of armed forces.


Festival del Film Locarno 2019-2021

01.01.2019 - 31.12.2021

The promotion of cultural diversity is anchored in the Swiss Constitution as part of sustainable development. Switzerland’s support of artists from Africa, Latin America, Asia and Eastern Europe is contributing to diversity in the analysis of social issues ensuring fundamental values in a democratic system. SDC’s partnership with the Locarno Festival supports independent filmmaking through the special Section Open Doors. Participants from Southeast Asia gain visibility, networks, knowledge, and opportunities for film production.



Access to Health Fund (ACCESS)

01.01.2019 - 31.12.2023

The Access to Health Fund (previously 3MDG), is strongly committed to deliver health services in conflict-affected areas to populations beyond the reach of government. By supporting State and Ethnic Health Organizations, the fund contributes to trust, fosters coordination, and mitigates causes of conflict. The Swiss contribution represents a continuation of support to Myanmar's health actors towards achieving universal health coverage.


Primary Health Care (PHC)

01.01.2019 - 31.12.2022

The Primary Health Care project uses a convergent approach to improve the health status of vulnerable people in four conflict-affected townships in Kayin State. It contributes to peace, and brings together the Ministry of Health and Sports and Ethnic Health Organizations. Basic health services are strengthened through better coordination, training, supervision and supplies. Communities are empowered to achieve better health and feedback mechanisms are introduced. 


CDNH: Conflict prevention Rakhine

01.11.2018 - 30.04.2021

After the events in Rakhine in August 2017, violence and communal tensions are still prevailing and mistrust has increased among and between communities, state and village officials and security authorities. The need to gather the stakeholders around conflict prevention, livelihood skills enhancement, conflict analysis and gender and civic education is repeatedly expressed by all. This project helps to improve the relationship between the main key actors in and around Rakhine to lower the potential of further tensions, abuses and install trust-building mechanisms.

Object 1 – 12 of 32