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 13 – 24 of 31

Vocational Skills Development Programme (VSDP)

01.05.2018 - 30.04.2022

Over 11’000 women and men will directly benefit from improved access to relevant and recognised skill development and employment opportunities in selected urban and rural areas, particularly in the South East of Myanmar, Yangon and Mandalay. The programme will further contribute to strengthening the overall vocational training system in Myanmar through strategic partnerships with the government of Myanmar and private sector partners from selected industries.


Gulf of Mottama Project (GoMP)

15.04.2018 - 31.12.2021

One of the greatest challenges in the current reform process in Myanmar is the governance of natural resources. In the globally significant wetlands of the Gulf of Mottama (GoM), this project strengthens the capacities of government and communities to effectively manage, govern and value its coastal natural resources to sustainably improve livelihoods of people depending on them, while reducing the pressure on natural resource and conserving its unique environment and threatened biodiversity.


Generating Rubber Opportunities project (GRO)

01.01.2018 - 31.12.2021

The production of natural rubber is a key livelihood activity of farmers in Mon and Kayin State and northern Tanintharyi region. CARE International is mandated to implement a Market Systems Development project to work with all market actors and particularly the support institutions (meso level) for improving information, market access and access to inputs for 25,000 farmers as well as improving working conditions of particularly women in rubber plantations.



Regional and Local Economic Development in the East West Corridor (RLED-EWEC)

01.08.2017 - 31.10.2019

The “Regional Local economic Development – East West Corridor” Project (RLED-EWEC)” has been implemented since 2013 by the Mekong Institute, an intergovernmental organisation with the mandate to build human resources capacities in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS). The proposed two year phasing out will consolidate and scale up results. 5’500 smallholder farmer households will increase income and the environment for cross-border trade will be improved.



Emergency support to IRC integrating GBV services, Protection and Health for conflict-affected communities in Rakhine State, Myanmar

01.06.2017 - 31.03.2018

This project will allow IRC to provide protection, GBV and health services to respond to identified urgent needs of conflict-affected communities in Rathedaung in Rakhine State, Myanmar, through a 7 months integrated protection, Gender-Based Violence (GBV) and health response. Both, Muslim and Rakhine communities will benefit from the outcomes of this project.


Strengthening Land Governance

01.06.2017 - 31.05.2021

In the past 12 months, close to 10’000 claims on land were registered with state/regional governments. This project addresses land issue from three different angles: 1) OneMap Myanmar, implemented by the University of Bern, facilitates multi-stakeholder processes based on accurate land data; 2) the Land Core Group is THE voice of Civil Society in policy making around land; and 3) the Transnational Institute builds the capacity and networks of ethnic civil society organisations for their effective participation in policy and peace processes.


Emergency response to address malnutrition through improved nutrition, mental health and care practices in Maungdaw District, Rakhine State

01.05.2017 - 31.05.2018

The violence that took place on October 9 2016, and the ensuing insecurity across Northern Rakhine State (NRS), resulted in the suspension of humanitarian services in the area. Many of the affected people missed out on their seasonal food assistance, school feeding and regular nutrition support for at least three months, resulting in a significant negative impact on the food security, health and nutritional status, and mental health of vulnerable families. With this emergency response, Action Contre la Faim (ACF) will address increased malnutrition through an integrated program, which aims to reduce child and Pregnant and Lactating Women (PLW) undernutrition, mortality and morbidity.


Advancement of priority topic SGBV in SDC/HA

01.01.2017 - 31.12.2020

Sexual and Gender-based Violence (SGBV) is a serious, life-threatening issue in humanitarian settings and a new priority topic of SDC/HA. The intervention aims at promoting this new priority topic within SDC/HA through targeted, strategic interventions and on the basis of the operational concept on SGBV approved by SDC/HA in 2016. While this credit proposal sets the framework and criteria for such strategic interventions the individual actions will be administered by partial actions.


CORIGAP: Closing rice yield gaps in Asia

01.12.2016 - 31.12.2020

SDC supports IRRI (international Rice Research Institute) and its national research and extension partners in six major rice granaries of Asia (China, Indonesia, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam) to develop science-based, quantitative tools and participatory methods to i) generate evidence, and ii) optimize ‘integrated sustainable irrigated rice production systems’ in order to increase rice yield and enhance regional and global food security while minimizing the environmental footprint of irrigated rice production.


Township Democratic Local Governance (TDLG)

01.12.2016 - 31.12.2020

In Mon State, with a traditionally strong Swiss presence, the project promotes a participatory, inclusive and transparent process around development grants, in order to improve the delivery of basic services at Township and village levels. Together with the state’s authorities, with the aim of including the governance structures of the Ethnic Armed Groups, the living conditions and space for democracy for the local people in ten Townships should improve with tangible development results.

Object 13 – 24 of 31