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.

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Mekong River Commission (MRC) – Strategic Plan 2016-2020

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The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has been supporting the Mekong River Commission (MRC) since the signing in 1995 of the “Agreement on Cooperation for the Sustainable Development of the Mekong River Basin (a.k.a. “1995 Mekong Agreement”) by the governments of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam until 2005. In 2011, SDC reinstated its support and contributed to 3 of MRC’s Programmes, namely the Basin Development Planning, the Environment, and the Flood Mitigation and Management Programmes. Currently, SDC supports the MRC with a contribution of CHF 7.5 million to a multi-donor basket fund for implementing the new Strategic Plan 2016-2020.


Joint Peace Fund (JPF)

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The Joint Peace Fund (JPF) is a multi-donor fund for joint action in, on and around the peace process, bringing together conflict parties (GoM and armed groups), civil society organizations and international donors. The JPF is managed by the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) and a Technical Secretariat from the Nordic International Support Foundation (NIS). As there is no peace without development and no development without peace, this fund is crucial for a concerted action of all stakeholders.


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Migration to Thailand has increasingly become a poverty reduction strategy for marginalized households. It gives a higher income to the individual and, through remittances supports their community of origin. However migrants are often exposed to precarious labour conditions. PROMISE promotes skills development and safe migration and improves thus the livelihoods of the migrants in Thailand and their communities of origin in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.


WFP Secondment Protection and Gender Advisor

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In Myanmar especially conflict affected and rural populations suffer from moderate to severe malnutrition; but also extreme weather conditions may increase the situation of food insecurity. In recent years there have been reports on protection gaps in the implementation of WFP programmes and women and children are struggling to receive support. The secondment will provide technical support in the domain of protection and gender to the WFP country program.


Skills Development Programme (SDP)

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Regional Biotrade Project Southeast Asia

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