By Melanie Sandford ASE (April 2015)
Last year was a long, hot and sticky one for me. In mid March I flew into Yangon, Myanmar. For those not up to date with the name changes, read Rangoon in Burma. It was around 30 degrees, the temperature climbing by the day up to 40. I’m familiar with the place - and the heat - as I’ve been teaching at the Yangon Film School each year since the film school started in 2005.
I was there to edit and supervise the post-production of an 8x45’ local TV drama in a place which had once had a thriving feature film industry but hardly any production of TV drama.
During the oppressive military rule that lasted in Myanmar for over fifty years, one of the ways the military kept its grip on power was through lack of information and the spreading of misinformation. But by 2013, things had started to change.
The idea for the series initially came from Aung San Suu Kyi, known there as The Lady. The funder and Executive Producer of the series was a group called Pyoe Pin, whose funding comes from Europe. Their mission is to help bring about democratic change.
Their plan was to spread the word to everyone about what their entitlements were in a country where human rights had until very recently been a foreign concept.
Devised in a soap opera format, the series is set in Myanmar’s first legal aid centre. The star is a beautiful woman who plays a legal aid lawyer. There are good cops and bad cops, struggling farmers and factory workers and dodgy rich guys - known in Myanmar as Cronies - a whole class unto themselves. Each episode is more or less self-contained.
The director, a respected local man called Aung Ko Latt, normally shoots high-end commercials. The Producer was a local woman with handy contacts in the government. Post-production was being handled by the Yangon Film School, and that’s where I came in.
I’d arrived with a plan about what should happen and how the schedule would unfold, but that soon unravelled. Flexibility would become the “watch-word” of the year for me.
Shooting was due to start a couple of days after I arrived. Meanwhile the two Aussie writers were still struggling to lock-off the first episode. At least by now they were finally able to spend time with a couple of experienced people who knew the ins and outs of the Myanmar legal system. No small feat!
The script kept changing day by day - it was well nigh impossible for the production team to keep up.
The shoot had already been delayed several times and finally couldn’t be held up any longer - otherwise we’d bump into the monsoon season that starts in mid May and buckets down until well into September. It would make shooting much more difficult. The pressure was on.
So there I was, with my team. Two editors, one assistant and a guy to give me some technical help. Zaw Win Hwte was an experienced local editor. He’d done a lot of feature films. The second editor, Khin Myanmar, still had her training wheels on but it was a great team. Very supportive of each other and me.
We set up the first editing room in a cheap hotel near the airport. Three Macbook Pros with FCP on them, one big drive I got from Mark Truelove and a few 4TB Lacies. None of the drives were connected to each other.
I was living at the hotel too. I’d stayed there before, but only during workshops when the hotel normally frequented by missionaries, had been full of students and tutors. It felt very different now. Breakfast was included, the same every morning, - fried egg on sweet white bread, rancid butter and sickly red jam. I had it twice then preferred to get a taxi to the Lucky Seven teashop for a bowl of the delicious spicy national dish, Mohginga.
The first lot of rushes came in. I freaked. One scene, one shot. Double system. I’d asked about this before I arrived and been assured they’d be shooting single system. Maybe they didn’t understand what I was asking about?
The sound came in on nine unmarried tracks for each shot and it sounded like it was recorded through a dirty old sock. There were a few other ‘issues’ as well to do with lack of props and costumes. Help!
Once I stopped hyperventilating I rang the EP. He was on his way to the airport - bound for London. The upshot of that call was that the next day I went to the set to try and ‘sort it out’. I had a few discreet words with Director Aung Ko Latt who was very receptive. The sound guy was harder to talk to, he had no English, I have no Burmese. I think these guys buy expensive equipment but then can’t read the manuals. Of course, there’s no Burmese translation of the manuals!
It was the first trip of many I made to the set. The props, or lack of, took longer to ‘sort’. After the first week it became clear that the three-month schedule was but a dream. Shooting ended up taking four and a half months. I took a Yangon Film School sound guy, Kyaw Ko Ko, onto location to talk to the soundman. He proudly showed my guy where he’d put his radio mics… on the back of the actresses neck! Kyaw Ko Ko suggested that this wasn’t a great idea and asked him to stop compressing his tracks.
When the monsoon started, shooting moved into a studio. I could see the paint drying on the studio walls in the first lot of rushes and not a prop to be seen anywhere. Some problems, like camera and sound not staying in sync, were never sorted. Zin Mar Oo, the assistant, soon became the most experienced syncer in the country. She used WaveAgent software to marry up the tracks.
My technical man in Myanmar did a runner shortly after we started, so having people I could call or email in those situations was a blessing. Murray North and Mike Gissing, I love you both! Google was my other great teacher.
After a while things settled down. Coverage improved, as did the performances. Most actors in Myanmar come from the modelling world and I’m not really sure how much directors interfere with actor’s ‘styles’. Some were a bit over the top, almost slapstick, others were pretty good. The Actors also do their own wardrobe and the main actors bring their own makeup artists.
It was all in Burmese, so it was much easier for the two editors to do a first pass, rough-cutting each scene. Episode One was twice the length it should’ve been on first cut. With the quality of performances so varied, it certainly gave us stuff to cut out. After I put the first two eps together the editors then took on three episodes each.
Our working style gradually evolved. We would all watch each other’s eps and give feedback. When there was time, Zin Mar Oo the assistant also had a go at editing a few scenes.
I tried hard to get the director to come in but he only managed to see a couple of episodes at rough-cut stage. He was very happy with what we were doing. Phew. The producer never made an appearance. I did some fine cutting on some of the eps, but was mainly concentrating on the music and doing subtitles. I am now completely blind. FCP’s text box really is the end.
In the meantime we changed hotels one more time before finally relocating to the Film School House much closer to the heart of Yangon. I was much happier there - even if I was sleeping in my editing room. At least I was in a house that felt like a home. Zin Mar Oo and another woman called Snow lived there too. They are both fabulous cooks.
A couple of courses were taking place while I was there with students coming and going throughout the day. I counted 21 people coming through my room in just one day.
Fiona Strain came over twice to teach a couple of beginners workshops. That was really nice, a fellow Aussie to eat, drink and gossip with!
Shooting continued all the way through monsoon season, but by the end of August we were locked off. I came home for a break while the Censorship Board took their time putting the series through its paces. In the past, Censorship in Myanmar has been a heavy-handed business, although in the last few years things are said to have opened up. This series would be a test-case of how much had really changed.
The elements we all thought they’d take issue with passed with no problem; for instance, the ‘bad cop’ who implies he takes bribes and the corrupt crony who fixes an election. Instead, what the censors focused on were a couple of characters not wearing motorcycle helmets. They also insisted that a shot be cut out as we’d ‘crossed the line’ - as in screen direction ‘crossing of the line’. We hadn’t - but we removed the offending shot anyway!
In early November I went back for two months to do the online, supervise the sound mix, composition of the music and the colour grade. But at least the weather had cooled down to a mere 32 degrees!
The series is going to air at the moment. Huge billboards are up all around the city advertising THE SUN, THE MOON & THE TRUTH, and there’s a bit of a buzz about Myanmar’s top TV drama.
Unfortunately I missed the big launch party but I heard on the grapevine there was lots of singing. The Burmese love to sing and they love to party. They have a great sense of humour too. It was a great experience and I wouldn’t trade a second of it.
If enough people would like to see an episode I’d be happy to have screening.
Let me know… email@example.com
Fiona made a short film about me for the ASE accreditation reunion. Snow shot it. I thought it was just Snow practicing her camera skills, they were very sneaky!
Here a link to it:
By Fiona Strain ASE
Last year I got a call from Melanie Sandford. She had been teaching editing at the Yangon Film School workshops in Myanmar for a number of years and was now involved in Myanmar’s first soap opera. Would I like to spend six weeks mentoring young Burmese film-makers in 'The Art of Documentary” course? It was a great opportunity to visit a unique place in the world, so didn’t take me long to say yes.
Mel picked me up from the airport, it was monsoon season, so after settling into the taxi (no seatbelts- right hand drive car driving on the right-hand side of the road..), we headed into town, tyres swooshed through a massive pool of water which flew through the driver’s window into my face. Welcome to Yangon!
The students were enthusiastic beginners, some with a bit of film-making knowledge, all ready to learn the whole documentary process, from hunting down good characters, stories and locations, through budgeting, filming, scripting and of course post production. All in six weeks.
I felt very privileged to be on board right from the beginning of the course, to get to know this group of twelve talented young people, as well as advise them on things to think about right from the beginning, not just to “fix it in post”.
The warm up stage of the workshop gave me some unique insight into the lives of these students. Their daily lives involved dealing with armed ethnic conflict, drug-addicted villages, not being allowed to speak their native tongue, and difficulties in gaining an education. One girl took three years to matriculate, she had to study in secret at night, because her father would hold a knife to her throat if he caught her studying. Many had to go to bed early as there was no electricity in their village. One girl said that the students used to sneak into the school office to touch the computer, it was such a novel thing.
Their initial stories would come from around the hotel where this residential course was being held. The students spent some time learning the fundamentals of filming picture and sound from tutors Ivan from Prague and Rolf from Germany. The students interviewed each other to practise, then made short films on things such as the hotel house-keeping girl who dreamed of her boyfriend on the front-line, the local bicycle repair man and the local construction worker who earned $5 a day.
One group filmed a woman who sold betel-nut from a bamboo hut. Her stall was in a picturesque setting, by a creek. Halfway through the interview she screamed and leapt into the creek, as a school of fish came through. She laughed and splashed waist deep as she caught fish with her hands.
The films were being edited on Final Cut Pro, with previous beginner students acting as editors- Zinmar Oo, Zaw Naing Oo, May Htoo Cho, Sai Nji Nji, and later Khin Myanmar. Once rushes came in, I focused on mentoring these young editors and guiding the storytelling process. There were two editing mentors - myself and Tuula from Finland. The process was similar to any film school, with all students watching and commenting on rushes, then director and editor hunkering down to sort out the paper edit, cards on the wall and ideas flying around as fast as the cards.
All rushes needed to have the dialogue translated from Burmese to English, so that we tutors could follow the story. This meant that we really didn’t have a great understanding of things until the rough cut stage. We discussed edits and progressed through to fine cut and lock off with these first films, which were all about five minutes long.
Meanwhile the students were planning their final films which were much more ambitious- 15minutes and going to far flung locations. Production planning involved the usual things, budget and travel, but also considerations of “what will you do if you are arrested going into the black zone?” or “how do you avoid stepping on a land mine in an area where armed conflict is occurring?”. We international tutors were not allowed on location- probably best!
There was a little quiet time between films which allowed me to do some sight seeing around Yangon, with Mel being my intrepid tour guide, visiting the amazing Pagodas and markets. Just travelling about in a taxi showed up what a plain life we live here. Street markets were alive day and night, cars, buses, taxi’s, bicycles and trishaws all somehow avoiding people dashing across the roads. No-one seemed to eat at home, at night the street stalls gradually pushed out onto the road, people sitting on tiny seats eating things on skewers.
One group of students did get close to being arrested while filming, they intended to film guards from opposing sides of a conflict and ended up filming an ice-cream seller who then was banned from selling his ice-creams.
All students returned to base with around five to seven hours of rushes each, (when advised to shoot half that!) and the next round of rushes began. It was fun to be able to help the students focus their ideas, find the heart of their story and the strongest characters. They all had to face the idea of cutting their rough cut to at least half its length when they really felt there was no way they could.
They had to sort out some technical issues as they had gathered archive and stills, as well as shooting some second camera footage on mobile phones, which needed to somehow match the XDCam. The students worked beautifully as teams, and worked up extraordinary stories.
One group found a former bodyguard of Aung San Suu Kyi, who now works as a free legal advisor to his community, but the story ended being that of his wife as the heartbreak, poverty and loneliness of a political life took its toll.
There were mystical films of legend, the legacy of war, a female bus conductor’s 17 hour days, and the simple life of a family on a rubber plantation.
There was the story of the barber who’s hands danced like a ballerina’s over his clients hair, talking of a busy minister he followed across the country, washing his hair in one place, dying it in the next, cutting in another and having to fly home the next day. He told stories of corruption, loss and change, but with great humour.
There was also the story of the girl who works for a monk. She wishes to work with computers, but the monk believes she is better off teaching, and has banned her from seeing her boyfriend.
At the end of the course I went on a short holiday with Mel to visit the extraordinary pagodas of Bagan. I flew home, then turned around eight weeks later to teach another course.
In all I spent four months in Myanmar mentoring 16 amazing films, worked with an intensly dedicated team from around the world, in an incredibly supportive environment for young film-makers, and gained a unique insight into a country that is changing all too quickly as it moves from a military dictatorship to democracy.