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 26

Responsible Business Fund Plus (RBF+)

01.07.2024 - 30.06.2028

Myanmar’s post-coup conflict escalation and economic turmoil has led to financial and economic instability and destabilised the agrifood industry. Also, extreme weather and climate change further impact farmers and agricultural processors. The Responsible Business Fund Plus project aims to support agrifood businesses while reducing their environmental impact and thus deepening Switzerland's commitment to private sector engagement and an inclusive green economy.


Community-based Health Services and System Strengthening Support in Sagaing

01.05.2024 - 30.04.2027

Three years after the military coup in Myanmar, targeted attacks and scrutiny in the health sector by the military junta led to a partial or total lack of access to healthcare in various regions, particularly in the dry zone. Through this project, Switzerland aims to support locally-led and inclusive community-based health system in Sagaing to provide essential, emergency, quality primary health care services, while ensuring the transition to a new decentralized and inclusive health system.


WFP: Building Resiliency & Self-Reliance

15.11.2023 - 14.11.2024

The Swiss contribution to the World Food Programme’s Country Strategic Programme will foster and enhance resiliency through agricultural skilling and increased access to income, allowing for the Rohingya refugees to become more self-reliant and support their basic needs. As a contributor to a multi-donor framework, Switzerland can simultaneously leverage durable solutions advancement in the Rohingya response while ensuring service delivery for the most vulnerable in the refugee camps. 


Support to the Internal Displacement Solutions Fund (IDSF)

01.09.2023 - 31.07.2028

By the end of 2022, 71.1 million people were living in internal displacement worldwide, a 20 per cent increase in a year and the highest number ever recorded (IDMC 2023). Switzerland is actively supporting the implementation of the UN Secretary General’s Action Agenda on solutions to internal displacement with its different instruments. Supporting the newly established Internal Displacement Solutions Fund (IDSF) represents a game-changer in supporting joint UN country level solutions to internal displacement. 


Strengthening Civil Society in Myanmar – Paung Ku

01.07.2023 - 30.06.2027

In Myanmar, civic space has considerably shrunk since the military coup. In the absence of a legitimate government, networks of independent civil society organisations (CSOs) are essential actors for basic service provision and promotion of democratic values and human rights. Showing commitment to localisation, Switzerland will enable local CSOs to further support vulnerable communities and to protect the foundations of a pluralistic and inclusive society.  


P4H – Social Health Protection Network

01.07.2023 - 31.12.2025

Sustainably financed health systems are better able to respond to shocks such as a health crisis and are also in a better position to respond to patients’ health needs without exposing them to financial hardship. The P4H Social Health Protection Network provides coordinated support to low-and middle-income countries that want to raise more domestic resources for health and use available financing effectively for key health priorities. 


Myanmar - Strengthened self-reliance of displacement-affected communities in Shan, Rakhine and Kayah States (SSDC)

15.06.2023 - 14.06.2026

Myanmar’s prolonged civil war intensified by the military coup has displaced more than 1.8 million civilians and caused immense suffering. Local actors have been faster, more effective and generally better placed to respond to humanitarian and basic needs of displacement-affected communities. Switzerland will strengthen localization of aid by partnering with Meikswe, a multi-sectoral local NGO operating in the nexus, to increase protection and self-reliance of affected communities.


Myanmar - Joint Peace Fund (JPF)

01.06.2023 - 30.05.2027

The conflict in Myanmar is the world's longest ongoing civil war, having lasted more than seven decades. As there is no development without peace, Switzerland supports the Joint Peace Fund (JPF), a multi-donor fund, for joint action on the peace process launched in 2016. Following the military coup where levels of conflict have risen exponentially, the fund focuses on conflict transformation rather than peace and prepare stakeholders to engage in dialogue and negotiations.


Women and Girls First

01.05.2023 - 31.12.2026

In Myanmar, the pandemic and military coup have increased the risks for gender-based violence (GBV) and deep-rooted gender inequality. Through the Women and Girls First programme, Switzerland supports women, girls and young people to realise their sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and fulfil their potential. It does so by strengthening community-based and ethnic systems to be more responsive to needs related to GBV, SRHR and mental health.


Myanmar: Primary Health Care

01.05.2023 - 30.04.2026

The military coup in Myanmar has interrupted the progress towards Universal Health Coverage (UHC) and provoked a quasi-collapse of the public health system. Through the Primary Health Care project, Switzerland supports conflict-affected communities in Karen State by providing essential lifesaving healthcare and quality basic maternal and child health services through strengthening the ethnic health system and the community-based service provision.


VSDP - Vocational Skills Development Programme

01.04.2023 - 31.07.2028

COVID-19 and the military coup had a negative impact on the availability of jobs, economic resilience and access to training in Myanmar. This last phase of the VSDP project aims to provide an alternative for women and youth to get relevant training and (self-) employment while supporting micro-, small and medium-sized enterprises to improve their income, contribute to learning and create jobs. The project builds on Switzerland’s strategic position and experience in the vocational training sector.


Bamboo Climate Action

15.03.2023 - 31.03.2026

Aligned with Switzerland’s Climate Change and Environment and Social Cohesion priorities the project builds on existing market systems expertise to establish bamboo as a nature-based solution able to address the environmental and economic vulnerabilities of host and refugee communities in a protracted crisis. Thus, bamboo aims to enhance livelihoods and risk mitigation caused by the impacts of climate change and disasters. This nexus project supports Bangladesh’s Social Forestry initiatives and works across humanitarian and development axis. 

Object 1 – 12 of 26