Thursday, August 5, 2010

Burma’s Father of Political Cinema

By Blogger Alinsek AUGUST, 2009 5

Businessman, filmmaker, patriot—“Parrot” U Sonny made a profound mark on Burma’s early film industry

In Burma’s modern history, there have been many artists who have taken great risks to tackle such challenging themes as nationalism, religion and social injustice. Some confronted the authorities of the day to produce works of art that reflected their political views, while others faced financial ruin to remain true to their convictions.

Among the many artistic risk-takers who have had a major impact on Burmese culture, one name stands out from all the rest: the acclaimed filmmaker U Sunny, whose company, Parrot Film Productions, was a pioneer in the field of politically inspired cinema, producing 92 films from 1931 to 1957.

“Parrot” U Sunny, as he was generally known, was an unlikely proponent of art for politics’ sake. In the 1920s, he managed a taxi company owned by an Englishman named Major Parrot, who later retired and sold the business to him for half of what it was worth. The company was extremely successful for a number of years, but began to run into financial trouble as the economy worsened in the 1930s. It was then that U Sunny, after seeing a crowd of filmgoers pouring out of a packed cinema, struck upon the idea of making movies as a way of riding out the Great Depression.

Film production in the early days of Burmese cinema.

In the early days of the Burmese film industry, didactic themes were often the most popular. The first Burmese feature film, for instance, was a 1920 silent movie titled “Myitta Nit Thuyar” (“Love and Liquor”), about a man whose life was ruined by alcohol. The first film by Parrot Film Productions was in a similar vein: titled “36 Kaung” (“36 Animals”), it dealt with the social scourge of gambling.

But from the beginning, U Sunny’s movies were more than just cinematic morality tales. His first film earned the ire of the censors for exposing the role of police corruption in perpetuating illegal gambling activities. Like many later Parrot films, “36 Kaung” was banned for its unflattering portrayal of British colonial rule.

In some ways, U Sunny’s decision to thumb his nose at the colonial authorities could be seen as shrewd marketing. Burma’s film industry emerged at a time of intense nationalist fervor, and as an entrepreneur, he would have been well aware of the tastes of his target audience. But for his colleagues and contemporaries, there was never any doubt that U Sunny was motivated more by patriotism than the pursuit of profit.

As director and film critic Dagon U Ba Tin noted in his book on the early days of Burmese cinema, “Kyundaw ne Myanmar Yokeshin Lawka” (“The World of Burmese Film and I”), U Sunny saw movies first and foremost as weapons of mass communication:

“He guessed that there were around one million Burmese people who read newspapers everyday in the early 1930s, and he believed that there would be about three million who went to the movies. So he established Parrot Film Productions in the belief that film would be an even more effective weapon against the government than newspapers.”

After the underground success of his first movie, U Sunny went on to produce a series of even more provocative titles, including “Doh Doung Lan” (“Our Peacock Flag”), a call to arms aimed at raising political awareness, and “Alantaung” (“Flag Hill”), a tribute to the martyrs of the 1930 peasant revolt led by the monk Saya San.

Concerning the latter film, which won immense critical and public acclaim, he spoke movingly of his desire to honor those who had fallen in the fight against injustice:

“Many good men lost their lives in that uprising, hanged by the brutal government, whereas making this movie cost us only the price of film—a small price to pay to keep their memory, and their dream of independence, alive.”

Sometimes, even U Sunny’s closest colleagues were amazed at how daring his movies could be. Hantharwaddy U Ba Yin, a scriptwriter for Parrot Film Productions, recalled that “U Sunny had no fear of the authorities. Sometimes I was shocked by his defiant attitude.”

Parrot Film Productions’ best-remembered titles were those from the period of the struggle for independence.

Thakinmyo” (“Master”), for instance, was filmed in 1938 to depict the emergence of the Dobama Asiayone (“We Burmans Association”), whose members called themselves thakin (masters) in defiance of the British insistence that the term only be used to refer to colonial authorities. Like so many other Parrot movies, this one was banned for inciting anti-British sentiment.

Of course, Parrot Film Productions was not alone in challenging Burma’s colonial rulers. Myanma Ashwe A1 Film Productions also made movies that dealt with politically sensitive subjects, including a documentary about the 1938 general strike that marked a major turning point in the independence struggle. The film followed Thakin Ba Hein, the then-president of the All Burma Students Union, as he led massive marches by workers in Rangoon.

Sayar Khint, a director at the British Burma Film Production Company, also made a documentary about the uprising, focusing on the crackdown against protesters and the funeral of University of Rangoon student Aung Kyaw, who was killed by baton-wielding riot police. More than 300,000 people attended the funeral in a dramatic show of solidarity with the students who were leading the push to liberate Burma.

These two films were important testaments to the sacrifices of those who took part in the struggle to end Britain’s domination of Burma, but it was U Sunny’s gift for dramatization that really brought the events of those tumultuous times to life.

Parrot Film Productions came out with a rapid succession of films about the uprising, including “Bo Aung Kyaw” (“Leader Aung Kyaw”), “Yaenanmyay” (“Oil Field”) and “Nan Bat Doke” (“Baton”). “Bo Aung Kyaw” combined footage of actual events with a dramatic portrayal of the short life of its eponymous hero, while “Yaenanmyay” sought to reveal the origins of the 1938 general strike in the miserable lives and harsh treatment of oil field workers in central Burma.

Of the three movies, “Nan Bat Doke” was by far the most controversial. The title alone immediately evoked an image of police brutality—an image that was enhanced in the opening credits by writing the letters in blood from the heads of students who had been beaten. At the first screening of the film, many in the audience started shouting anti-government slogans as this gruesome scene appeared. The authorities demanded that the film be renamed, and so it was later released as “Gonyi Thwe” (“Noble Standards”).

Two of U Sonny’s more memorable films were dedicated to the women who committed themselves to the pro-independence cause. “Thakinma,” about female members of the Dobama Asiayone, and “Yebawma” (“Female Fighter”), focused on the role of women who courageously supported the struggle.

Yebawma,” filmed in 1940, was especially notable for its role in chastizing Burmese government officials who worked with the colonial authorities. Although the British granted Burma a limited form of self-government in 1937, many ordinary people felt that the Burmese ministers and parliament members were only looking out for their own interests. This prompted U Sunny to invite a number of prominent Burmese officials to watch a screening of “Yebawma,” to show them what it really meant to work for the good of the people.

But U Sunny did not only go after the high and mighty. In “Once More,” for instance, he warned young Burmese about the dangers of complacency, urging university graduates not to spurn professions they deemed “beneath” them. The film shows how Chinese and Indians living in Burma were able to increase their influence over key sectors of the economy because they did not hesitate to take low-status jobs, while Burmese were only interested in high-level civil service positions.

To further encourage young Burmese to make more of their lives, U Sunny also recognized the need for heroes they could look up to. In the 1947 film “Bogyoke” (“General”), Gen Aung San, the leader who had helped Burma to achieve its long-cherished goal of regaining control of its own destiny, was held up as the sort of person that all Burmese, from the lowest to the highest, could admire for his strength of character and high-minded principles.

Sadly, Burma did not realize the dream of real freedom that U Sunny envisioned, in part because of the assassination of Aung San and other leaders capable of guiding the country through the confusion and turmoil that afflicted the war-torn country in the early years of its independence. Instead, Burma was to descend steadily into misery under successive military regimes.

Despite this betrayal of Burma’s hopes, U Sunny’s cinematic legacy lives on as an inspiration to other Burmese filmmakers and artists who dare to give voice to their nation’s political aspirations. But this has never been more difficult to do than it is today.

As well-known contemporary director Kyi Soe Tun pointed out, “There was more freedom of expression under the British than there is now.” But as the personal sacrifices of people like the comedian Zarganar or the actor Kyaw Thu attest, there are still many artists in Burma who, like U Sunny, combine creativity with the courage to live by their convictions.

Blogger Alinsek

1 comment: