Locarno: Thu Thu Shein Discusses Myanmar’s Budding Independent Film Industry, the Value of Collaboration

‘We have to really work together,’ declares Open Doors Lab participant

Thu Thu Shein, Locarno 2016
Courtesy: Thu Thu Shein

LOCARNO  — The Open Doors Lab at the Locarno Film Festival gathers producers from Southeast Asia to provide them with training and individual assistance from industry professionals. Thu Thu Shein, a driving force in independent filmmaking in Myanmar, was one of the producers at this year’s edition. Shein, a director and editor as well, is no stranger to the festival environment, having founded a vital short film festival in Yangon. Variety sat down with Shein to discuss the state of independent film in her country.

Talk about your background: How did you start out? 

I started making short documentary films in 2005; I did two as a director and I also worked as a cinematographer and editor for other film projects. I got an offer from one production house from the mainstream industry because they knew that I could edit. They produced music videos so I accepted and I worked as an editor for six months. I didn’t like it, because I was editing music videos so it’s not really creative. Just models running around in the park. I really couldn’t stand it so I quit the job. Luckily in 2006 there was a filmmaking workshop happening in Myanmar organized by FAMU [the Film and TV School of the Academy of the Performing Arts in Prague]. Also [one by] another group called Yangon Film School, it’s a German based organization. I was attending all the possible filmmaking workshops.

What inspired you to co-found a short film festival [the Wathann Film Festival]? 

My friends [make] films, but there’s no place to screen [them]. That’s why we decided to have a film festival in Myanmar so that independent films can screen. I was lucky that I got a scholarship to study in FAMU for four years, so every school break I’d run back home and organize a festival. And I got a chance to travel a little bit in Europe. I travelled to film festivals, and I learned from that and then I made a film festival in Yangon in 2011. This year is our 6th edition.

And you’re helping filmmakers to transition from short documentary to longer features? 

I know a lot of young filmmakers who work on short documentaries and also short fiction films. Two years ago, we realized it was time to expand to feature films. So we started to work with other filmmakers on their scripts. Now we are preparing three scripts, two fiction and one documentary, related to social problems.

You are a producer, an editor, a cinematographer—do you do this by necessity or because you like doing all of them? 

If I have a friend who’s available for the editing, I let him do it. If they’re really busy I do it by myself.

Is there one role you like the best out of those? 

I think I would choose producer. Because in our film industry, we don’t have creative producers. The producer’s an investor. I’m also involved in the script and pre-production. I also take care of all the budgeting, and shooting—the whole process through to the post production.

What would you say is the hardest practical production concern for you as a producer in Myanmar?

We have a very good team, but the thing is: it’s hard to find a good scriptwriter. We have a story, but only a few people—one, two people—can really write a script. As a festival we organize a scriptwriting workshop and a basic filmmaking workshop. We also publish books about scriptwriting. We’ve already published two books that we got from FAMU. One is written by Jan Fleischer. We translated his book into Burmese and distributed it to independent filmmakers who wanted to learn scriptwriting. Because we realize storytelling is important. Other things will follow.

You got to work with film [at FAMU] but in Myanmar you’ve worked with digital video. Is that an aesthetic choice or is film not available in Myanmar? 

I think we were really lucky to shoot on film during our FAMU school time. In Yangon we don’t use any film stock. It’s expensive to get film stock and develop[ment] stopped running. There’s no way we will go back to film stock, we’re going to shoot the fiction films in digital.

As you begin to help some of these directors and filmmakers make feature films, we are curious to know what the film landscape is like in general in Myanmar. Among the filmmakers you work with, [is there] a collective sensibility or a sign of any defined movements? 

What we realize is…it will come as a wave. We have to really work together. If my friend is working on a script, we all put all our effort on his film. When it’s finished, he helps me for my films. That’s what works, a movement. Otherwise, if I finish one film and I don’t have the other people, it stops. There will be a gap, there won’t be other films coming out.

Speak about specific filmmakers that we should keep an eye on when it comes to Myanmar films. 

The Maw Naing, he made [his] first independent feature fiction film, shown here in the Open Doors section. He’s one of the students from FAMU. A few other documentary filmmakers who started to prepare their feature length documentary and fiction: Soe Moe Aung, Shin Daewe. Shin Daewe is a really strong woman documentary filmmaker. I’ve been producing her documentary film for NHK TV this year. And Thaiddhi, my husband. He’s working on his fiction film script, together with Aung Min. Min is also a very important scriptwriter. He wrote the script of “The Monk,” from The Maw Naing. In a few years they will come out.