The powerful bond between two female factory workers, and the complex desire it ignites, form the starting point of Myanmar director Aung Phyoe’s feature film debut “Fruit Gathering,” which is being presented as part of Locarno’s Open Doors co-production platform.

Set in working-class Yangon, the film tells the story of a young woman, San, who feels inexplicably drawn to her outspoken and confident co-worker, Theint. As the two grow closer, San is unable to recognize or understand her desires, until the practical realities of life in Myanmar intervene, painfully drawing the two women apart.

“Fruit Gathering” is produced by Myanmar’s Third Floor Production and co-produced by France’s Art-Production and the Czech Republic’s D1 Film. Currently in development, the film is expected to shoot in the fall of 2021. The Open Doors selection marks the third trip to Locarno for Phyoe, whose short film “Cobalt Blue” competed in the festival’s Leopard of Tomorrow section last year. His short “Seasonal Rain” also premiered in the Open Doors Screening in 2017.

Born and raised in Myanmar, Phyoe moved to Singapore to pursue his schooling at the age of 15. When he returned to his home country as a young adult, he found himself exploring the capital as if he were seeing it for the first time. Riding the commuter rail one day, he noticed a solitary young woman crossing the tracks toward a nearby housing complex and was struck by the sadness on her face.

“This image is not uncommon. Many Burmese people, they don’t look very happy,” said Phyoe. “They’re not depressed, but you can always see this burden…on their face.” As the train continued through the city’s roughshod industrial area, he imagined that the woman might be a low-wage garment worker toiling in a nearby factory.

As the seeds of a story took hold, the director tapped into his memories of life as an only child, recalling the loneliness and alienation he felt, as well as the deep attachments he forged with others. “I want to tell this story of someone who is naïve, and who is quite optimistic, and quite hopeful and full of dreams,” he said. “And suddenly when she faces this reality of life, she transforms into someone else. This process of transformation that I was trying to tell is also the sadness that I think I find in [San].”

Phyoe was raised by his mother and grandmother, and has always been drawn to women’s ability to navigate the demands placed on them in modern-day Myanmar. “We are a traditional, very conservative and you could say repressive society. The way women operate their lives here is much more restrained,” he said. “The way they express themselves is much more complex than I see within other societies,” offering what he describes as “a unique sensibility, beyond my understanding or expression.”

“Fruit Gathering” explores that sensibility through the eyes of San and Theint, while also exploring the many facets of same-sex desire—something that wouldn’t be easily understood in the world that the two women inhabit. For those at the bottom end of the socioeconomic spectrum in Myanmar, “it doesn’t exist. It’s Platonic love,” said the director. “Maybe the girl is saying, ‘I just want to be with you all the time.’ Of course, there’s a desire, but it isn’t resolved, because she isn’t aware it exists.… She never questions herself, what kind of attachment it is.”

While same-sex relationships are illegal in Myanmar, Phyoe said homosexuality is accepted in many corners of society, and are even depicted frequently on screen. Yet while gay characters often appear in local films, the director said they’re typically used as comic foils, the portrayals reinforcing campy stereotypes without offering a more rounded portrait. “They never really portray this complexity,” he said.