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Myanmar comedy shows struggle for national image

Associated Press Modified: May 1, 2012 at 11:00 am •  Published: May 1, 2012

YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — When Burmese filmmaker Htun Zaw Win decided to make a short comedy about the tragically bizarre process of getting movies made in his oppressed homeland, he knew exactly what to base it on: real life.

"Ban That Scene!" makes a daring mockery of Myanmar's dreaded film censorship board, whose members are cast as comical guardians of a tyrannical state's idealized image of itself.

Sunk into the faux-leather chairs of a government screening theater, they face off against a sputtering film projector that bathes them in the dim reality of their own fallen nation. The officials are offended at everything that appears on screen — beggars, corruption, power outages, even a street fight — because they all allegedly make the state look "undignified."

"Ban that scene! Remove it!" the bespectacled censor boss bellows over and over, jabbing an index finger through the twilit darkness with a triumphant, lips-pursed "hrrrrummph."

Beyond its highly satirical take on modern day filmmaking in Myanmar, what's most striking about the movie by Htun Zaw Win, who goes by the name Wyne, is that it was made at all.

Its existence, coupled with the fact that Wyne has seen no jail time, offers proof that some artists are growing brave enough to criticize the establishment as the nation's new reform-minded government begins allowing a level of free expression that was unheard of here during decades of suffocating military rule.

But the film also proves just how much here remains unchanged. Wyne says he never submitted "Ban That Scene!" to the government's Film and Video Censor Board for approval because they would almost certainly have, well, banned the entire thing.

The board's mandate is limited to screening films made for sale, and Wyne says he chose to forgo all profit to ensure it would be produced uncut. The sacrifice was essential, he said, "to show the public both at home and abroad what barriers filmmakers are facing."

The 18-minute short was first shown in the former capital Yangon in January during a film festival dubbed "Art of Freedom" that was hosted by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and the prominent local comedian Zarganar.

It has been posted on YouTube and Wyne has so far distributed about 10,000 copies on DVD for free. But the movie's impact has been limited. It cannot be shown in local cinemas, and the vast majority of Myanmar's 60 million people are out of reach — living in thatched huts without electricity or Internet lines in a rural countryside that's remained almost untouched for hundreds, maybe thousands, of years.

Still, the work is remarkable for what it contrasts brilliantly throughout: on one hand, the sanitized image of Myanmar that the nation's xenophobic former regime once wanted to portray to the world; on the other, the tumbledown reality of just how far this place fell under their rule.

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