A Burmese dissident poet is the subject of documentary filmmaker Petr Lom’s latest film, Burma Storybook. Maung Aung Pwint has spent years in and out of prison, missing out on life, and missing out on his son growing up. He is an old man now, frail and suffering from Parkinson’s disease, living out his days alongside his wife. There are emotional moments in the film, where the poet and his 40-year-old former “armed student” son are reunited. After 20 years apart, the son flies in from Finland, where he now lives. Neither father nor son knows when they will meet again, if at all. Yet they are not bitter.
Lom and his producer wife Corinne van Egeraat were in Istanbul as guests of the TRT International Documentary Awards. TRT World caught up with Lom after the screening of Burma Storybook, a dreamlike, poetic and moving portrait of an ailing poet and father who has produced striking poetry, and who is serenely coming to terms with his impending death. The film is interspersed with fragments of evocative verses from various Burmese poets; the full-length poems are being compiled into a book by Lom and Van Egeraat.
How did you decide to make a film about Burmese poets and life in Myanmar?
PETR LOM: We always make films about injustice, that’s what we do. I wanted to go to Burma since 2004, since I started making films. It was too hard, we never could. So we had our opportunity to go and show our film at a film festival, then we stayed to teach. So then we stayed to teach and of course we were going to make a film, so we moved to Burma, we’re teaching, we start a film. Why did we pick poetry? Because you want to tell a story about how the country’s transforming from dictatorship, and poetry is the most popular art form. So it’s very widespread and many poets were politically engaged, and many were dissidents, so it’s a good perspective to tell a story
You focus a lot on Maung Aung Pwint, the dissident poet. How did you become familiar with his plight?
PL: Yeah, well, he’s the most famous [dissident] poet in the country, so anybody who’s into poetry knows him. We were introduced to him by the head of the film festival we were working so [that was a] good introduction. And we learned about this famous poem that he wrote about not being able to see the moon from his prison cell so he spilled a bucket of water to see its reflection. And it’s a famous poem in the country so we learned about that and that was inspiring. So we wanted to meet him.
I seem to go to jail every ten years. At the age of 22, then 33, and again at 44. — Maung Aung Pwint
What year did you go to the festival in Myanmar?
PL: June 2013. And then we moved there December 2013. We stayed for two years. We came back a couple of times to Amsterdam but we were based in Burma.
Do Maung Aung Pwint or other Burmese poets touch on what is happening with the Rohingya in Myanmar?
PL: We didn’t put it into the film for a couple of reasons. It’s too big an issue; [we would have had] to make a separate film about it. The country’s too big and there are too many issues. That’s a big one but it’s too important to kind of [touch lightly on]. We filmed some Muslim poets but that doesn’t fit [with the flow of Burma Storybook]. That’s why.
You’re doing a book about Myanmar and poetry in addition to the film. Why?
PL: Because we want to do more than just a film. To be respectful to the poets – we filmed with a lot of poets; not all of them got into the film – and sometimes the poems you see in there aren’t complete; they’re only a few lines. So we thought well, as a sign of respect and as a gift to them let’s make a book. We should, while we had a chance to work with [Dana Lixenberg], one of the most famous photographers in the Netherlands. So that’s what we did. We’re crowdfunding for it now. We’re doing an exhibit with it at the beginning of June at the biggest art museum in Rotterdam: the Kunsthal. With the book and the photographs we’re making art installation with a poem so it’s nice. And it’s also because nobody knows about Burmese poets, so we thought it’s a way to try to publicise it.
Myanmar has emerged from a 50-year military rule. What changes did you observe in the country while you were shooting Burma Storybook?
PL: Well, I was not there during the dictatorship. So the biggest change is that you could be there as a foreigner and work in film and people would pretty much leave you alone. There’s enough openness that that’s possible. People are not afraid to speak to you. They used to be afraid to speak to foreigners. So all that’s brand new, and the change is very exciting.
What are the qualities of Burmese poetry? Does one need to speak the language to appreciate it?
PL: To really appreciate poetry, you have to speak the language. Because you can’t translate poetry. But actually the translations are pretty beautiful. But of course there’s no way you could go into a country and pick the poems or the poets yourself as a foreigner who doesn’t speak the language. So we had good advice. There’s a poetry adviser in the film credits – the poet Khin Aung Aye – who is saying the poem about “Do we have democracy now?” So he was our adviser and he had good [introductions] to all the important people in the country. He was quality control.
What is your next project?
PL: Nothing, we don’t know yet. We’re too busy with the book. We’re publishing the book at the end of the month. Then we’re also trying to do an outreach campaign with the film to show all over the country, like a free mobile cinema, so we’re going back to show the film in Burma in June at their Human Rights Film Festival, it’s going to be the opening night film ... And we’re trying to find sponsors; the Dutch embassy is sponsoring, and we have to see if we find enough to really make it big or otherwise forget it and move onto something else.
How do you decide what to work on next?
PL: That’s a good question. I don’t know. Chance, luck, and what we come up with – we always come up with new ideas. I’d love to make a film in Turkey.