RANGOON — Shin Daewe took an interest in Burma’s social and political issues from an early age when, as a teenager, she was swept up in the prodemocracy movement and political turmoil that rocked the country some 25 years ago.
“I passed all my youth under military rule,” said the 40-year-old, pioneering woman filmmaker during an interview at the office of the Wathan Film Festival in Rangoon.
Shin Daewe was detained for one month in 1990 and for one year in 1991 for distributing posters and poems that commemorated Phone Maw, a Rangoon Institute of Technology student who was gunned down while participating in the ’88 Uprising.
“Since then, I’ve always looked for ways to oppose the government and expose the country’s real situation,” Shin Daewe recalled her formative years as a teenager and student.
During her time at Rangoon University, she first wrote poems and works of fiction that were published in magazines in the 1990s, but she was also drawn to the medium of film.
From 1997 to 2000, she worked as an assistant producer with Audio Visual (AV) Media, Burma’s first private documentary film company, where she gained valuable filmmaking experience.
Later, she attended a workshop at Yangon Film School, a Berlin-based non-profit organization founded by the Anglo-Burmese documentary filmmaker Lindsey Merrison, where she further developed her interest and skills in documentary making.
“I found that documentary is writing like poems and fictions with pictures instead of words,” she recalled her shift from literary work to filmmaking.
In her early documentary-making days, few people in Burma had been exposed to the concept of documentary films. “Burmese people who purchased our documentaries while I worked in AV were very few. Most clients were foreigners who wanted to know about Burma,” she said.
Since Burma’s much-publicized reforms began in 2011, this has all changed and three annual local film festivals have now been established: the Wathan Film Festival, the Freedom Film Festival and the Human Rights Film Festival.
Shin Daewe said she produced 12 documentaries since 2005, two of which picked up best documentary awards in Burma this year. “Take me home,” a film about ethnic Kachin villagers displaced by conflict in northern Burma, won the Wathan Film Festival. “A Bright Future,” a film about a child-centered education system at a Mandalay monastery, won the Freedom Film Festival.
Her latest documentary, released three months ago, is called “I am 13.” It focuses on the life of Aye Kaung who is illiterate, but desperately wants to learn to read and write. She never received education and spends her time herding goats in her village near Bagan in Burma’s impoverished central dry zone.
Shin Daewe said the film is meant as a social commentary on the life of Burma’s forgotten poor, adding, “I think there is someone who has a responsibility for girls like her in a time when basic education is free and for all.”
Shin Daewe said her documentaries focus on communal life and problems in Burma, but she also has as strong interest in the country’s political transformation.
In 2010, she began producing a documentary about Burma’s political transition and those who suffered under military rule. The film is due to be released in 2015 ahead of the country’s first free and fair elections.
“I decided that instead of filming documentary just for art, I want all of my documentaries to support our country’s transformation,” said Shin Daewe, whose films have also been shown at numerous foreign film festivals.
Thu Thu Shein, a former Yangon Film School student and one of the founders of the Wathan Film Festival, said Shin Daeawe is one of Burma’s most talented documentary makers.
“She is one of the pioneer female documentary filmmakers in our country. She can present confidently all topics that she wants without fear,” Thu Thu Sein said.
Shin Daewe said there is a growing appetite in Burma for documentaries as the public has begun to appreciate the powerful realism offered by the films.
“Burmese people are more interesting documentaries now. Every film festival draws a full crowd,” she said, adding, “A documentary is about real life, real people and real people’s stories.”
Shin Daewe credits the influence of ‘Burma VJ’, a documentary about the crushing of the 2007 Saffron Revolution by the military regime, as exposing the wider Burmese public to the power of documentaries.
“Until 2010, documentary films were distributed secretly by the young people with a passion for them. Burma VJ was spread widely at that time and it shook the public,” she said.
Shin Daewe also filmed material during the turbulent weeks of August 2007, when tens of thousands of monks took to the streets to protest against military rule, but was apprehended by police. “I threw my camera and hand phone away. So, they just charged me for watching the revolution,” she recalled laughing.
Shin Daewe’s future in the new, reforming Burma looks bright, however. Recently, she was one of three Burmese documentary filmmakers who were selected to receive a grant from the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), based in the Netherlands.
Out of some 400 applicants 13 are receiving IDFA support. Among them are Burmese filmmakers Thu Thu Shein, Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi and Shin Daewe, who will capture their changing country on film.
“I think people are starting to have a good opinion of Myanmar. In the past, our country was blacklisted and famous for its bad reputation in world, but now they are starting to give us a helping hand,” Shin Daewe said.