By AFP

YANGON — Facebook has blacklisted a group of Buddhist hardliners including monks notorious for hate speech against Rohingya Muslims, the company said today, as it scrambles to show it is tackling inflammatory content.

The social media company plays an outsized role in a country that has only recently come online and boasts 18 million accounts among the population of over 51.4 million people.

UN investigators have said that Facebook has morphed into a “beast” in the country and that hate speech and incitement to violence against the Rohingya are rampant on the site.

Some 700,000 Rohingya have fled a violent army crackdown in Myanmar to Bangladesh since August last year — after years of increasingly violent and angry discourse against the minority, much of it playing out on Facebook.

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In response, Facebook this week has undertaken its highest-profile visit yet to Myanmar.

It banned the Buddhist nationalist movement Ma Ba Tha from its platform, as well as a pair of prominent monks known for stoking hatred towards the Rohingya.

“They are not allowed a presence on Facebook, and we will remove any accounts and content which support, praise or represent these individuals or organisations,” said content policy manager Mr David Caragliano.

Extremist monks Parmaukkha and Thuseitta join their fellow firebrand clergyman Wirathu on the blacklist, after he was banned in January.

Activists have criticised the platform for responding too slowly to reports of malicious posts, with some content being shared by users for more than 48 hours before being removed.

Examples include calls for the killing of a Muslim journalist and posts last September saying Buddhists and Muslims were each preparing attacks against the other.

Activists flagged these repeatedly to Facebook but it still took several days for the platform to act. 

“We can do more, and we have been slow to respond,” admitted Facebook vice president of public policy in Asia Pacific Mr Simon Milner.

He said Facebook is increasing the number of people working on Myanmar from Singapore and Bangkok, including those who speak the language, although declined to give specific numbers.

The platform says it is also stepping up measures to prevent fake accounts and block repeat offenders while improving systems for users to report harmful content.

Myanmar activists welcomed the high profile visit but urged the platform to be more transparent.

“What is the time it takes to remove harmful content? How many people do we have in the team that speak Myanmar?” tech hub Phandeeya CEO Mr Jes Kaliebe Petersen asked.

“Users deserve to know.”

Facebook is caught up in a data sharing scandal that also stirred furious debate on its responsibilities for the content users share including “fake news” and hate speech.

An emerging group of young film directors is delighting audiences with original creations that challenge a tired movie production formula little changed in decades.

By KYAW LIN HTOON | FRONTIER

EXCITEMENT WAS building among movie fans for weeks ahead of the commercial release of the psychological thriller Nya (“Night”) last July. But the eagerly anticipated event nearly turned into a real-life nightmare for director Htoo Paing Zaw Oo, 31, who began working on Nya in 2014.

It happened to coincide with an outbreak of potentially deadly H1N1 influenza. The risk of catching the highly infectious virus kept ardent fans – and even some of Htoo Paing Zaw Oo’s relatives – away from his debut movie.

But as the H1N1 scare eased, audiences flocked to see Nya. It has not only turned a profit, but was even screened several times in Singapore in late April and early May – a rare achievement for a Myanmar-made film.

The box office successes of Nya and subsequent releases – the action drama Myet Hnar Pyin Myar (“Dimensions”), directed by Nyan Htin, 35, and Mudra Yae Khaw Than (“Mudras Calling”) by Christina Kyi – are being driven by audiences hungry for a new approach to movies that spurn the tired formulas of the past.

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Critics say cinemas have been ringing with the loudest applause heard in decades, as audiences show their appreciation for the innovative productions.

Fans get the chance to meet the stars of Mudras Calling in Yangon (Kyaw Lin Htoon | Frontier)

Fans get the chance to meet the stars of Mudras Calling in Yangon (Kyaw Lin Htoon | Frontier)

The success of these “new wave” films has laid down the challenge for the film industry establishment, which is increasingly seen as lacking imagination and more interested in making money than art.

Recently, a group of young movie fans has stepped up their Paw Kar Myar Yat (“Stop Silly Movies”) campaign against films and videos made by established directors and starring prominent actors.

“When great movies such as Nya come, they show that the reasons given by famous filmmakers and actors for not making good films are just baseless excuses,” a senior member of Paw Kar told Frontier.

(The campaign leaders seek to remain anonymous due to concerns that they might be prosecuted for online defamation.)

Paw Kar’s four founders – a poet, lawyer, part-time university lecturer and a student studying for a Masters in Political Sociology – say the movies that dominate the market often resort to cheap humour that can have a negative effect by reinforcing stereotypes.

It’s not unusual for these movies to have scenes ridiculing disabled people, or to make fun of differences in gender, ethnicity and religion.

“Making movies that laugh at these things needs to be denounced. It is shameful for society that this is happening. The script writers of silly movies keep writing screenplays that degrade those who have chosen their sexuality, or who have dark skin,” the Paw Kar member said.

Paw Kar blames the situation partly on an education system that fails to develop critical thinking. It says prominent actors are influential and when they deliver harmful or negative messages these are easily absorbed by audiences.

A director’s struggle

More than six years ago, Ar Kar left his high-income job as an IT technician in Singapore to follow his dream of becoming a film director. It was a struggle in the early years because a dearth of producers, who fund movies, meant that Ar Kar, 29, was unable to make the kind of movie he wanted.

Ar Kar left his high-income job as an IT technician to follow his dream of becoming a film director. (Supplied | ARKAR Production)

Ar Kar left his high-income job as an IT technician to follow his dream of becoming a film director. (Supplied | ARKAR Production)

He didn’t give up. His company, ARKAR Production, made music videos and commercials, and he participated in independent film festivals. They included the Wathann Film Festival and the Art of Freedom Film and Music Festival, which were first held in 2011 and 2012, respectively, as the country was emerging from decades of military rule.

Ar Kar’s creations caught the discerning eye of some of the few producers keen to invest in movies made by emerging young directors. He got his first big break as a director with The Mystery of Myanmar: Beyond the Dote-Tha-Waddy, which has been praised by many moviegoers.

“The biggest challenge for this new production was having to jostle very hard to have it screened in cinemas,” Ar Kar said.

Cinemas owners prefer to preview movies in private before deciding to screen them. ARKAR Production had to wait a few months before a private screening could be arranged. The Mystery of Myanmar: Beyond the Dote-Tha-Waddy premiered in Yangon cinemas on May 4, months after Ar Kar hoped it would be released.

One problem is simply a lack of cinemas: decades of neglect mean many have closed or been sold off, and there are only 102 working cinemas left. There are no cinemas in Chin and Kayah states and the only movie house in Rakhine State, in the capital, Sittwe, is closing.

Of the working movie houses, about three-quarters are owned by the Mingalar Cinema Group chain, which can mean intense competition to arrange private-screenings with the company.

The opportunity to show their film on Mingalar’s screens can mean the difference between a crippling loss and a handsome profit.

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Beyond the Dote-Tha-Waddy, which was released on May 4. (Supplied | ARKAR Production)

“Now we all just have to compete just to show our films [with Mingalar] first,” Ar Kar said. “If all stakeholders can work together on this, we wouldn’t need to rush … we can just focus completely on filmmaking.”

The stakeholders include the Myanmar Motion Picture Organization, which has pledged to help tackle the cinema shortage. Thailand and Malaysia each have at least 1,000 cinemas.

“We are trying to solve this problem,” MMPO vice-chairman U Zaw Min told Frontier. “Some cinemas are being built and in a few months I think the total number in the country could reach 150.”

Asked to assess movies made by the new crop of directors, Zaw Min said such a question was best answered by numbers from the box office.

“Their creations may be good, but there’s huge variation in what moviegoers like; some like sweet, some like salty and some may like spicy. Cinemas are guided by what audiences want to watch,” he said.

Ar Kar suggested the government support the creation of a fund for investors to finance the building of more cinemas.

However, the emerging young directors are concerned that expanding the number of cinemas may create more opportunities for makers of the low-quality films that have predominated until now.

It’s a concern that also troubles prominent director Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi. Although he’s not among the new bloods, since returning to Myanmar in 2003 he has also sought to create original, high-quality movies, as well as helping to train the next generation of filmmakers.

Movie posters on the wall of Thamada Cinema in Dagon Township. The lack of cinemas means directors have to lobby cinema owners for the chance to have their film screened. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

Movie posters on the wall of Thamada Cinema in Dagon Township. The lack of cinemas means directors have to lobby cinema owners for the chance to have their film screened. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

“I’d like to ask the movie industry what kind of films would it make if there were enough cinemas. Except for the very few new-blood directors, all the remaining directors will continue to make easy, silly movies,” Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi told Frontier.

To prevent this, Ar Kar suggests the introduction of a quality control system.

“Regulators like MMPO should set quality control standards under which movies are classified, otherwise the silly movies will continue to dominate the market,” he said.

‘Silly’ movies?

There’s a consensus among the new wave directors, critics and audiences about what meets the definition of a “silly movie”.

They tend have a weak story line, feature exaggerated scenes and use the same, unrealistic dialogue repeatedly. They are produced with minimal preparation and rely on a cast of stars to maximise audience appeal.

Plagiarism is also an issue, as many of these movies are based on foreign productions or those made in the glory days of the Myanmar film industry – before it lost its edge under the stifling censorship regime introduced after General Ne Win seized power in 1962.

Tar Tay Gyi, a copy of a Bollywood horror movie titled Kanchana, was among the prizewinners at this year’s Myanmar Motion Picture Academy Awards in Yangon in March. Some said the decision to give a prize to a copy film at the industry’s main annual event was unethical.

Emerging directors were disappointed by this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. They included Htoo Paing Zaw Oo, who was hoping to receive a technical award for Nya, but went home empty handed.

But many actors and directors have been angered by the Paw Kar campaign and the suggestion that the industry needs to be shaken up by a “new wave” of filmmakers.

Myanmar Motion Picture Organization patron U Soe Moe, 72, said some may be using the campaign to build their own popularity.

“If you can really produce good films, you will last a long time. The film industry is not just about one year. I’ve been here for over 50 years and won academy awards, and my movies have been shown in other countries. And in my experience, the new faces tend to come out frequently [but then] they disappear.

“So, how many decades will they [new wave directors] last, and how many awards can they get? These are the measures by which we should judge them. For me, at the moment, it’s still early to judge them. Time will tell.”

Interference

Veteran director Win Pe said the Academy Awards had never been on the right track since they were inaugurated in 1952.

“The key problem has been government interference in honouring the artists,” Win Pe said.

Another problem was that the government had allowed officials to sit on the selection board rather than experienced movie industry professionals, he said.

Win Pe said the situation had improved compared to previous decades.

“However, if compared with the film industry in other developing countries, we need hundreds of board members to finalise specific Academy Award titles and we also need to give audiences a bigger say in choosing the nominees,” he said.

Director Win Pe. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

Director Win Pe. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

Ar Kar said the board needed to become more transparent and if it did not there was a risk another industry organisation would emerge to bestow awards.

Ar Kar said he accepted that the board had the authority to decide award winners but added that to avoid controversy it needed to be accountable and explain its choices.

The awards presentation night this year was attended for the first time by State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, accompanied by Minister for Information U Pe Myint.

In a speech at the event, Aung San Suu Kyi pledged government support for the development of the movie industry and also urged artists to strive to raise production standards to the levels achieved when she was a child.

The Myanmar Motion Picture Development Department, under the Ministry of Information, is the main regulator of the film and video industry and its tasks range from censorship to making DVDs.

Return of the golden days?

Veteran director Win Pe has encouraged the new wave directors to make up for lost time.

“They need to keep striving, to develop more awareness, to read more. They cannot walk at the same pace as their peers around the world; they need to walk much faster because we have been left behind for a long time,” he said.

The founders of Paw Kar reject claims by the makers of low-grade movies that their productions are a response to audience demand.

They said that because of a lack of education, many people did not realise that they were being exploited by those producing these types of films.

“The producers might say they willl just keep making these movies because they still have viewers. But … that’s not a very professional attitude.”

Yangon movie fan Ko Zaw Min Aung, 29, spurned Myanmar movies for a decade; he abhors the “silly movies”. But then, in late April, he watched Oo Pel Tamyin (“Deception”) by Christina Kyi. He described it as a satisfying entertainment experience.

“The makers of silly movies are cheating audiences by wasting their time,” Zaw Min Aung said. “The time that we give them – maybe one or two hours out of our day – is even more precious than the money we give them.”

TOP PHOTO: Director Htoo Paing Zaw Oo, 31, released his film Nya last year and it has since been screened several times in Singapore. (Steve Tickner | Frontier)

One of the leading lights of the “new wave” of directors is Christina Kyi, who burst onto the scene earlier this year with two hit films: Oo Pel Tamyin (“Deception”) and Mudras Calling.

By SITHU SOE | FRONTIER

A CHARACTERISTIC of Christina Kyi’s films is that they shun established actors. This is a major break with convention: In Myanmar’s movie industry, stars have been seen as the key selling point of a film.

Instead, she has turned to a cast of unknowns, many of whom have no acting experience.

Here Frontier’s Sithu Soe speaks to Christina Kyi and Ba Nyo, who played the character of detective U Htein Win in Deception.

Ba Nyo: When I met the French [acting coach Mr Thierry Bleu], he studied me. He liked the way I smiled, the way I laughed and my sarcastic way of speaking. That’s why I was chosen. He didn’t ask me many questions, he just asked if I could take a training course and I said yes.

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Christina Kyi: There were other candidates who wanted to act the part of detective Win Htein. But when we met Ba Nyo, we liked his smile. He looked likable. As soon as we met him, we noticed his charisma.

When he talked to someone in public, it was okay. But when he was about to act, we had to warn him every so often. “Aba [grandpa], speak naturally. Speak as though you are speaking to me. I consulted with [lead actor] Ko Zenn Kyi to enable him act like that. A few minutes before we filmed, I made Zenn Kyi talk to Aba.

Most people change their tones when they hear the word “action” shouted. But we like natural tones so much.

Ba Nyo: In the role I had to run after a thief. It was filmed at Yadanar Market behind Mingalar Market [in Mingalar Taung Nyunt Township, Yangon] and I had to run about 15 times.

They wanted to make me so tired but I wasn’t easily tired. So, [they said], “Run again, please, Aba. Run again, please, Aba” – they repeated and repeated it. I had to run about 15 times and finally the last time I was really tired.

Because I was not only tired but also running after that fellow, the thief, I was so angry that I happened to use dirty language, such as “son of a bitch”. So, in that role, some comedy appeared.

Christina Kyi: We try hard like this to do our work. We want real tiredness and real sweat.

Ba Nyo: [In another scene] while I was learning palmistry from a female palmist, I made a gesture at her son by raising an eyebrow. I like this acting.

I came to the female palmist with the pretense of wanting to learn palmistry. The [hero in the film] was worried that fellow [the son] might run away. When her son brought me a cup of tea, I made a gesture by raising an eyebrow at him like this … When he knew that I came to see him, he was afraid of me.

Ba Nyo, who played the role of detective U Htein Win in Deception. (Sithu Soe | Frontier)

Ba Nyo, who played the role of detective U Htein Win in Deception. (Sithu Soe | Frontier)

Christina Kyi: According to the script, he [Ba Nyo] had the upper hand [on the son]. But rather than threatening someone with an angry face, we thought it would be more frightening to threaten them with a faint smile.

So instead of threatening by widening his eyes, we asked Aba to threaten like that. It is kind of sending the message that he is everywhere and has all the power.

Ba Nyo: We had to negotiate some things during shooting. What I wanted to do was different from what they wanted. They told me to act naturally, like in the outside world.

In my last scene, when I had to mix with the crowd, I wanted to show off. They knew it. They warned me, “Aba, you are overacting. Stay in your character.” They were able to instruct me in detail. They are very clever.

Christina Kyi: We have a crew, cast and assistants – about 40 people altogether – so many people came up and looked at us while we were shooting because they wanted to know what we were doing.

If you want to show off in a place like that, our film may change into a play. I need to tell you point blank … If you overact, you might go out of mood and character.

So we had to instruct Aba a lot not to overact like that. But Aba is respectable. No matter how often we asked him, he never lost his composure.

TOP PHOTO: Director Christina Kyi (Sithu Soe | Frontier)