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Burmese Proletariat Speak Through The Filmography of Midi Z

In the developing world, the struggling classes often use foreign exposure, and the
robust mechanisms of the developed world as a subverting tactic, and as a tool to strike
back at their oppressors. In India, faith in a foreign religion is used to break free from a
designated social position, or in Somalia, women appeal directly to the mainstream
Western media to voice their opposition to female circumcision. This code of practice
appears not only in its common application to move beyond localities. When traversing
the time-line of post-colonialism, one can every so often glimpse occasions where it is
inverted. At the moment, Burma, in its importing of two Western goods: democracy and
the movie camera, is rewriting this code.
Whilst studying in Taiwan, a camera bought for a friend, though rejected by Burmese
customs made Midi Z start making flms. His frst short flm was shot during his difcult
journey home to Burma, titled Motorcycle Driver. The 30-minute flm describes the plight
of young people in northern Burma. The protagonist, unable to fnd work in Burma,
instead decides to (like the majority of his peers) earn money by smuggling motorbikes
into Burma. The protagonist’s long and tortuous journey across dry terrain is similar to
the mountain crossing on a battered motorbike seen in Abbas Kiarostami’s Koker
Trilogy: flming in a place with few resources, the impoverished camera often reverts to
that always plentiful resource—time. Kiarostami, in his trilogy to say the least, shares
one aspect of Midi Z’s technique, the blending of narrative and cinematography into the
flm’s total, the resulting texture/appearance a fascinating hybrid. It’s as if such tales of
the little and powerless ought to use this cinematographic narrative to tell their story.
Though in fact, among Midi Z’s many flms there is not only the works which employ
such austere and labored naturalist cinematography; other short flms possess no lack
of subjective storytelling. Huasin Incident, for example, relies on the natural
performance of a close friend of the director, whilst also possessing the conventional
twists of theatrical storytelling, the director in this flm narrates the frame of mind of this
community, through their specifc status as ethnically-Chinese Burmese living in Taiwan.
The flm describes the fght for survival, and dual plight of Burmese adolescents in
Taiwan, who want overturn their otherwise oppressive fate by obtaining Taiwanese
citizenship, whilst also showing the greater frustrations which lie behind their desires.
They plot to attack their exploitative employer, a butcher; they take advantage of his
drunken state, though then inadvertently kill him. The drama of common hooligan
camaraderie once superimposed by an anxiety for citizenship and its inherent right-of-
residence benefts, produces a certain internal tension of its own working.
Due to economic constraints, for many Burmese immigrants in Taiwan, it is often several
years before they are able to return to visit their homeland. Midi Z’s frst feature flm,
titled Return to Burma, depicts the renewed acquaintance of an immigrant with his
homeland, amidst a period of great transformation. Immigrant worker Xin Hong carries
back to Burma the ashes of a friend who died in a work accident at New Year. He has to
take fve diferent modes of transport before arriving at the home of his family, the
address of which he has already forgotten (the diegetic music is singing in celebration of
the election of Aung San Suu Kyi and the welcoming of the democratic system in
Burma). The narrative gradually unravels across a series of events surrounding the
protagonist and his re-acquaintance with his village in the midst of a religious festival, as
the ritual celebrations of new year, the sacrifcing of chickens, the exchanging of red
envelopes, go on around him. Xin Hong chats to old friends and shop merchants, re-
familiarising himself with his own village. These are mostly made up of fragments of
conversation with friends had between bouts of singing, and are almost like the
inquisitive exchanges of an interview. Each fragment stands alone, both the lyrics sung
and the dialogues exchanged enunciating the everyday lives of Burmese workers,
including essential topics, such as exchange rates and rates of return of working in
various countries.
In Return to Burma, the authority of real-life characters is not at all subordinated to the
subjective touch of the director, who bestows a not-overly smooth feeling of naturalism
upon the whole flm. It’s as if the flm has no single author, but possesses the
consummate experiences of the entire nation. Though, in the experience of the flm
itself, the use of the realist lens, which allows the performative qualities of the
protagonists and story to unfold, brings it closer to the modes of Ethnofction, a
characteristic which positions it uniquely between two genres; lurking in the background
are constant hints towards the legacies of the Taiwanese New-Wave movement.
The frst time I witnessed the vitality of the impressions of everyday narrative was in Hou
Hsiao Hsien’s The Boys from Fengkuei. A group of teenagers, driven by curiosity,
bought some tickets for pornography flm from a motorcycle driver. They climbed to the
top of the unfnished, completely bare building, found nothing there. In both flms we
watch vulnerable people engage in stealing, marauding, the most basic “primitive
accumulation”, as well as the ire of the young protagonists. More importantly, as they
are treated as aesthetic objects, the intense emotion initially carried by the soundtrack is
transferred to the intermittent snippets of dialogue, imbued with more signifcance by the
steady gaze of the camera. Again in comparison to the flms of Hou Hsiao Hsien: where
the individual narratives of the protagonists are often interweaved with various phases of
grand historical narratives, to the extent that dialogue is often used to reveal important
historical and contextual background, Midi Z doesn’t reveal as many contextual details
surrounding his story. In both the depiction of motorcycle riders and of each business,
the scenarios which emerge are not layered with information, but are more ambient
portraits of the shared experiences and feelings of migrant workers.
Rancière once spoke about a concept of distribution in flmmaking: “Godard used to say
ironically that epic was for the Israelis, and documentary for the Palestinians.” The basis
for this distribution is that the working class must necessarily possess their own
exclusive narrative tool, whilst the prosperous class possesses many more options. The
narratives of Midi Z, contain no lack of inexpensive technique: frstly in the realizing of
the attitudes of the working class; but also, in Return to Burma’s position between
documentary and realist cinema, and through the collective performance of the ex-
migrant worker and the local villagers, a certain epic character emerges, which not only
subverts Godard’s statement regarding the predicament faced by Palestinian
flmmakers, but at the same time lends its inner form an afnity to the current Burmese
political climate—perhaps this is the actual reason for the West’s short-listing of Return
to Burma: a celebration of the entrance of democracy and flmmaking into Burma, two
Western legacies which could not appear more clearly as the primary channels of the
struggling class depicted.

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