Documentary films are meant to mirror reality in a way that frames the truth with emotion and empathy. But when you bring in a subject as sensitive as violence against women and add to it censorship laws that limit creative autonomy, what reflection are you left with?
On a quest to answer this, filmmakers Paromita Vohra and Debjani Mukherjee set off to Myanmar earlier this year to mentor students at the Yangon Film School on the art of documentary films and how to express them using animation. This intensive six-week course brought together 12 students—most without a cinematic background—as the duo sowed the seeds to create a storyline that would grow to become four impressive docu-animation films: Kayah Lily, Home, Limbo and Wave, in a series titled ‘Stand Up for Women! Stand up for Peace!’.
These films weave a voice-over of the subject speaking in Burmese with animation, stop motion, sand art and graphic sketches to depict the struggles and condition of various women in Myanmar—from the recovery path of a 13-year-old rape survivor to the trauma endured by a humanitarian worker—as they combat the violence they were subjected to amidst political turmoil.
This week, the films find their way to an Indian audience for the first time through a series of screenings brought to Mumbai by the Goethe Institute. The first one was held last weekend at Harkat Studios, a boutique art centre in Mumbai, where the mentors were accompanied by two of the budding filmmakers.
“The advantage of using animation as a medium to make these documentaries is that it allows the students to create a sense of empathy and delicately articulate these unsettling everyday incidences of violence,” explains Mukherjee, a sand artist herself. “The students were first sent to their native states to gather stories, which were converted into storyboards through acting exercises and storytelling sessions. This helped them connect better to the emotions of their characters, which were further expressed through the colour palette and sound design of their films.”
But like any creative process, the six-week journey was not exactly smooth sailing. “The teams of three students often disagreed with each other, which sometimes led to conflicting conclusions of how their films should be made,” says Vohra, the founder of ‘Agents of Ishq’, a multimedia project about love, sex and desire, and who is guiding the aspiring filmmakers at Yangon Film School for the second time. “In a political climate like Myanmar’s, where democracy is still in formation and even factions fight against each other, this could serve as a lesson in teamwork and learning to co-exist harmoniously.” She also points out that the relatively short duration of the documentary course makes it difficult for the students to parachute into the problem areas and directly approach subjects who have gone through traumatic times, especially in the Rakhine state, which has been plagued by sectarian violence. Thus, connecting with local legal services and support groups becomes an important step in filmmaking out here.
For filmmaker Htwe Htwe (Doris), who contributed to the film Kayah Lilly, her prior on-field experience of working in refugee camps with rape and gender-violence victims, aided her research process despite having no knowledge of filmmaking or art. Piecing together sentences in traditional Burmese that were translated by her fellow filmmaker Saw Eh Doe Poe (Aero), she spoke about her plans to use her newly acquired animation skills to document the experiences of these women for the greater public, besides providing them legal services and support.
“We have survived a 16-year civil war and even signed a ceasefire agreement, but there is still no real peace or authority to go to if something bad happens,” says Aero, who titled his film Limbo to represent this reality. “Even if we want to talk about the cruelty of soldiers or rebels, the censorship imposed on us only allows us to refer to them as ‘people in uniform’, and even then, there is little chance of broadcasting such matters on state-sponsored television channel. This creates complexities in terms of sharing our films." Like Doris, the 26-year-old animator hopes to harness his creative abilities to put the truth on the table.
“The students at Yangon Film School come from a place of passion, which makes mentoring them more pleasurable than teaching privileged urban kids who don’t show enough interest in the subject,” adds Vohra. “India and Burma have always had close ties and it is important to acknowledge, educate and empower people using this connection through film screenings like these”.
You can catch a screening of the films at IIT Bombay (September 27) and The Hive, Bandra (September 29 and 30). Buy your tickets here .