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Monk who went to the movies

The Maw Naing tells the story of a poverty-stricken monastery and the eroding Buddhist way of life in his debut film, The Monk.

Written by Jaskiran Kapoor |
November 23, 2015 1:06:27 am
Stills from the film A still from the film

In Buddhism, there are eight levels of hell. In Dante’s Inferno, there are nine circles of hell. “In Burma, there are 10,” says Burmese poet, performance artist, painter and filmmaker The Maw Naing. At the recent Dharamshala International Film Festival, Naing, who screened his debut feature film, The Monk, talks of living in a military rule, confronting official censorship and trying to salvage the Buddhist way of life in Myanmar. Excerpts from an interview:

The Monk shows the less-known problems of monastery life, such as financial crisis. Why did you make this film?

The Monk is the story of Buddhist novice, Zawana, who is fighting all kinds of temptations and finds himself in a small monastery that is facing a financial crisis and has a dwindling number of monks. The head of the monastery is ailing. Zawana realises that someone has to take care of him and the whole community. It is a story penned by my friend, Aung Min, and it moves away from meditation and spirituality to focus on universal values and desires, whose fulfillment itself presents a difficult challenge.

It is a difficult subject to approach, unravel and execute. What were the challenges involved?

The first was censorship. I have not released this film in Myanmar because I know it won’t get passed there. The challenge is to convey a message metaphorically, subtly and yet with impact. Shooting the film in the Myanmar countryside had its own set of problems because of a lack of electricity and resources. I had shot documentaries before, so I was prepared for the challenges of logistics, from renting noisy diesel generators for night scenes to roping in villagers to act, assist and hunt for locations. We shot and lived in a real 100-year-old monastery and learnt the Buddhist way of life there.

The xxx; (inset) a still from the film The Maw Naing; (inset) a still from the film

Where does filmmaking feature in your life as a poet and performing artist?

For me, poetry is the source and resource. I write about humans and human society, use a lot of aesthetic techniques and few dialogues. My influences stem from old Burmese films before the 1970s — at that time, there was no censorship — of directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, Jia Zhangke, Lars von Trier, Jan Nemec (especially Diamonds Of The Night), Ulrich Seidl and Andrei Tarkovsky. I enjoy conceptual poets such as William H Gass as well as Buddhist literature. Most of my poems are not easy to understand by those who do not know about Burmese society and its political situation. Hence, I make films.

As an artist whose every work is under scrutiny and subject to censorship, how do you sustain your aesthetic interests?

I was a high school student when I witnessed the uprising of 1980. The revolt began in 1988 and friends joined actively. I am not an aggressive person, so I chose the medium of art, poetry and installations to express myself. When one has lived for so many years under military dictatorship, one learns how to communicate indirectly.

What is the next project that you are working on?

Memoirs, about the experiences of a woman doctor in Yangon Hospital during the 1988 uprising. Later, she became a psychiatrist and gains a deeper experience of how people lived during the time of the Burmese military dictatorship.


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