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Poetry in Burmese

Burma Storybook
Regissør: Petr Lom og Corinne van Egeraat

In conflict-ravaged Myanmar, poetry has been an important tool for dealing with reality. But the road has been short from the writing room to the prison cell.


"I met many other poets in prison," Maung Aung tells Pwint. He is one of the Burmese poets who tells his story in the film Burma Storybook (2017). The quote might have been taken from most countries with repressive regimes: dictators fear poetry. Even men whose power base lies in leading a brutal army with large arms power understand that the word also has power and can threaten their control over an oppressed population. Myanmar's prisons have been filled to the brim with political prisoners. Poets have died and rotted there, while others have first embraced the poetry of the overcrowded prison cells.

Poetry and literature are vast and important in Myanmar, and a significant portion of the country's poets and writers have personal experience from inside the smells of highly infamous prisons.

Poems about life. Burma Storybook is a slow and meditative film about poetry and life. When Maung Aung Pwints first met the filmmakers, he said "let's make a long poem together!" The film is faithful to this desire, and is filled with long twists and scenes that are more intertwined because of the way they are filmed than because it is a clear story that is told. This is a film that should definitely be seen on the big screen, since so much emphasis is placed on creating visual poetry.

The poetry that appears in the film is part of life. It is not only for use of sermons or declarations of love. There is poetry you sing before you go hunting in the jungle. There are poems that you bring with you on fishing or on fishing trips. There are poems written in prison and of course poems to keep the flirt alive in a long-standing marriage, something Maung Aung Pint's wife giggles off in a fine scene at the home of the two.

Dictators fear poetry.

Sprawling content. There are two common pitfalls when making a film about Myanmar. Many rely too much on analyzes from foreign "experts" and a small group of Burmese analysts with whom "everyone" talks. Others paint a clichéd picture of a Myanmar filled with golden temples, smiling little novices in monk robes and Aung San Suu Kyi with jasmine flowers in her hair. Burma Storybook avoids such stereotypes and shows us a Myanmar I think many Burmese will recognize.

Despite this, the filmmakers could have been a little more advantageous edgy, and the film could have benefited from a round in the locker room. Even I was not properly arrested until after half an hour. Then she is there suddenly: The young poet who writes about society's demands for women to wear hot pants, but never show their butt. Who writes that she always has a collection of poems in the hot pants. Which tattoo the Burmese word for "change" on the upper arm.

Unfortunately, the film is weakened by the fact that the filmmakers try to gape over a bit too much – perhaps they should rather save some of the material for another film. I should have liked to see more of the young, rebellious poets in the big city of Yangon and heard more of the life story of Nyein Chan, Maung Aung Pint's son who ended up in Finland as a refugee after the student protests in 1988. For my part, this could have been at the expense of some of the more meditative nature scenes that characterize the film.

There is poetry you sing before you go hunting in the jungle.

I cannot evaluate the translations of the poems in the film from Burmese to English, but artistically, it works well as is done with the poems' reading in Burmese and the English translation in text on the film screen.

Larger project. In addition to the film contains the project Burma Storybook a photo exhibition and a book. Hopefully, these components will be able to cover some of the gaps in the film and give viewers a better understanding of what the situation has been and are for poets and other dissidents in Myanmar.

One of the young poets in the film criticizes today's government for not saying or doing anything to give recognition to all those who have been in prison for many years or decades. This month is one year since Aung San Suu Kyi's party NLD took over government in Myanmar and she became the country's de facto manager. Since she came to power, more than 40 people have been arrested and charged with defamation after criticizing people or institutions by force. The next few years will show whether the new rulers also fear poetry or whether they leave the word free.
Former Country Director for Norwegian People's Aid in Myanmar. Email:

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