Streaming on The Cinema of Ideas from 13-26 February, Fragments: Burmese Identities In Between is a programme of recent Burmese cinema focussed on the search for self and new ways of belonging amongst the fragments of crisis.
In this introduction to the season, Palestinian-British award-winning filmmaker, artist, and educator Saeed Taji Farouky contemplates the Palestinian and Burmese people’s shared experience of exile and fractured identity.
May Kyi Han, meticulously working on translations and subtitles with me, explains the complex ambiguity of the Burmese language like this: if you want a coffee, you don’t ask your friend if you can have a coffee. Instead you say “I like coffee. Do you also like coffee?” They will understand. They will understand not by interpreting your words, but by interpreting the spaces in between the words.
It reminds me of the intrinsic poetry of some Arabic phrases: the surface cryptic, the meaning buried beneath several layers of mutual understanding. Here’s one:
“tuqburni” you would say, if you wanted someone to understand just how much you loved them. “You bury me,” meaning I would rather die before you, and have you put me underground, than live without you.
In early 2021, we buried many people. In Burma and Palestine, people rose up and defended their dignity, lives, and freedom. In Burma and Palestine, fighting against a brutal military. We saw shared expressions of solidarity, each people holding up signs of support for the other, both aware of the morbid irony that the Israeli military was also supporting the Burmese military.
State violence obliterates our relationship to space, fracturing us from the streets we once felt were our own. That plastic chair at a tea stall is no longer where you sit every morning, sharing a cup and a conversation with the owner, petting the local street dog. It is now where you watched the blood of your comrade spill onto the asphalt. The second memory will forever break the first.
I remember filming in Gaza in 2007 with Laila, when a gun fight erupted in front of us. We crouched behind a concrete wall for protection, but when I looked closely at the bricks, I saw they had bullet holes pierced right through. Our safety was only an illusion; the bullet fractured the continuity of architecture. The trajectory of the bullet redefines our relationship to our streets, because it doesn’t need to navigate, it doesn’t care about corners or walls, it simply takes the shortest distance between two points regardless of what it finds in between.
The distance between you and that plastic chair will always be greater than the distance between the bullet and the flesh.
“How do I
asks Yasmin Ullah.
Then the distance between your street and the house you hide in to escape the killing.
Then the distance between your city and the village you escape to.
Then the distance between your country and the country to which you flee to save your life.
Then the distance between your memory of home and the ground itself.
“Were our children’s feet
Never meant to
Touch the ground?”
Exile is a disruption of geographical continuity. We exist in the cracks, the seams, the liminal spaces. I can no longer say Wadi Hunayn is my village because it isn’t my village any longer. My family’s house is still there, but it’s no longer my family’s house. It is simultaneously my home and not my home. Now the students, doctors, drivers, poets of Burma who fled to the ethnic armies to defend their freedom also exist in the seams, in the border areas. Inside the state but not under state control, carving out a space that is theirs but isn’t on any map. 135 ethnic groups yet you no longer belong. 135 ethnic groups but there is no space for you.
How do I reconcile the distance?
“I dreamt of Yangon last night.
A teacher in a wig was teaching a Shakespeare play”
writes Ma Chinthe. Because home is now a sequence within a dream, wearing a wig. A disguised narrative within a fantasy. This is how we reconcile the distance, through our imagination and our stories. “I am a mix of real and imaginary things”, writes Pearl Fedele, and this is our strength. Imagination is our defence, our weapon, our armour. It is a time machine, and a teleporter that can take us anywhere.
Home is now the smell of rice wafting into the living room. The geographical distance is insurmountable, but they can’t take away from us the smell of rice cooking. So it soaks into our poems, our films, our songs, our dance. And we share it.
(CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG CLANG)
You turned the cooking pot upside down and beat it with a wooden spoon. Your entire neighbourhood joined in this act of rebellion, and you resisted the army’s secret raid with just a cooking pot. Even the milky water left over from rinsing the rice can feed your plants. They can’t take away from us the smell of rice cooking: self-defence and nourishment.
Pinky Htut Aung’s voice, floating over the grainy Super 8 images in Htet Aung Lwyn’s film Where The River Ends, whispers to us, “The water slips through my fingers, to the eternal river. It finds a way through the cracks.” Our identities, too, become fluid and are forced through the cracks. This fluid state isn’t a new approach to finding our identity, it is our identity. Exile is a life forever slipping through the fingers; a mixture of real and imaginary. This is our strength.
Saeed Taji Farouky is a Palestinian-British award-winning filmmaker, artist, and educator. His 2021 documentary A Thousand Fires about the unregulated oil fields of the Magway region of Myanmar is a powerful meditation of family ties and a source of contemplation on the parallel experiences of the Palestinian and Burmese people.
Fragments: Burmese Identities In Between is streaming on The Cinema of Ideas from 13-26 February 2023. The season features four films which examine the intersectional ways that Burmese people navigate identity, home, family and grief; a series of poetry readings contemplating the fragments of one’s identity, and a conversation between the poets and filmmakers contributing their perspectives to the questions raised in the programme.
You can book your ticket here. Tickets are free, but we invite and encourage donations to Salween (သံလွင်), a non-profit fundraising group that supports participants of the Civil Disobedience Movement in Myanmar.