Tuesday night I was in Bago, a small town a couple of hours north in Yangon. In the midst of a rather boring, uneventful stroll down the main street (that's Mandalay-Yangon street. I think it connects Mandalay and Yangon) I came across aa movie theatre with hordes of young families heading in. With no other plans for the night, and the Myanmar heat causing a glow and a stench, I decided to head inside to see what was on offer.
Myanmar has quite a rich cinematic tradition. For many years the country has tried to reject English language media, and has instead tried to tell its own stories in its own language.
Very few whitefella obviously go to the movies on a Tuesday night in Bago. As I walked into the cinema, which was full of excitable kids sitting on wooden bucket seats, there was a murmer than went through the throng. Kids in Myanmar have no inhibitions about pointing and staring, particularly with something as unusual as a foreigner at the movies. Plenty of hellos and Mingabalahs were uttered in my general direction.
Finally, the lights go down and the room is only illuminated by the glow of cigarette butts which puff away without interuption. First on the screen appears a few pages of Burmese print, its meaning lost on me and the assembled masses, gathering from the response. Then the flag of the Union of Myanmar appears, and about a third of the audience stand. Being the respectful and subservient foreigner, I do likewise. The first few bars of the Myanmar national anthem blare out of the dodgy sound system, and are drowned up by the sniggering and hooting from the audience. A little bit of Australianness in the heart of Bago.
Finally, the film commences. Myanmar has a proud cinematic tradition, pumping out 25 films a year and even hosting its own Academy Awards, which are only a few weeks away (oh, the excitement). Fortunately, I'd chosen a family film which was light on dialogue and high on slapstick and poorly chosen sound effects. Through the subtleties of the film were lost on this westerner, it seemed to involve a bloke who was keen on a sheila but was having trouble with the in-laws. Think Meet the Parents meets any film starring the Olsen Twins.
The film was not brilliant, by any stretch, but was certainly heartfelt. At every opportunity, the film would cut to scenic countryside footage, theoretically chosen to establish the location, but more likely because the stock footage was cheap and Myanmar countryside is a very patriotic thing. The acting was pure ham, but then it is in every kids or 'family' film. The story didn't seem overly complex, and interestingly the snippets of English that appear almost everywhere in Myanmar in either printed or spoken fom were banished. Funny, that.
Come the abruptly placed intermission, I'd had my fix of Myanmar cinema, and was ready to face the world again. As I headed for the exit, several hundred pairs of eyes followed me out the door (no, I am not involved in some bizarre facial organ theft scheme, but they were watching me as I left. You know what I mean.)