Top prize at Myanmar's Young Film Festival combines heavy metal musicwith a story of a family's suffering after father becomes political prisoner
Myanmar's documentary about – and directed by – the children of a political prisoner that took top prize at this month’s Young Film Festival carries a simple message: families of the prisoners suffer as well.
“The arrest doesn’t just affect the person, but has repercussions for family members too,” says director Khin Su Kyi. “I wanted to show our lives, how we felt.
“My main goal was to show the sacrifices made by the families,” adds the 21-year-old director of “Vaiolenz Against Violence”. The title refers to the heavy metal band Vaiolenz of which her two brothers – VoVo Thia and Sparrow – are members. The film chronicles how the pair established their musical careers while caring for their father, a former political prisoner who is also a musician.
Win Maw was jailed twice, the first time in 1996 for composing two songs for democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi: “Soul of a Fighting Peacock” and “88 Revolution and Sacrifices”. His second prison term was related to his work as a video journalist for the Democratic Voice of Burma during the 2007 saffron revolution. He was sentenced to 17 years and sent to Rakhine State’s Thandwe and Sittwe prisons.
Sending political prisoners to faraway regions was one of the torture strategies used by the former military dictatorship. It kept them far away from their families, and made it near impossible for families to monitor their health or deliver food. Some political prisoners died at these prisons; others contracted malaria or developed chronic diseases.
“It took us one full day to get to the prisons in Rakhine State,” VoVo Thiha says in the documentary. “It was a hard journey. We would be exhausted after it. My mother still suffers chronic back pain from those journeys,” he adds.
VoVo Thiha, now the drummer in Vaiolenz, continues: “When our dad was in jail for his political conscience, mum was our sole caretaker. Since I’m the elder son, I always went to the prison to see my dad with her.”
He had to take breaks from school to visit his father, but he tells the audience he never explained the reason. “I never told the teacher I was going to see my dad. I didn’t want to say the word ‘prison’, even though I knew that he was incarcerated for his political conscience.”
Just mentioning the word “prison” could have led to the family being ostracised. People even feared the word “politics” under the dictatorship. Activists as well as their families were often shunned under military rule, a consequence of the atmosphere of suspicion and fear the generals created.
VoVo Thiha was just four years old the first time his father was jailed. He remembers the sound of police knocking on the door the day his father was taken away. He still has nightmares about this.
Sparrow, now lead vocalist of Vaiolenz, was just one when his father was incarcerated in 1996. He has no memory of him as a child.
Still, he inherited his father’s passion for music, and his belief that this art form can be used to improve society. Sparrow visits camps for internally displaced persons – in Kachin and Shan states – to freely offer his assistance. He is also involved in street entertainment as a member of the Shwethanzin Music Charity Band, which has performed in events organised by the Action Times Foundation and Pan Ye Lan Music Foundation over the past two years.
“After I visited Laiza, I felt great sadness,” he says in the documentary. “I can recall their voices and faces,” he adds, referring to the IDPs.
The experience, he says, changed his music. “The songs I write are becoming more and more humanitarian,” he says in the film. Previously, he had focused on love songs.
Sparrow’s father was freed in a general amnesty in 2012 and now works as a video journalist and guitarist. He has written many songs to honour his colleagues in Myanmar’s struggle for democracy, while in prison and once outside. He has received several awards, including Creator of Golden Melodies, the Freedom to Create Imprisoned Artist prize and the Kenji Nagai Memorial Award. His song “Cherry” is based on what he learnt about a young female activist who had been imprisoned. It was included in an album released by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners in 2005.
Free now, Win May remains slightly conflicted. “Of course I did my duty for my country, but I did not do my duty for my children,” he explains. “I could not teach them music, but they learned to play the guitar indirectly through me as one of my followers taught them.”
His daughter, however, was in a state of bliss when she received her award on August 12. “My father was here to see me receive it,” Khin Su Kyi says.