Yangon Calling – Punk in Myanmar review at Asia House Film Festival 2015

I’m just too poor,” says Darko when talking of buying an authentic Fender Telecaster, the treasured copy brought back from Japan by his aunt propped up beneath his arm.

For just over one hour, Berlin based filmmakers, Alexander Dluzak and Carsten Piefke‘s heart-breaking, heart-warming documentary, Yangon Calling – Punk in Myanmar tells the story of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar’s blossoming underground punk rock scene.

Premiering in the UK on 31st March in Bloomsbury’s Horse Hospital, the film is presented as part of the Asia House Film Festival 2015, a celebration of previously unheralded cinematic gems from across Asia.

Screenshot 2015-03-24 21.25.41Both moving and arresting, Yangon Calling explains the growth of the punk rock scene in distant Myanmar, the frustrations and anger, the bitterness of growing up within a regime that since 2007 and the Saffron Revolution has seen an incredible authoritarian resistance to any contrary opinion other than the stated party line. From the very opening of the documentary, it is clear what is it at stake—Darko, Scum, Jarmani, Ye Nge Soe, all of them face persecution not only for conversing with foreign journalists, but also from the way they dress and the mere assumption of what their views might be. Scum himself—tall, awkward, a shock of dyed blond hair and a love of Iggy Pop—describes his previous arrest and experiences in gaol for possession of marijuana, a forced smile upon his lips and a defiant look in his eyes.

It is stories like these that makes Dluzak and Piefke’s film so moving, their documentary style never imposing, forever limited to the establishment of context and the desire to allow the film’s subjects to speak for themselves—and speak they do; it is their stories that make the film compelling, stories not only of governmental oppression, but also of social ostracisation and parental pressure.

Screenshot 2015-03-24 21.18.54This last point is most telling in the story of Jarmani, whose family threatened to cut her off if she continued to sing live on stage with her friends.

From Ko Nyan’s small shop, the first punk shop in Yangon, its goods almost entirely handmade, to the makeshift festival staged on New Year and the bands that have spearheaded the nascent scene since its inception, the film is rich with tales of frustration and anxiety amongst the subculture. And yet despite this frustration, it is not only a beautiful thing seeing the translation of punk rock into such a unique setting but also a validation of the very ethos of the movement.

The documentary is rich with the details of everyday life and the landscape in which the movement has flourished. Along with details of Scum’s life and his interaction with friends, we also are introduced to his mother and told of his upbringing. There is a constant sense of honesty in which Dluzak and Piefke’s allow their interviewees to speak for themselves, to tell their own stories, just as there is a feeling of the general investment of the two directors in ensuring that the story of these young people reach as wide an audience as possible.

It’s an admirable goal and one that certainly works, treating the subject of Myanmar’s difficult political history with dignity and respect.

Screenshot 2015-03-24 21.22.01At the time of writing, it has now been almost 40 years since the release of New Rose by The Damned, the song largely hailed as ‘punk’s first single,’ and perhaps it’s easy to lose sight of the original reasons that made both such early songs as these and the bands who sang them so very important—and for those who have forgotten, this documentary is a very good reminder of why we should demand more from the systems that govern us… and also just how lazy we have all become.

It is easy, from the point of view of our own society, to rest upon our laurels, feigning sympathy for the situation in Myanmar and patting ourselves on the back for residing in a culture of assumed personal freedoms in which the middle-class swan off on Mediterranean summer holidays from metropolitan suburbs and we all own 1+ Apple devices. To do so is to miss the point entirely; the oppression of other people, especially the poor, should not be used as a way in which we congratulate ourselves for our own freedoms, it should be cause to listen; listen and take note… because what the punks of Yangon are doing puts us all to shame.

If there is one thing that Yangon Calling can teach us it is that we have been taking things for granted; that we have become too complacent with the notions of our infallible freedoms or too jaded to consider what changes we can make—we have too readily accepted the notion that art should be entertainment and that creativity need be tied to concepts of financial gain.

And so, to echo the sentiment of anarcho-punk legends, Crass, there is a lesson here to be learnt: There is No Authority But Yourself.

Write fanzines, children, pick up a musical instrument, challenge authority… and most importantly of all, never stop asking questions.

Destroy.

Create.

Yangon Calling – Punk in Myanmar is showing on 31st March at the Horse Hospital as part of the Asia House Film Festival 2015. Tickets are available from their website.

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