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VIFF 2017 Interview: BURMA STORYBOOK director Petr Lom

By Jason Whyte
Posted 10/06/17 11:09:50

"Our documentary tells the story of Myanmar's emergence from sixty years of dictatorship through the country's poetry. The main character and his wife are some of the most beautiful and inspiring people you will ever meet. He's a 70 year old poet who was in jail for a long long time. In the film he's waiting for the return of son from political exile, who he hasn't seen for twenty years. We filmed the family reuniting. It will make you cry." Director Petr Lom on BURMA STORYBOOK which screens at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival.

Is this your first VIFF experience and will you be in Vancouver to attend your screenings?

I had the privilege of attending VIFF in 2009 with a film I made about Iran, LETTERS TO THE PRESIDENT. I had a wonderful experience then, both because I have a lot of old friends in Vancouver, and also because the festival is a great audience festival and the cinemas are full. Unfortunately, this time around I am not able to come to Vancouver; we are launching a big outreach project around our film. We are organizing large free outdoor screenings of the film throughout Myanmar this fall. We are lucky enough that our film got through the Burmese censor board and we are able to screen it in country. So alas, we can't make it to Vancouver. We wish we had more time!

Sorry you canít make it, but we will definitely champion your film for sure! Tell me about your start in the filmmaking business!

Filmmaking is my second-life. I used to be an academic, a professor of political theory. I had a Ph.D. from Harvard -- look at me! -- I had written two academic books, and had worked as an academic for seven years. It's a wonderful profession, but my heart was not completely in it and I wanted to do something more creative. So I became a documentary filmmaker. Most of the people I met when I was making up my mind to leave academia told me I was completely nuts, that I had never been to film school, that I was too old at 35, that I would never make a living and so forth. I didn't listen to them. So to anyone reading this who is thinking about taking a big leap into the unknown and feels some trepidation, my advice to you is look, I did it, you can too! Live your dreams. You will never look back.

So how did this movie come together from your perspective?

This is my sixth film. But it still feels like the first film. The same sense of excitement when I am working on a project, the same sense of dread at the beginning. How is this going to work out? And the same sense of dreaming while living.

While you are working on a movie, what keeps you going? What drives you, creatively? How much coffee?

You always want to make a better film than your last one. It's part of the craft and you always want to be bettering yourself. That doesn't require coffee. It's just the realization that life is short, so every project you work on has to be one that you want to dedicate yourself to completely and entirely.

What was your biggest challenge with this project, and how did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge in Myanmar is that this is a country that was traumatized by sixty years of dictatorship. So many people have suffered in countless ways. This also makes for a deeply introverted society. I asked on of our main character's, who now lives in Finland, who is more introverted, the Burmese or the Finns, and he answered, "The Burmese by far". It thus is a challenge as a storyteller to get people to open up to you emotionally. But like all documentary filmmaking, the solution to this is simple which is trust and time.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?

We were lucky enough to bring back the film to our main character, 70 year old poet Maung Aung Pwint and his family, and show the film to them in their home in Myanmar this past April. We screened the film in their tiny living room! We borrowed a beamer and a screen and the screen took up the entire living room. We showed the film in the same location where we had filmed over a course of two years. It was magical. Showing the film in the same place we had filmed. Time had stopped. And even more special was this: someone had saw our film in the cinemas in the Netherlands, and was so moved they paid for the airfare of our main characters' son, who lives in Finland, so he could return to Myanmar and see the film together with his family. Which he did when we were there.[br]

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film!

Sony F5, Center Scan mode with a Super 16 cinema zoom lens, 12-132 mm lens. Great camera, extraordinary lens with amazing reach.

Where is this movie going to show after VIFF?

Our film is up to about 50 festivals around the world: it is screening in Rio and Reykjavik and Taiwan and Singapore after Vancouver. So it is really traveling the world!

If you could show your movie in any theater in the world, which one would you choose and why?

We already did! We had our Burmese premiere at the 100 year old Waziyar cinema in downtown Yangon which holds about a thousand people. The cinema is sadly closed, and is opened only once a year for the Yangon Human Rights Film Festival and we opened the festival this past June. And some of the poets in our film recited their work before the screening to a packed house. They were like rockstars. An extraordinary evening.

Movie theaters are the best place to see a movie, but sometimes they can be distracting! What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?

Be present. In the moment. Kill your phone. Stomp on it and buy a book!

There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews for inspiration. If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?

Don't be afraid. Or if you are afraid, recognize that most people are as well. Don't let that get in the way. Live your dreams. With every little step you will get courage to make the next one. Watch a lot of films. Particularly all of the classics. The best of the best. That should be your film school, above all. And follow Werner Herzog's advice for aspiring documentary filmmakers: forget about film school, go to the gym. Though, camera equipment was heavier in his day, I would say: do yoga, it will make you a better cameraperson.

And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?

There are so many. One that comes to mind this year! In April, we were at the Hong Kong Film Festival, and saw Edward Yang's 4 hour classic TAIPEI STORY with an audience of 2000 people in a packed cinema. Another extraordinary evening!

This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 28th to October 13th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to www.viff.org.

Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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