Your average Westerner can be forgiven for imagining Myanmar as one big tropical tragedy — an isolated place where freedom fighters and monks suffer under evil military overlords.
After all, that’s mostly what the West is told. Foreign reporters and filmmakers are all too keen to dive into the deep well of Myanmar’s misery. (And indeed, there is plenty of misery to explore.) But they’re terrible at documenting its lighter side.
What emerges is a lopsided view of the country’s humanity. Veer off the script and you will find that most people in Myanmar don’t neatly fit the typecast role of oppressed peasant. A lot of them are, in fact, riotously funny.
Exhibit A: “The Special One,” a short documentary shot by Yangon’s Tagu Films and directed by filmmaker Lamin Oo.
At first glance, the film is about a fishmonger. His name is Myint Lwin and he’s a tubby dude who runs a crew in a chaotic riverside market.
“The police, hospitals and the fish market never get a day off,” he explains. Idle hands lead to rotting fish. So his guys are in constant motion, collecting bucket after bucket of slippery fish on ice to keep their city fed.
But “The Special One” isn’t really about fish. It’s about passion and obsession — and Myint Lwin’s obsession is Chelsea, the London-based Premier League team. (So much for Myanmar’s infamous isolation.)
Myint Lwin has created a fantasy world where his dockside crew are footballers and he is their coach. He forces them to dress in Chelsea gear. He exhorts them to mimic Chelsea’s teamwork.
His passion for Chelsea runs so hot that, when rhapsodizing about the team, he sometimes starts to stutter. Maybe all this is one fishmonger’s method for coping with a grueling workplace. Or maybe the guy just really, really loves Chelsea.
“The Special One” is the rarest of documentaries: a film about Myanmar that dares to be funny. It’s totally unlike anything captured in Myanmar by a foreigner’s lens.
(I should know. I’m one of those foreign journalists who, despite a deep affection for Myanmar, inevitably ends up dwelling on the country’s dark subjects such as child labor or the drug trade.)
“The Special One” builds off Lamin Oo’s “Homework,” a short documentary on a little girl in Yangon who has to speak with her father via online video chat because he’s working abroad.
Once again, Lamin Oo has turned a pedestrian scene into a poignant short film. Outside filmmakers wouldn’t bother to train their cameras on these largely invisible subjects — and, if they did, they probably wouldn’t get the same access.
That’s what makes the “The Special One” so refreshing. It offers a fuller vision of Myanmar’s humanity — and subtly clears out the cobweb of tired stereotypes at the same time.
Patrick Winn is senior Southeast Asia correspondent with GlobalPost, a US foreign news agency. He’s won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award and a National Press Club award for this documentary work in Myanmar (See ‘Promise and Peril': https://vimeo.com/82404496).