“Wait for it,” I told myself. “Wait for it.”
I was screening Lamin Oo’s film, Homework. “Traffic is terrible here. We get around on motorcycles.” says a young father in the film to his wife via Skype. He’s talking about Bangkok. “The buses are hopeless. They don’t even move in traffic.”
The audience laughed and nodded at the same time. “Yes,” I thought. “They get it!” The film is laced with a few references only people who’ve experienced both Thailand and Myanmar will understand. That was one of them.
I was in Mae Sot, a Thai-Myanmar border town inhabited mostly by those who live between these two worlds and belong to neither. Homework is about a migrant worker trying to stay connected to his family in Myanmar. It’s an experience this audience knows well.
It was a small showing: four Karen filmmakers who’ve spent time in refugee camps and their advisor. I showed Homework as part of my course designed to help them with a film they’d just shot about refugee life. The filmmakers go by pseudonyms to protect them from authorities while they’re in Thailand.
“I like the part where the girl shouts out loud to keep her parents quiet,” said Blacktown Hackett, one of the filmmakers. He’s just had his second daughter. “And the parents chatting about missing each other without speaking too loudly in front of the girl.”
I’m not the creator of Homework. But it’s particularly satisfying to show it to an audience that identifies with the film. I’ve seen it a couple of times now so this time I watched audience instead. And they laughed or nodded at exactly the right moments.
Since Myanmar announced its government reforms a couple of years ago, there’s been constant chatter at the camps about moving everyone back “inside.” That’s a journey many aren’t willing to take until there’s real peace and economic opportunity. The Karen filmmakers’ project is about uncertainty in the camps. The film is in the early stages of editing. And I was teaching them about narrative structure that day.
In many ways Homework was the perfect film to show them. They were struggling over which moments to include and what to cut from their doc. They weren’t sure what made some scenes work and others not so much. Homework introduced them to the idea of universal themes.
They laughed during the film because the scene was familiar: they too feel disconnected from their families. They laughed because they too are fathers with small children. These are the universal themes in Homework. These are the small moments that tell bigger stories.
Without universal themes, films are islands of niche information. Information that few can relate to. These themes turn unique experiences into relatable ones. Watching the film was an “Ah ha!” moment for the filmmakers. They may be uncertain about their footage. They may be caught between two places and feeling they don’t belong anywhere. But they still have the potential to make a film the whole world will understand.
Pailin Wedel is a freelance visual journalist based in Bangkok and Yangon. She has worked on several news documentary projects in Myanmar and through out Asia. Her work in Asia has won two golds at the Asia Digital Media Awards. More info at www.pailinwedel.com.