‘Cinemata Features’ is a series highlighting film practitioners in the Asia-Pacific – filmmakers, film groups, curators, critics, and archivists – who create and disseminate social and environmental issue films in the region.
This seventh feature spotlights Athan – Freedom of Expression Activist Organization, a research-based activist organisation promoting freedom of expression through research, advocacy, and education. Athan, which means ‘voice’ in Burmese, has also been diligently documenting the atrocities and human rights violations in Myanmar since the military coup in 2021.
EngageMedia [EM]: Tell us more about your organisation and your advocacy in promoting rights to free expression, freedom of the press, and peaceful assembly.
Athan: Athan, established by Myanmar’s young activists on January 15, 2018, aims to promote freedom of expression on a societal level. Mainly performing research activities, the organisation regularly engages in advocacy and capacity building. Our broad scope of work includes exploring and recording the laws, customs, traditions, and events that hinder freedom of expression, and supporting legislative reforms in line with democratic standards, grounded by research and advocacy in different stages and sectors for the full enjoyment of freedom of expression. Athan envisions a society that fully enjoys freedom of expression as part of democratic values.
EM: How do video documentation and films complement and support Athan’s research and advocacy? Can you share more about the videos and films you produce?
Athan: In the last two years since the coup, we have produced two documentary films, titled Walking through the Darkness and Undaunted: Voices from Myanmar’s Resistance alongside our reports, and many short videos and films. Our innovative idea of visual storytelling enables us to increase public engagement with the reports we release. We organised online and onsite screenings in different countries to enhance the international advocacy process. Later, we shared those videos with local media outlets from different regions of Myanmar. In doing so, people across Myanmar had access to those videos and were made aware of the issues that we raised.
EM: What challenges have you overcome or are still facing as an activist organisation that closely follows and documents the atrocities and human rights violations of Myanmar’s military dictatorship?
Athan: We have overcome many challenges when we made those films and videos. First of all, we faced technical challenges such as acquiring compelling visuals, as we can’t only show interviews in the film. But our documentary team successfully overcame those challenges by creating visuals that reflect the traumatic experiences of characters in the films.
The other challenge is that it is time-consuming to look for the best characters with compelling stories. Our production team also prioritised the security of anyone participating in the film.
We will be able to produce more impactful and compelling films when we can expand our budget for film production. The reason is that limited financial resources restrict our capacity to travel to sources and acquire visuals.
EM: Freedom of the press is one of Athan’s advocacies. Paint us a picture of Myanmar’s current media landscape. What reforms are needed to improve the media situation?
Athan: Almost all the media organisations are now in exile. Many journalists were persecuted, killed, imprisoned, and forced to flee their homes for simply doing their jobs. The military regime put more effort to shut the mouths of anyone who reveals their true identity. But the resistance among the Myanmar media organisations is courageous, as they continue raising their voices.
But we need more bridges to connect Myanmar’s civil society and the media industry. Both sectors need better collaboration rather than just covering events and press releases. Civil society has released a lot of good quality materials for awareness-raising or advocacy purposes, but these materials don’t get into the hands of the media, so the public doesn’t have access either.
Athan is delighted to fill this gap as we partnered with a lot of media organisations sharing our live webinars, films, and short videos.
EM: Many international organisations are also documenting Myanmar’s current situation. As a local organisation familiar with the context, do you think the reports and documentation have been fair? What important issues are not being documented enough?
Athan: The bigger trauma that we suffer currently is that the Myanmar issue is being forgotten by the world.
We noticed a significant decrease in media coverage of Myanmar’s situation. This doesn’t mean that nothing is happening on the ground. A lot of traumatic events are going on, and the Myanmar people are suffering the most painful years of their lives. But international media organisations are covering Myanmar less and less, highlighting other global crises and issues. That is unfair.
Also, it is understandable that the Myanmar issue is difficult to get access to for the international media. Thus, civil society and other parties like the National Unity Governments (NUG) and aid agencies need better partnerships with media organisations. We need to initiate regular forms of communication with international media as well as local media.
EM: You have produced and shared a lot of your video content online. Why do you think online distribution is an effective way to promote your advocacy? Are there risks in sharing your work online?
Athan: We distributed our films online, and also broadcasted them on TV channels and organised onsite screenings. Online distribution is useful because we can easily increase the number of viewers. Many of them were not able to join our screenings or watch TV channels, but our published stories can be seen on their mobile phones easily.
It is risky for the people featured in our films who are still inside Myanmar. But we managed to hide their identities and our team was able to deliver the best practices of safety. None of the characters in our films had received any threats or faced other risks due to our films.
EM: For the benefit of other activist and media organisations who wish to produce and distribute relevant videos, can you share some safety and security practices that you follow in filming and online distribution?
Athan: The security of our sources and characters matters most, there is no exception. The security of the production team comes later. The production team including the director, cameraman, and editor needs to know the context of the situation, including security, accommodation, and trauma of the people participating in the film. It is important to learn about the security of sources and their locations, so we need independent research as well as conversations with them.
It is also necessary to understand the rules and regulations of the filming location. Everyone in the production team must know what the regulations are, who the authorities are, where to get permission, or how to safely ask questions without provoking any traumas. In addition to that, it is important to prepare a story if you’re filming at a high-risk location.
EM: Cinemata has featured Athan’s films such as Protect Myanmar’s Human Rights Defenders and Walking Through the Darkness to name a few. Why did you choose Cinemata as one of your platforms for distribution?
Athan: First of all, Cinemata is a free and open source platform that is available for everyone. It highlights the local issues and increases more visibility of those issues in the region. Cinemata is for everyone, and Athan likes to contribute to this value.
EM: Networks and partnerships between filmmakers and film programmers are vital in solidarity building, co-producing, sharing resources, and distributing works. What do you think is the role of video platforms like Cinemata in building a community of Asia-Pacific social issue filmmakers and audiences?
Athan: Visual storytelling is essential for engagement between the creators and their viewers. There are many platforms to showcase films and videos all over the world. But not all of them are free and as easy to access as Cinemata. Cinemata is becoming an easy-access platform between creators and viewers.
EM: What are your hopes for the future of the film and media landscape in Myanmar?
Athan: Our ultimate long-term goal is to restore democracy and for the media to be able to practice their jobs freely without being intimidated. Based on the current situation, we hope to achieve better security premises for journalists and media organisations where they can work securely without being afraid of the military regime or any other authoritarian rulers.