Myanmar Diary – Part 10

14 November 15 – Saturday – DAY EIGHT

It’s Cecilia’s birthday! She wants no one to know, just business as usual. And it sure is, as prosaic a day as they’ve all been here in Pyin Oo Lwin. By now any exotic/special nature of what were doing has worn off – we’re still open to new things, but eight days gives you a familiarity with people and places that’s hard to ignore. Whether we want to or not, we’re developing a kind of social entanglement – getting to know everyone and sympathizing with their day-to-day issues.

None of this even existed a week ago. Now we worry about a 10-year-old girl with a drunk for a dad who has to live in a Catholic orphanage and cries when we do scenes about familial bonds because, well, she’s missing all that and is in a fair degree of pain over it, no matter how exciting and fun being in a film can be. The human dimension is crashing down on us, and we’re all realizing that coming here to make a film is going to have some lasting effects we did not plan on. We hope they’re good ones, but there’s no telling.

Cecilia had insisted on a later call time for the crew today (we’re going to go late with night shots) so that Gavin can have a pow-wow and fix some of these story holes in an emergency morning meeting. We sit in a hotel cafe sipping tea and scribbling on scraps of paper, trying to work out the details. Cecilia has suggested a visit from a school friend. I suggest a second time when the school friend rejects Tinmar Aung – she is forgotten now. We’ve both been developing the idea of her finding a little treasure box (a la “Amelie”) and then showing how her father was the one who assembled it long before she was born. It still feels like we’re a vignette short, but I’m quite sure we’ll sort it. Gavin suggests Henry (one of the little boys in the waterfall scene) could come and show Tinmar Aung a game – like one of those pattycake type games the kids have been playing.

Cecilia goes into action – she has to call and arrange these kids to show up tomorrow. We may have written the scenes in our heads, but there’s still a lot to make sure they happen. For one, we don’t have a treasure box. What are we going to use? What will be in it? We’re happy to put those decisions off for a bit. Cecilia will search the market for anything that might work and we’ll all keep our eyes peeled.

The meeting is over, and we rush off to the set. I get to work immediately on wiring up actors, Tinmar Aung in particular. I’ve realized that at the end of each day she looks forward with a fair measure of dread to removing the Rycote undercover pad that holds her microphone on. I’ve had overwhelming success taping mics to people’s skin and having no trouble removing them. But on Tinmar Aung the pads adhere to her like a lamprey and always sting when removed. Today I take extra time to fashion a rig out of surgical tape for her. I don’t even care if I have to redo it 100 times a day there’s no reason to be hurting a little kid. Least of all one who’s doing so much and giving us so much right now.

Morning passes well. But The Second Act Problem will have to wait for another day. Gavin seems a bit testy. We sense his anxiety is causing him to tweak each shot endlessly. We all want perfection – “Every Shot a Masterpiece,” indeed – but he keeps us until 2PM without food again, and we’re all a bit grumbly.

Tinmar Aung does not care about our story problems

Tinmar Aung gets to use the sewing machine in this scene, so she’s excited that she’s learned a little bit about how to sew. When I was growing up girls still wanted to learn how to sew, and “Home Economics” was still a class they taught in junior high. All that has gone away in my lifetime, and I have to admit I’m a bit sad about it. Make no mistake – the thoroughly sexist assignation of cooking, cleaning, and sewing to women only is abhorrent to me. But cooking and sewing are basic skills that more people should know. Teaching them in schools went a long way towards making people self-sufficient and useful in their lifetimes. I know its not fashionable to make your own clothes or even darn your socks, but it sure is practical. That I am now in a country where even small children take the acquisition of basic skills as a sign of growing up and improving themselves seems familiar and strange at the same time. I think of my college students at home, and how they only eat at restaurants or heat up pre-packaged food. I think of how many of my middle-aged friends order food out instead of preparing it. Here in Myanmar everyone knows how to start a charcoal fire and cook dinner on it. It makes everyone here seem rugged and capable, and people in the U.S. weak and pathetic. Oh, we Americans sure can play a good video game, though. We’ll trash your high score.

Salai, Gavin’s cousin, one of our interpreters and drivers, and an overall positive influence on everyone, announces he has just made Shan noodles for lunch. He is enough of a joker to have claimed he made them when he did very little, because I did see Hone Hone doing prep work earlier. I don’t think we ever found out if he did make them, but they are delicious even outside of our stinging hunger. The Shan state borders China and Thailand, and is the part of Myanmar that Pyin Oo Lwin is located in. All of the Burmese states have local cuisines, and Shan noodles are a particularly popular dish from this region.

At the risk of sounding like a food blog, it’s worth detailing the ingredients of Shan Khao Swe. It is a dish of rice stick noodles covered in a sauce made of soy, garlic, and chiles, sprinkled with peanuts. Chicken is usually the meat, and greens are also added. It’s simple, but it’s also spicy and delicious. Clever Gavin, getting us good food to pick us all up and get us going.

But the long wait before food has put our energy levels so low we have a hard time leaving lunch and getting back to work. The afternoon drags. Sean and Minshi deny it, but we do less than half the work after lunch than we did before.

This perplexing ornament adorns the Sew Shop

Next we set up for Grandma’s second fall. In the story, after the day at the waterfall, in which Grandma hurts her leg, she is taken home and Tinmar Aung must care for her. When Tinmar Aung gets somewhat tired of this, and at Grandma’s insistence, she goes back to school. On returning home, she watches as Grandma takes another tumble, injuring herself further.

While the boys set this one up, I’m sitting with Tinmar Aung as she does her homework. Watching her write in loopy spirals, I realize that I have always loved the look of Burmese script.  When I was a kid I discovered it in our copy of the Britannica.  I was on the diametrically opposite part of the world. In fact, I think if you drew a straight line, parallel to the equator, through the earth from Indiana and Ohio I’m pretty sure you would come out fairly close to Myanmar. I am now as far around the earth as I could go, and have effectively gone around the planet and back – the same distance as circumnavigating it.

I’m not making a case of having gone around the world – I haven’t. But it’s odd to think how far I have come.

I do love Burmese script! I think mostly because it’s based on circles, not straight lines. I mean, straight lines are okay, but come on! Circles! This is so obvious, why had no one else done it? Cyrillic is interesting, but cannot compare to the loveliness of Burmese. And how about Sanskrit with its weird descending line? That also seems like an obvious improvement. America may be the empire now, but it seems like we use the inferior version of some things – like the relative ugliness and rectilinear sobriety of the Latin alphabet. It should never have taken over.

After some time we’re ready with the shot, and we all march out for the action. It is then, deep into the production and eight days into shooting, that the audio recorder begins to act strangely. It dumps the take in the middle of recording, and has a terrible time starting and stopping. There are a couple takes – thankfully none that have actual sync dialogue – that have no sound whatsoever. I’m at a loss. What has caused this stuttering? The DR-70D has been a real tank all this time, churning through 4 channels of 96KHz 24 bit recording without a single hiccup.

I rush back to my room at the hotel that night. I guess I’ve never tested this particular model of recorder for very long – what if it’s true that it cannot be used in a heavy production situation? I find that answer unacceptable, because any equipment manufacturer worth a dime cannot possibly make money in the 21st-century manufacturing a piece of gear that can not hold up to certain requirements. And it’s not like we’ve put this recorder through any kind of hell, either, like adverse weather conditions or being pummeled with a hammer. I had worried about the memory cards, but not only had I thoroughly researched brands and specs for the most successful cards, I had done some tests in L.A. recording up to an hour on the cards with all four channels blazing away.

There’s a logic to dealing with equipment problems, though, and it starts with powering down, changing batteries, and checking the gear for obvious issues. When you’ve run out of vectors, you start in on the manual. Nothing seemed out of place, so the next step is to check the website and look for a firmware update. Because – I dunno, maybe this problem has been reported or perhaps someone else has discovered it.

A quick search of the website reveals that there is, indeed, a new firmware. It’s an incredibly minor operation to load up the new file, and the recorder seems to be working perfectly fine thereafter, with none of the problems it had shown only an hour or two previously.

A note from hindsight: As it turned out, the firmware fix allowed the recorder to be used for the duration of the project without a single further problem.

The day ends well and I passed out again, unable to watch all the dailies, exhausted and still somewhat sick. Once again, the group is in the room, watching and laughing, talking amongst themselves, but I am as good as unconscious.

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