23rd November 15 – Monday – DAY SEVENTEEN
We’re standing on the roof of the orphanage now, trying to get a shot of the school playground at recess. It’s the opening day of the Balloon Festival. After this one shot and a pickup of Gilbert – to cover the shot that had his big ugly watch in frame – we will trundle off to the opening ceremonies. This means hours in the car trying to beat the throng. We’re leaving at 2 PM for a 6 PM event, and it may be totally not worth our while. What if the opening ceremony is cheesy? We’ll take Tinmar Aung with us, and we all figure she’ll be napping for a good portion of the drive, if not the ceremony itself. We also hope that she’s excited to go – she’s ten years old, but not a sophisticated bored teenager kind of ten. She’s still enough of a little kid to appreciate this stuff, we hope.
After a quick lunch of more Shan noodles it’s back to the sewing shop – after a two-day vacation – to shoot Gilbert. Am I getting lazy since three weeks ago? I’m not even going to wire him. Just boom. Cecilia is pushing Gavin to re-shoot our first scene with Tinmar Aung and Grandma tomorrow because she thinks it may go better. Gavin is concerned – Grandma’s pretty wooden, and her first scenes with Tinmar Aung should have been better. Tinmar Aung is certainly better since we started. UGH. Another Grandma scene!
Everything moves surprisingly well, and we have time to leisurely pack and ready ourselves for the great unknown of the Balloon Festival. Gavin has seen it, three years ago, but it has grown in the meantime. It’s one of two major Balloon Festivals in the country, so it is sure to draw crowds from Mandalay, which is only about an hour away anyway. We’ve been told by the Festival Commission people that the road to the area has just been paved. I’m not sure what to think about that.
Hone Hone has made a fine box dinner for us all, and we get everyone into the vans with the stealthiest of stealthy setups and the minimum of gear. We’re all very attuned to documentary style shooting, so we’re like a coiled serpent ready to pounce on this event.
The road is easy, the crowds have not yet begun, and we get there with plenty of time. We park where we think we’ll have an easy shot at getting out. The sun is still up, and we get B-roll of the parade field (about the size of a football stadium – I hope they also use this for sports otherwise) which we are told is new or fairly new. There is live music, a massive PA system, fireworks, and a guy flying around on some powered ultralight glider, buzzing the crowd and inciting squeals of delight from attendees below.
We set up shop at the far end of the stadium – great centralized seats at the top, sitting next to a group of high school girls in costume – they are apparently going to dance at some point in the evening. We dig into our tasty box lunches and wait for something to happen.
The air turns chilly and Tinmar Aung is very happy to get into the red coat we bought for her. We have super press passes, which basically means that no one asks why the white guy with the mic is down on the field. In fact, we’re told that there is nothing – nothing at all – that is off limits to us. Free license to be jerks if we want to. Ah, the power!
The crew sets off to “scout” locations around the festival. We check the vendors’ stands and see the wide variety of fried foods, the carnival games, and take special note of the human-powered Ferris Wheel. With no electricity driving the device, the wheel works by having several able climbers shimmy from the ground up the center of the wheel. There they wait while people are loaded into the gondolas. Then they climb straight up and towards the outside of the wheel, adding their weight to a tangent point and causing the wheel to spin down from where they are hanging. As the wheel reaches the bottom, they drop off. It looks extremely fun and exactly like how to best break a limb at the same time.
After a quick look around, we realize it’s getting dark and the opening ceremony is about to begin. We have no idea what to expect, and certainly no idea what kind of time scale it’s going to happen on.
What does happen this night is kind of crazy and kind of inexplicable. After music, some speeches, and the 100 millionth iteration of the Balloon Festival song, which we will hear about 700 million times more before we leave this country, a cataclysm of fireworks is set off and dozens of small balloons go up in the sky. But that’s not even the main event, which will be the competition balloons. What they are competing for, we’re not sure. Biggest? Most dangerous? Fewest people hurt?
Here is the basic setup. A balloon “team,” which seem to be sponsored by organizations and even local companies, set up to do their “lift.” This consists of unfurling the balloon itself, which are about 20-25 feet high. A roaring bonfire of pitch-soaked wood is placed beneath, and several people tend to and wrangle this fire, trying to fill the balloon as fast as possible. Others affix lanterns to the outside of the balloon, outlining the writing or pictures on the outside. As the balloon fills with hot air it often lurches back and forth, threatening to collapse on everyone below it. Attached to it is usually a raft of fireworks, all stacked in a thin rack about the shape of a five foot cube. These are hand-fired just as the balloon is let go, which means this rambly, sputtering, flaming mess is somehow released into the night, shooting off roman candles and showering everyone with sparks, drifting into the sky and floating off to who knows where. It’s a version of what we did the other night, only this one seems remarkably reckless.
That’s the thing about Myanmar. Safety standards there are not really the same as they might be in America. There are no guard rails on things. People hang off motorbikes and especially off buses and trucks while they speed down the highway. Children and dogs run amok. But before you pass judgment keep in mind that this is not much different than how the US was in the 1930s and 40s. Once again, the biggest parallel to me is how people used to live in rural areas in America. Even down to the lack of firework safety.
Of course Sean and I are fearless, diving right into the fray, recording and watching the action as long as the people involved are not pushing us away. While the balloons fill, the high school girls do dances, sing, and play music for the crowd. We get great shots of this as well, going right up to the performers – taking liberties that would never be allowed at home. The dancers seem to like the attention.
Tinmar Aung is transfixed, especially by the dancers, whose costumes she loves. We get great footage of her, with her wide open eyes, sparks and flames reflected in them. When the first balloon of the evening goes up Sean and I race towards it, trying to get the best material, at one point dodging the firing rockets and getting lost in a haze of smoke. We’re running on adrenalin and can’t wait for the next one, even though it may be an hour away. We’re told this could go on all night, with at least 8 lifts.
We get the next lift or two and then head off into the rest of the festival for angles on the Ferris Wheel, the crowds, and Tinmar Aung buying food at the fair – an acting job that we realize may be her absolute favorite since we started this shoot. She’s worn out and falls asleep immediately when she reaches the van. I quite understand – we don’t have enough turnaround time either.
But we cannot leave. The great parking spot we think we have turns out to now be surrounded on all sides by other cars. No one is going anywhere. What time is this thing over? Long after midnight. The prospect of staying here that long is troubling. A festival atmosphere extends into the road, which is all covered in parked cars. People drink and sing, eat, pee into the ditch beside the road, and generally carry on. It’s cold, and families bundle up in the backs of those converted pickups.
Salai is busy running around the cars, asking about who’s leaving trying to maneuver his way out. And there is a bit of movement. We’re not the only ones who want to leave. A group of younger people is actually working to lift a car and move it slightly out of the way so they can get out. The Burmese drive right next to each other’s cars – within a few inches, maybe even less. And everyone is good enough and careful enough that I do not see anyone scratching anyone else. Once the kids get that white car out of the way their driver wiggles their pickup out of a tight spot in reverse that I would not have thought possible. It’s like a giant sized puzzle.
A way opens up for us, and Salai and Thiha are in the car in a jiffy, revving up and creeping forward to get out. Once free of the fairgrounds we sail back to the orphanage and hotel in fairly short order. We do not review the footage, we’re so worn out. But the feeling is that we have a lot of what we need.