Myanmar Diary – Part 4

8 November 15  – Sunday – DAY TWO

I woke to the sounds of hundreds of howling stray dogs in the neighborhood. Apparently, Myanmar has legions of stray dogs – all friendly – and roughly organized into small gangs.  These packs are not very tight, and it seems that membership can be pretty fluid.  I am not animal behaviorist, so I did not tag and track them, but they seem to run together for short periods, maybe even a day or so, and then disband, or wander off.  It’s not a bad life if you’re a dog in Myanmar, but they do act like they are second-class citizens living on the periphery of society.  They lurk, dig through trash, hang around, sleep in the middle of the road, and are fairly welcome just about anywhere.  But you cannot get near them, or they run away – always content to be loitering about 10 feet away from any human activity.


It was election day and everyone had to go to their home province to cast their vote. That seemed very biblical to me, but it’s not my country. Thus, no staff were around at the hotel.  The skeleton crew made us a rather sad-looking egg which was served by a stunning young woman who Gavin says we’ve cast as the mother.   Her name was Nyin Zar Wei, but most of us did not know this yet.  I think at this point even Gavin did not know her name, or had heard it and did not remember it.

Google Earth knows where it is

It was a rather short drive from the hotel to the sewing shop owned by Hone Hone, who is Gavin’s cousin here in Myanmar.  Hone Hone is a very lackadaisical shopkeeper.  We found that many in Myanmar are.  But Hone Hone seems entirely uninterested in whether or not she serves any customers ever, and often locks the shop up during what would normally be considered business hours.  So her having agreed to let Gavin use her place as the primary set for the film made some sense.

The Sew Shop – the location for the better part of the film

The day’s scenes were of young Tinmar Aung doing homework and applying thanaka to her face.   Thanakha is a tree that grows in Myanmar, and the bark is ground into a paste-like preparation and applied to the face.  It is supposedly a natural sunscreen, and is also rumored to be good for the complexion.  The only thing that is certain is that most women and children wear it, in big yellow patches on the cheeks or nose.  It’s a bit alarming to see at first, especially because everyone seems to apply it differently.  It is distinctly Burmese.

Tinmar Aung with the thanaka grinding stone

Thus our first scenes of the day were of Tinmar Aung grinding the bark and applying the paste to her face, just as most Burmese children do.

The day was frenetic in some ways.  Every moment I was not rolling sound for picture I was trying to get various ambiences or snapping some digital pictures, a practice I was unaccustomed to but that I kept up until we left, with the results posted here.  It was a regular digital media frenzy in our group.

In the midst of this, I began to get distressed about the lack of professional procedure on our crew, mostly with regards to sound.  There is a reason why certain protocols are followed during production, and it has most to do with getting quick and stable results.  Getting Gavin to call “Roll Sound” or getting Sean to call at least “Marker” instead of yelling out “I’m shooting now” would probably have gone a long way towards that professionalism I craved. I’d not missed a cue yet, but it was a wonder.

Tinmar Aung was delightful. She is patient, concentrates well, is game for anything –  in short, the perfect little actress. Gavin had not made her do much at this point, but she had been good at it so far, and everyone noticed little things about her that set her apart from the norm.  She did her own resets of props and costumes at the ends of takes.  She put down her own marks.  She set her own mic (I always checked it, but she pretty much did it on her own for most of the shoot).  She could flub a line like anyone, but she did it on the first or second take, and by take 3 we were good.  She got frustrated when the other actors went into a 7th or 8th take.

Camera bigger than girl

This is how the morning passed; without much incident except the smell of food in Hone Hone’s small sewing shop filling our nostrils and reminding us that after that sad egg we would really like something more substantial.  Hone Hone often made us lunch – this worked out spectacularly because not only does she love to cook, but her cooking is excellent.  If either of these had been out of place then we’d certainly have had a different plan, but we were lucky in that the stars aligned and bowls of delicious hot Shan noodles came from the kitchen straight into our eager hands.

Such great food here!  Tinmar Aung wolfs hers down in about four seconds. I realized later that the food at the orphanage is pretty Spartan.  It’s nutritious, to be sure, but feeding 60 people at every meal tends to be repetitive.  The food on our set must have been a big step up for our star.  It must have been a nice change.

We were all spoiling her rotten, though, and we worried what effect that might have on her.  We were constantly plying her with treats and snacks, all of us keeping an eye on her and making sure she was not too neglected or too bored.  She remained good-natured throughout, and only got more and more comfortable with us as the shoot wore on.

A contemplative Tinmar Aung wonders when lunch will be

An hour later and Gavin had returned to the set, our own Captain Ahab, making infinitesimal tweaks and tiny changes to micro-sized shots with no one in them. I got the feeling he was shooting for the edit, which is to say he’d decided what the scene will look like edited and is only shooting those pieces.  This is actually not at all how a film is made, and it’s one of my solemn and unpleasant duties to keep reminding my students of this over and over again.  It is, in fact, vital to the proper making of any film that you shoot everything required for the edit PLUS a lot of other stuff, because no one can actually edit on paper or in their head – too many things are variable and nothing makes as much sense as it does on a timeline when you can see it all together.  Shooting that close to the edit – well, you’re never sure how it’s going to cut, so it’s always a mistake.

I waited for a bit but then intervened, hoping I was not stepping on Gavin’s toes. He seemed very happy to accommodate, and agreed with me about being too skimpy with footage. I think in some ways he felt very pressured by the circumstances of this film.  He set it up with a very difficult set of limitations – not the least of which have to do with the language barrier and lack of script.  We all knew it would be tough to pull off.

The afternoon consisted of B roll, some driving shots, and a reshoot of yesterday’s shot of the forlorn Tinmar Aung that is now so good it almost makes Gavin cry. The day was cut somewhat short by things being so inaccessible during election time, so we decided to spend the evening hours planning and working on story.  We all felt like we’d lost time. But thankfully, all Gavin’s crazy tweakiness after lunch may have given us some of our most poetic shots – we will have to see.

Setting up for the driving home scene

Gavin, Sean and I did the last shot of the day hanging out of the van with our gruff driver, Thiha trying to avoid pot-holes.

Even with the big muff on the mic, getting any usable sound proves to be impossible, and what would it be anyway except the sound of the van?  That’s for the best, because Gavin’s special torture plan was that Minshi and I would also stand on the seat, half out of the sun roof, holding Sean in place while he operates the camera.  The plan was to drive all the way from the outskirts of Pyin Oo Lwin to the center of town, and to do it at the last light of day.  The road is miles and miles and Minshi and I spent this hell ride mostly swearing at the top of our lungs. Each careening turn Thiha took on the road made two people crush the unlucky third into one sharp metal corner of the sunroof, destroying all possible spinal health in the process.  Minshi secretly used his phone to record us shouting and cursing, groaning in pain.  Gavin sat below with the external monitor, giggling. We were not even sure the shot was usable.

At dinner we convened with the rest of the group and heard about the election.  While we were running around town hurting ourselves, an amazing and historical event took place.  Hone Hone woke up at 5AM to go vote – she was the first in line.  Thiha had no good words for the government; he was watching election returns in real time on his phone.  On the TV there was a woman counting votes one at a time, and another putting a tally mark for each vote up on a white board.  They spared no effort to make this election fair and transparent in every way possible.

Gavin’s cousin Salai was ebullient.  The Red Party (NLD, Aung San Suu Kyii’s party) swept the elections.  It was a routing, an embarrassment for the military Green Party.  Go Red Party!  Our crew was fairly ignorant of these local politics, but whatever side “The Lady” is on, we were all for it.

By evening’s end, we were once again exhausted.  We reviewed the dailies, laughed about our bruised backs, and set the alarms for early.  Gavin wanted a call time of 5AM for breakfast and shooting before six.

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