Myanmar Diary – Part 7

11 November 15 – Wednesday – DAY FIVE

Last night was the worst yet. Though I spent ten hours in bed, most of that was not sleeping but rolling around from side to side, punctuated by a few moments of actual refreshing sleep which inevitably descend into fever dreams. Since I’ve been spending so much time renaming and moving files at the end of the day the dreams inevitably fall into repetitive nocturnal exercises in alphabetizing. The worst kind of fever dream.

I’m rudely awakened, as if I could ever be otherwise awakened on this day. Head swimming and still not sure where I am, we are suddenly driving before I realize that I must have showered, dressed, eaten the now incredibly boring hotel breakfast, and lugged my kit into the van. All this I seem to have done while I was somnambulating. In my hand is a can of Coke I am apparently drinking in an attempt to say awake. In my pocket is a jumble of pills – the Costco cold medicine, Advil, Zyrtec, and cough drops. We’re on our way to the school so I can give the children of Myanmar my terrible disease.

The school is actually next to the orphanage

When we pull up to the front of the building I realize that I have been sweating the entire time, and my shirt is already dripping. As usual, the locals here are practically bundled up. In Myanmar the 70 degree temperature must seem chilly, and our driver is wearing a down vest. I’m in shorts and a T-shirt, now with attractive wet spots from fever.

The school is a pile of buildings, some more prosaic and some downright flimsy. The main building is brick and cinderblock, as is an adjacent row of classrooms. The lower classrooms where we are going are made of bamboo and seem to be in danger of being swept away by a particularly stiff wind.  Considering Myanmar gets monsoons I wonder if Pyin Oo Lwin is geographically protected in some way from gale force winds that could reduce this schoolhouse to a pile of lawn clippings.

Exterior School Building

That Google Map from 2018 above shows a properly constructed building or two where this bamboo hut used to be, so it’s most likely that Tinmar Aung and her friends are enjoying a new school building and not the one you’re going to see here.

Dogs amble in and out of the property, and an unending row of motorbikes drop off kids at the front, driven by older siblings, parents, grandparents, and sometimes other kids. Across the street a woman chases a cow down the road by swatting at it with a handful of sticks. The kids are all goggle-eyed watching us, but smile sheepishly when their eyes meet ours. Ah, friendly Myanmar!

Yum yum! Thanks, kids!

We’re waiting out front because either Sister Caroline or the Headmistress is supposed to meet us. We’re particularly keen on getting good footage at the school assembly, which happens each morning. The kids all meet in the front of he school for some general patriotic stuff – the national anthem, maybe another song about how they are going to study hard today, and some other leftover totalitarian bits here and there. Gavin wants to catch as much as he can – it will be his opening scene.

It’s not quite raining, but there are some scattered showers and the ground is a bright reddish mud. Periodically it will spray a bit from the sky – we’re not really prepared for rain at all. I have all my gear in a bag, so it should be OK, but I worry about the camera.

Goin’ to get me summa that trash I saw at the gate

I have mics at the ready. As soon as Tinmar Aung appears, I’ll have to get her wired. My boom is already on and powered up. I have the stereo recorder set up and ready to record the entire school assembly. I will be ready before anyone else is. I’m pleased with myself that I’m able to carry on while on the verge of hallucinating.

Cecilia appears and insists I drop the boom and wire up the headmistress. This is not exactly in my plan – the headmistress will be covered more than adequately by the stereo recorder. She’s on a loudspeaker. Reluctantly I hand the boom and recorder to Minshi so he can start recording sound.

I start wiring up the poor woman, who’s not exactly ready to be invaded by an audio tech. It does not occur to me until later that this is a dumb plan.  Wiring the headmistress is audio tech work, and if anyone should do this it’s another crew member, rather than the recordist. Heck, Minshi would probably have done a better job of it than I would. I start to get angry – this is another indication the crew does not understand what the sound crew does.

But even in my weakened feverish state I’ve got the headmistress wired up, the level set, and the stereo recording rolling before camera is ready and before Minshi actually has to do anything.  I immediately realize that my irritation and flights of fantasy here are a result of the illness.  I’m getting worked up over nothing.

The stereo recording turns out great and Tinmar is coming through loud and clear. I have way more than I need and that’s good.

School convocation

Sean and Gavin, meanwhile, are doubling up on the scene, with Gavin taking a wide shot and Sean running around. They seem unhappy, perhaps confused.

There are something like 3000 students at this school! But the assembly seems to be only the young ones. They line up and sing their hearts out – good thing I have the limiters on. I’m not a big fan of limiters, but these kids are vociferous, to say the least. The headmistress addresses them, there’s more singing, and then they all clamber off to the classrooms. We’re already exhausted.

Gavin seems stressed, though. For reasons he cannot even explain he has panned during the shot. He had planned to sit tight. He’s already angry at himself.

We move on, crossing the muddy front of the school and sitting down in the teachers’ area. The headmistress meets with us. It’s a formal-ish affair, with some of the school’s dignitaries and teachers, and progresses to a fabulous breakfast of mohinga. It’s my first dish of the national food of Myanmar, and I’m thrilled. Besides being the perfect kind of warm savory soup one often prefers on rainy days, it’s hearty and feels like good proof against this virus. I have seconds, and our hosts seem to enjoy my zeal at wolfing it down.

Bear in mind that I am also a big fat American.  I’ve lost weight since then, but I was probably about 40 pounds overweight, which is something rare in Burma where a combination of poverty and lack of processed foods keeps most people fairly slim.  I got the impression several times there that I was something of a figure of fun for being as big as I was.  So, fat guy wants seconds.  I guess I deserve that, too.

Then it’s more fruit, a few more pronouncements and introductions, and we’re off to shoot some more!

We cross the muddy playground, down the concrete stairs, and to the lower level where the bamboo classrooms are. Our plan is to infiltrate Tinmar Aung’s classroom and shoot the students as they go through their day. Here in Myanmar the students stay put and the teachers move around. At the end of each period dozens of screaming voices wish the old teacher goodbye and welcome the new one. Come to think of it, there’s an awful lot of screaming in Myanmar classrooms. Learning seems to be largely by rote, as if the country is stuck in 1962. Oh, wait, in lots of ways Myanmar IS stuck in 1962…

Students read aloud in unison, shouting at the top of their voices and damaging my equipment and ears. I slap on the -20db pads to both channels and on the mics and I still get overmodulation. The tiny rooms are no help either. You can hear every other classroom through the thin slats of bamboo and the open windows.

Class in session

Sean is charging in the rooms like a boss, shooting 38 minute takes and whipping the camera around like there’s no tomorrow. It’s all I can do to keep the boom over the heads of the subjects and out of range of the lens, to say nothing of trying not to tap the end of the boompole on the walls or students. It’s like a continual interpretive dance with me swirling my balanced pole above my head. Some students are amused, but most concentrate on school. Though we are a total clown act in the middle of their classroom, the headmistress has told them all to ignore us and let us get on with our work.

Cough drops keep me from dying, but the continual tickle in my throat and gradual filling up of my lungs with fluid is very hard to control. I’m sure there are coughs and throat noises in every take at some point.

I’m more impressed with the students’ math skills than anything else. Tinmar Aung is in 6th grade, by our reckoning, and she is doing what I would call first year algebra, a subject US students don’t really get to for another year or two depending on what school district you are in. And they are all learning English, though they are learning it by rote from teachers who don’t really know it that well themselves. It’s why everyone in town will greet us with “HELLO! HOW ARE YOU?” said in the most robotic way. Even so, you can tell these are bright kids who are capable of quite a bit. It’s sad that their country is so depressed, economically and socially. I feel like I could become the Burmese Che, helping these people get better education and social services.


At recess the kids surround us, peer into the lens, watch themselves on the monitor, and leap up to touch the boom. It’s getting nuts. Sean is engulfed at some points, and begins to turn things back on the kids, rushing them and growling as they squeal in delight, running from him. None of this will be any good, we realize, no matter what we try to shoot. They’re too self conscious, too interested in us and the camera.

As the afternoon drags on it’s more 30 and 40 minute takes, documentary style, with me dancing around the room, my arms aching. It’s been a few years since I boomed this much and this intensely. At one point the whole procedure is so hypnotic I feel as though I may have fallen asleep while shooting, even though I’m running around waving my arms.

By the time the day ends and the students leave, I’m wiped out. But no! We spring into action, catching Tinmar Aung as she leaves school, marching up the hill with her friends. We race along to keep up with her, our little actress behaving as though there were no camera, no crew, and no one watching – perfectly natural as always.

Crew at work

In the next setup she was supposed to get a ride home from a truck driver. In Myanmar lots of people drive these low-bed covered pickup trucks with about a dozen people in the back. In the film Tinmar Aung will drive home in one. Sean and I take positions opposite her, Minshi and Gavin sit in the front, and we roll while we actually drive back to the sewing shop. It’s late by the time we get going, and the light is going as we drive. Tinmar Aung stares out at the passing scenery while we drive, her expression the perfect canvas. Gavin intends this scene to be part of the opening, perhaps as a credit sequence. It may be my general exhaustion, but I could watch the sun dim down to the flicker of headlights across her face all night long.

But I’m wrecked, and I go to bed without dinner. I don’t care how delicious it might be, I’m at my sickest, and I need rest now. It’s been a bad day, but I’ve done good work in it. I go back to the room and immediately start renaming and backing up files.

While the drives copy, I check Facebook for the first time in an attempt to stay in touch with people. Bella is on, despite it being really early in the morning. I suspect she has been up all night or something; she is not an early riser. She writes, somewhat facetiously, “don’t die, Tim!” She is probably talking about the political situation, not my virus, but I don’t feel like making any assurances.

I’m unconscious within minutes after that. The crew comes back to the room and watch dailies but I pretty much sleep through it.

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