SUNDANCE ’22: Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing and Mila Aung-Thwin talk ‘Midwives’ and the Challenges of Filming in Myanmar

Still from Midwives. A woman holds up a small child - we only we only see their silhouettes and glimpses of details. The sky is purple, fading to orange with vegetation visible in the background.

Working out of a makeshift clinic in Rakhine state of Western Myanmar, a dedicated midwife and her apprentice provide maternity healthcare to local women amidst the conflict that continues to affect the region. In 2012 inter-communal violence between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya erupted in the region, but the latter – a minority Muslim community – have faced decades of discrimination and persecution. Despite having lived in Myanmar for generations, the Rohingya are now deemed illegal immigrants having been denied citizenship by the government under the 1982 Citizenship Law. According to Human Rights Watch, thousands have fled their homes since 2017 to escape the violence and the estimated 600,000 Rohingya who remain, find themselves stateless, barred from travel and cut off from food supplies, healthcare and education. 

Hla, a Buddhist crosses the ethnic divide each day as she treats patients – including Rohingya women – in her clinic with the help of her young Muslim apprentice Nyo Nyo who serves as trainee and translator. Filmed over five years, Snow Hnin Hlaing’s captivating debut feature Midwives follows the lives of these two courageous women as they navigate their personal and professional lives during a volatile period in Myanmar’s history. 

Screen Queens spoke to the director of Midwives Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing and her co-producer/editor Mila Aung-Thwin about the challenges of filming in Myanmar, their collaborative process and how they hope to offer a fresh perspective from the region.

Screen Queens: How did you enter the industry and is there a large community of filmmakers in Myanmar?

Snow: I started my career when I was 18 years old and always wanted to make films so I feel lucky to continue to follow my dreams. In Myanmar, we don’t have a government film school,  so I worked at a television station and then attended a school run by an Anglo-Burmese woman who trains filmmakers. We do have a small filmmaking community but many journalists have had to leave the country because of the military coup. I see a lot of talented young filmmakers who have the knowledge and talent and know how to shoot, but need support.

Mila: I’ve been at it for twenty years now, which sounds like a long time! I fell into producing after university. I was trying to make my own films but kept meeting fascinating filmmakers like Snow so I put my own projects aside to work with them. It’s a really magical way to have a career because there aren’t that many documentary producers out there as it’s not a profitable industry,  so you have your pick of the world’s best projects.

SQ: Snow, you’re a director, editor and sound recordist, and I imagine this is useful when working on projects that require smaller teams. How did you develop all these skills?

S: When I began attending filmmaking workshops,  the other students wanted to be a director or producer so I often got stuck doing sound recording! As a sound recordist, I had the opportunity to shoot documentaries for NGOs, and really enjoyed it. I’ve always been interested in editing and learnt by watching others for three or four years. With this particular project, I couldn’t travel with a large crew so it was just three of us – a camera operator, director and someone to record sound.

SQ: What is the origin of this film and how did you first meet Hla and Nyo Nyo?

S: I was born in Rakhine State so I grew up in the region. When the Rakhine State riots started in 2012, I heard there were Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists living alongside each other, but that many Muslims had to leave their homes and flee to Bangladesh. I didn’t really understand the conflict, but would hear stories from the international community, and although I live in Myanmar, many Rohingya people live in a remote region so most of us can’t travel there. I’ve always been interested in women’s stories and as a female filmmaker, I felt it would be easier to connect with other women to understand the bigger picture. 

I wanted to make a documentary about two midwives – one Buddhist and one Muslim – working together in the conflict zone. So I contacted my aunt who lives in the area and she suggested I come and search for my characters! We travelled to different villages and in the last one we visited, I found Nyo Nyo and Hla working together. I saw how enthusiastic Nyo Nyo was and Hla seemed like such a character! I chose that particular region because the landscape is beautiful and it was peaceful. While there had been conflict between Rohingya Muslims and Buddhists nearby, there hadn’t been any trouble in this particular region. I didn’t know the civil war would start two years later, but then so much happened during that period. 

SQ: It’s so rare to see films by Burmese filmmakers and your film depicts Myanmar from a perspective I’d never seen before.

M: It was always Snow’s guiding principle in making the film; to propose a perspective that hadn’t been shown before – not just of the crisis – but of the region in general. Whenever Myanmar has been chronicled before, it’s always been by an outside filmmaker. A lot of films either tend to focus on the military regime alone or the beautiful landscape and Buddhism. Snow said, “let’s go much, much deeper”. I remember seeing the footage and thinking it was just so rich.

SQ: I understand it was quite challenging to secure funding to get the project off the ground.

S: At first I didn’t have any funding for two years, I was spending money out of my own pocket to travel there and shoot as much material as possible. Later I met Ulla Lehmann, a German producer I’d known for a while, and she was immediately interested in the project. We applied to multiple German funding sources including Berlinale, attended a pitching session at Docs By the Sea, and eventually found support. Then Mila came to Myanmar to teach at the school in Yangon where I was working and that’s how we met!

M: If I have a specialty in my career – because I do a lot of different things – it’s that I really like documentary pitching and specifically making pitch videos with filmmakers. I’d been wanting to make a film on Myanmar and the Rohingya crisis before I met Snow, but decided to put that aside to help her. 

SQ: At this stage how long had you been shooting for?

S:  At that point it had been around two years. A lot of the initial footage was shot on my iPhone and a small HD camera, because at the time I couldn’t bring anyone with me and it wasn’t safe to shoot in the region. Later Mila came in, and we got our first funding from the Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund and xDocs Port Incheon. It was a long journey but as a filmmaker from Myanmar you really need that international support. After securing funding I was able to rent a good camera, put a production team in place and bring Mila in to edit the film.

Still from Midwives. Two woman in in the frame - one in a pink top has a line in her hand, and is looking down at it. The other woman is reaching out and checking it - she is one of the midwives providing medical care to those in rural Myanmar.
Still from Midwives. Courtesy of POV/EyeSteelFilm

SQ: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while filming?

S: At first, some of the Muslim villagers said, ‘hey you’ve already uploaded our photos to Facebook’. That was just a rumour; I’d never posted anything. But in that region, Facebook is used a lot and serves as a news channel so they trust it. That made things difficult but I was more scared while travelling to the village.

 There were soldiers opposite the clinic and a military checkpoint I had to pass each day to enter.  Luckily, I found a great tuk tuk driver who would stop just ahead of the checkpoint, give the soldiers his details and tell them where we were going. He protected me and sometimes I would hide my camera in his driving seat. I prayed a lot during that time. I could barely breathe until we had passed the checkpoint each day, but looking back it was great and I miss that anxiety sometimes!

SQ: The film is quite intimate in its approach and Hla and Nyo Nyo seem so comfortable in front of the camera. How did you go about negotiating parameters around access?

S: In the first couple of months I needed to build trust with them. They were worried that I was a journalist and would spread information about them to television channels. Journalists who visited the village would often ask questions and disappear. But Hla and Nyo Nyo wanted me to come back. I showed up several times and eventually they became more comfortable around me. Hla was often busy and wouldn’t want to be filmed so I would find myself sitting in the corner. She could be rude, but she would always want to speak to me. We became like a family and Nyo Nyo and I became really close.

SQ: It was interesting that their relationship is never idealised but it’s still startling to hear Hla refer to Nyo Nyo as ‘kala’ meaning ‘darkie’. They work well together, but certain tensions remain. Was that something you were aware of before you began filming?

S: No, I didn’t know they had such a complex relationship. Hla isn’t always aware of the effect of her words. She’s used to speaking like this; no-one ever has ever called her up on it and sometimes I found this difficult to hear. Hla would often tell me something about Nyo Nyo and Nyo Nyo would tell me something about Hla so I always found myself in between, but this became the story and made me even more interested!

M: The original title for the project was something like ‘Love behind the conflict’ and Snow’s goal was to find two women – Buddhist and Muslim – working together in harmony. But when she showed me the footage it turned out the truth was even better; there’s a dynamic there that makes it interesting. If they had got along really well the whole time it would have been a pretty boring film! Hla doesn’t hold her tongue and Nyo Nyo does what she wants, so the story was right there. 

SQ: It strikes me that the two women are quite enterprising and forge their own paths often in defiance of their communities. Hla sells fish and ice lollies to support the clinic and Nyo Nyo has a microloans group with other Rohingya women. Is this common?

S: No not at all, When I started filming I had no idea Hla was going to start selling fish and ice cream so it was a total surprise. One day after filming, she said to me, ‘come to my clinic tomorrow morning, I will have a fish business!” 

Hla actually started the clinic before the conflict began. Many of her Buddhist neighbours left because they didn’t want to live alongside the Muslim community. She stayed because she had her business to run and continued to help them. But by choosing to do this, she became the subject of a lot of rumours and faced hatred from her own community.

M: Snow made it clear to me that in Myanmar, the women do everything. The men cause the war and boss people around, but the women are in charge of the finances, education and the cooking at home. They’re so important: they do everything and the men screw everything up! She saw how strong the women were across the country and wanted to work this theme into the film.

SQ: It was fascinating to see Hla and Nyo Nyo’s personal lives outside the clinic. I particularly liked how the focus of the film shifts in the scene with Hla’s mother. 

M: I’m very proud of that scene! Snow originally filmed it as a favour to Hla and never intended to include it in the film. When I first came across it, the dialogue wasn’t even translated but there was something about the woman’s demeanour that made me want to know what she was saying. She reminded me of my own grandmother who is Anglo-Burmese and grew up in Myanmar because she would offer the same no-nonsense advice. Some people watch the film and think, “what’s that scene doing there?” while others say it’s their favourite moment! What’s nice about editing is that you can take these risks a couple of times in a film, and as long as it doesn’t take a complete detour and cause a car accident in your narrative it’s a nice gamble to take. 

SQ: Nyo Nyo played a crucial role interpreting for Hla when she treated Rohingya Muslim patients. How did they begin working together and how does Hla manage now?

S: Hla and Nyo Nyo have been friends for a long time and always hang out together. Nyo Nyo could speak the Rakhine language which many Rohingyas aren’t able to. She is very clever and knew she could learn a lot from Hla. Hla’s clinic is always crowded and she doesn’t speak Rohingya so they still sometimes work together. Even now, if there’s a woman in labour at Hla’s house, Nyo Nyo goes over and interprets for her, so they’re still good friends and continue to help each other.

SQ: Mila, you began working on the project as a producer and eventually took on the role of co-editor. Did this shape the way you viewed the footage?

M: When I start editing a pitch trailer, it’s not just for marketing purposes –  it’s a road to the final cut. You begin to figure out the dynamics of what makes the film good. Once Snow and I started working together we developed a natural momentum. Ryan [Mullins]- another editor – took the film to the rough cut stage and found the basic architecture. Also, Snow had made a long cut with all the bits she wanted to include so we would often refer to that. We made a hybrid of the two and my job was to identify what was missing. Documentary editing is an exercise in endurance and it’s hard for one person to watch a hundred hours of footage so it’s really nice to have a collaborative process.

SQ: Tell me more about the process of editing the film…

S: The initial plan was for me to go to Canada to work with Mila but due to a visa issue and the military coup in Myanmar I wasn’t able to get there. So we met in Thailand and worked together for two months during the lockdown which was intense! Mila is from Canada but has relatives in Myanmar so he understands our culture and the political situation. If I had worked with someone else it might have been more difficult. This film isn’t just about the two characters but tells the story of my country so I feel lucky he was my editor.

M: I’m quite opinionated and in a way being both a producer and editor creates an imbalance in the editing room. On this project, we were both producers and editors and I’m a man so I’m bossy by nature! I learnt to listen to Snow’s ideas and understand what she was trying to do. I found the process incredibly enriching and enjoyed learning how to edit thematically.

S: Sometimes I would edit a scene and show it to him to explain the emotions I wanted to express.

M: I think being an editor herself, the experience of watching the first cuts brought up mixed emotions like  she was giving up some of her creative vision. I was aware of how a male sensibility would inform the editing of a woman’s story. That was something I questioned in myself, so I would often refer back to Snow. A lot of filmmakers take advice, implement it and derail their own film. Snow took tons of input from others, but only kept the good advice. That was a joy to behold – a filmmaker who asks for advice but is also confident!

SQ: It’s now been just over a year since the military coup in February 2021. Are you still in touch with Hla and Nyo Nyo and do you expect to return to Myanmar soon?

S: To be honest, I really don’t know! I can’t go back home yet and even if I were to I wouldn’t be able to carry my camera or shoot anything. We hope to pitch more projects with producers like Mila, but for now everything has stopped within the country. I’m currently based in Berlin and am developing a new project about Myanmar. I’m also working on an Impact campaign for Midwives, and will be presenting the film to NGOs at Impact Days in Geneva this year. Hla has started a new business selling women’s clothing and Nyo Nyo’s clinic is busy as it is now the cold season in Myanmar.  I speak to Nyo Nyo a few times a week and since the military coup took place, Rakhine state has actually become relatively peaceful compared to other regions.

SQ: What do you hope to communicate with this film?

S: I hope the international community focuses on what’s happening in Myanmar – recently it has felt like people have stopped asking about it. We are going through a really tragic period and after the military coup last year, people need international support to fight back. I would also like to screen the film in Myanmar to educate other ethnic groups about the Rohingya situation. People know so little about this community and I hope that by watching my film they will begin to understand how the Rohingya are struggling; they don’t have the right to travel or access education. And speaking as a female filmmaker, I know how strong women in Myanmar are so I hope that by watching Hla and Nyo Nyo those watching will feel encouraged and inspired.

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity

Midwives had its world premiere at Sundance Film Festival 2022 where it won the Special Jury Award for Excellence In Vérité Filmmaking and will be broadcast on PBS during the forthcoming season of POV.  International sales are managed by DOGWOOF. Follow the film’s journey on Instagram and Twitter.

Anjana Janardhan is a designer and writer based in London. She writes about film and visual culture for publications including BFI, Sight & Sound, Non-Fiction and Port magazine. You can find more of her work here.

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