Thursday, 8 August 2019

The Dhamma Movie You Can't See

"Religion and movie-making are often not the best of friends. Numerous films on religious subjects have sparked controversies in the West. Martin Scorsese’s 1988 The Last Temptation of Christ caused one incensed viewer to set a Paris theater on fire, injuring thirteen people. Monty Python’s Life of Brian was banned in Ireland and Norway, and the Vatican urged a boycott of The Da Vinci Code. But despite controversy, these films were viewed by untold millions of moviegoers and today are readily available to stream with a few clicks and a handful of dollars. 

If films that openly criticize, question, and even mock Christianity have for decades been able to survive and even thrive in the face of religious backlash, what is it about The Monk, a 2014 Burmese film, that caused it to essentially disappear from the media landscape after just a handful of showings? Was it an attack on monastic life? Was it insulting? Was it crude? The answers to these questions are all “no,” though perhaps the film’s honesty is what leaves its haters an opening for making these claims.

In this day of boundless media options, wanting to see something but not being able to is an unfamiliar sensation. In previous eras, this was the norm. If you missed the latest episode of your favorite TV show or the showing of that French film at the art-house movie theater, that was it. With luck, you could catch a rerun someday or happen upon a tape in a video rental store, but until then you either forgot about it or filed it away in the back of your mind for when the opportunity arose. These days are long past, yet for The Monk only about two minutes can be seen publicly, that is the movie trailer, found here:

The film depicts a relatively short period in the life of a young Theravada monk living in a rural monastery. We witness our protagonist face a number of challenges, any one of which threatens to derail him from his life in robes. In many ways this is an archetypal story that transcends not only culture but also the very Buddhist religion around which the film is centered: a young man stuck in a poor, stifling backwater sees the potential for romance, freedom, and excitement in the big city but fears what he must give up to gain it. No, this is not a retelling of a young Luke Skywalker pining for a life away from his uncle’s farm in Tatooine. The novice Shin Zawana’s story begins in rural southern Myanmar, most likely in the
Irrawaddy Delta. In this case, the backwater part is literal as well as figurative, as Shin Zawana lives in a small, muddy village on the banks of a large waterway so remote that villagers apparently need to travel by boat to get anywhere. Despite the familiar themes, what keeps the film far from the realm of cliché is its being as honest and accurate a portrayal of monastic life as can be found in this medium. The actors’ performances, while unpolished, have a sincerity and openness that go well with the frank style of the cinematography. 

So why has the film all but vanished from the face of the Earth?* The root of the trouble lies with the climate of hypersensitivity and defensiveness that has settled over Myanmar in recent years regarding anything that seems to touch on the national character, of which Buddhist monasticism is certainly a part. This is a nation that has always treated Buddhism and monks with a high degree of reverence, which, when combined with an online culture seemingly on the hunt for things to be outraged over, creates a toxic climate that is highly unwelcoming toward anything with even a tinge of criticism or negativity toward the religion, and even toward things that are not overtly negative but go against certain narratives. The Monk, which is by no means launching fusillades, seems to fall into the latter category. One long-time foreign resident of the Golden Land even described the film as a “love letter to Burmese Buddhism.” The problem is that director The Maw Naing and writer Aung Min refused to paint a simplistic (read: romantic or reductionist) portrait of their subject matter. The monastery where Shin Zawana and his fellow monks and novices live is beautiful and intimate, but it is also dilapidated and somewhat dirty. The younger monks and novices meditate seriously and respect the head of the monastery, Sayadaw U Dhamma, but they also listen to pop songs on a contraband MP3 player and one exchanges surreptitious and flirtatious notes with a village maiden while on alms rounds. The villagers generously support the monastery and donate extra to pay for U Dhamma’s medical care when he falls ill, but they also engage in petty maneuvering over the management of the monastery and the layman who heads the committee is revealed to be quite the sinner indeed. It is perhaps the smallness and humanness of these transgressions and defects that make defenders of the faith so uncomfortable.

It is difficult to say with certainty what it is about The Monk that caused it to disappear. There was no big public controversy, no protests at or attacks on screenings, no threats on the filmmakers’ lives, no angry editorials or press releases by monastic or lay leaders. Did the authorities issue a quiet ban or encourage “self-censorship” through threats and pressure? Neither would be out of the question considering Myanmar’s history. Though media censorship was officially halted in 2012, in the years since the government has shown it is perfectly capable of quashing unwanted voices through other means. Even not knowing what actually happened, one can speculate why it happened. Much of modern Myanmar has become caught up in narratives of superiority and purity—of a Bamar people descended from an unsullied Sakyan line (the clan of the Buddha himself), of a nation and monastic culture that has kept Buddha’s teachings pure over the centuries, of noble rulers who kept out foreign invaders while protecting the faith, and of monks who act with perfect Vinaya and comportment. These narratives are increasingly expressed alongside an angry nationalism that is hypersensitive to any perceived criticism, which is often turned on people who raise critical or contrary views—whether they be local or foreign journalists, critics of the government, or filmmakers like The Maw Naing. A willingness to deny major flaws in the national character or actions taken by the state, such as atrocities perpetrated by one’s own government, is perhaps understandable, but why the things depicted in The Monk would elicit similar anger and defensiveness is difficult to comprehend for an outsider. It is easy to imagine things depicted in the film as also occurring in any neighborhood monastery, which any Burmese Buddhist who watched the film would certainly be aware of. As described above, these scenes are done not to mock or condemn whole-cloth, but rather to show how common human foibles and vulnerabilities collide with the high standards the Buddha laid out for his lay and monastic followers. Does the backlash come from shame at having one’s “dirty laundry” exposed? From a conservative sensibility that Buddhism should only be treated with utmost respect and reverence? From a desire to not give an inch to critics?

Yet it is precisely these “warts” that make the true value of following a life of renunciation and devotion stand out. The peace we see on Shin Zawana’s face when he meditates, the affection and loyalty he shows to stern-but-frail U Dhamma, the camaraderie among the young monks and novices—none of these would feel as valuable if one could not sense the throbbing pulse and human temptations of lust, money, companionship, and entertainment constantly threatening to burst in and overwhelm this fragile world of discipline and peace. Indeed, one of the messages of the film is that the monastery is not an isolated bubble protected from the outside world. Rather there is a constant stream of interaction and mutual influence, which at times present monastics with difficult choices. These can be existential, like the question of whether to stay in robes or venture out into lay life, or practical, such as whether to seek medical care in the capital and how to pay for it.

For a Western viewer, the poverty and precariousness of monastic life stands out. While villagers support Shin Zawana’s monastery, this poor community is still vulnerable to medical emergencies and lacks resources for basic needs. For instance, some of the scenes takes place in a Yangon hospital that cares for monks. These serve as a prime example of the high degree of nuance achieved by the film, which is evident in that it simultaneously shows how Burmese society has generously created functional system for caring for religious monastics, yet how this system can also be cold and uncaring with its bureaucracy and capitalist framework. There are no harrowing tragedies or glorious victories in the film, yet each decision and event is painted with a degree of care that raises the emotional stakes well beyond what is often achieved in more dramatic plots.

In a brief but absorbing ninety minutes, the viewer accompanies a boy on the cusp of becoming a man as he is presented with the relative merits and drawbacks of worldly and monastic life. While fatherless like Luke Skywalker, it is no spoiler to say that the young padawan Shin Zawana does not become a Jedi Knight by the film’s end. (Can there be spoilers to a movie that no one can see?) Nevertheless, he does identify and set forth on his own Hero’s Journey by the end. That The Maw Naing was able to draw on these archetypal themes while integrating them into an authentic Buddhist tale of the path toward liberation from suffering is truly an achievement.

* Due to the non-availability of the film, many details were not available for inclusion in this review, including the names of some characters and the actors who played them. Non-official online sources were used for some of the facts used in this review. I apologize in advance for any errors and welcome any corrections."

Written by Carl Stimson

Director The Maw Naing

Screenplay Aung Min

Producer Vit Janecek (Czech)

Actors (IMDB) Kyaw Nyi Thu

Thein Shwe

Han Nawe Nyein

Moe San

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