“Imagine that when going from Taipei to Taichung you need to pass a dozen checkpoints. For every checkpoint the guard looks at your ID card or permit and says ‘it’s not real. You bought it, didn’t you.’ You then give him money, and he let’s you pass,” Midi Z says of his experiences traveling through Burma.
Escorted to the airport by an agent who “took every opportunity to swindle money” out of him and fellow emigres, Midi Z left home and didn’t return for 10 years.
As in his 2009 short film The Man From Hometown (家鄉來的人), which starred the director’s childhood friend Wang Shin-hong (王興洪), young Burmese like Midi Z came to Taiwan under great pressure to pay off debts and send money home.
“I chose to study printing [in high school] because I figured since I was already familiar with photography, I could spend less time in school and more time working,” Midi Z says.
He soon took to filmmaking for the same pragmatic reason. Together with Wang, the young director made close to 20 short films while still in school, most of which were intended to win cash prizes.
“To us, making movies was never a dream, but a way to make a living,” he says.
Nevertheless, the pragmatist’s talent soon became apparent. Paloma Blanca, Midi Z’s graduation project in the Department of Industrial and Commercial Design at the National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (國立台灣科技大學) received acclaim and was invited to several international film festivals.
In 2009, the director was selected to become a member of the Golden Horse Film Academy, a project initiated by Hou Hsiao-hsien (侯孝賢) to train new talent. Midi Z made Huasin Incident (華新街記事), which tells the story of a group of Burmese youth living in Taipei caught between two equally tough choices: live in Taiwan as an illegal immigrant and be subjected to constant discrimination, or live a life of poverty in Burma.
Wanting to re-connect with his home country, Midi Z returned to Burma at the height of the 2010 democratic elections and made his debut feature, Return to Burma. A semi-autobiographical work about a returning Burmese emigrant, the film is said to be the first one shot in the sealed country to go international.
With a low-tech, documentary feel, Midi Z’s feature debut was made by a three-man crew, including the director himself, using a cheap digital camera.
“It requires years of studying the limited equipment you could lay your hands on,” the director says. “People from my hometown don’t rely on others. We use our labor to make things work.”
To make a movie in Burma also requires shooting without a permit as Midi Z’s films of contemporary Burmese society would never meet with official approval because authorities demand “permission for everything.”
“The authority doesn’t allow works that touch on real life. For example, you can’t shoot in a tea house because tea houses are dingy, and because people discuss politics there. There are simply too many problems in Burma that the government doesn’t want people to know about,” the director says.