It was the first time a Czech mole entertained the French Institute in Yangon. The mole, the iconic character of the Czech animation that are popular worldwide, played a role of decoy in the military-dominant Burma, which is now more widely called Myanmar, to trick the military intelligence. It was the year 2005, when the military regime was so powerful that it seemed nothing would work, whether it was the sanction from the West or the UN pressure. We thought that the country had already hit the bottom, but then were amazed to find how she could sink even deeper and deeper down.
I had started film education in Burma two years before with locals but since there had been so much problem with the military police who came and stopped our screening events from which the participants had to run away avoiding being interrogated, I decided to involve foreign institutions so that participants would feel safer. I called my old colleagues from the Czech national film school (FAMU) to help our program in Burma. The Czechs, who had gone through the similar totalitarian regime in the past, immediately said yes. The Czech embassy and ambassador immediately said they would support the idea and the ambassador himself would attend the event. First the dean of the school would come and show Czech films on how ordinary people fight against the totalitarianism – and they have a lot of it – and share the experience and see how they could help further. But how are we going to do that? I asked the French Institute Yangon to host our screening event. The courageous director approved it, despite the fact that they had never hosted any event not involving French. So the event became the collaborative effort of different parties that believed that art and culture would generate change. Shortly before the event, Vaclav Havel, the Czech dissident-turned-President who has recommended Aung San Suu Kyi to receive Novel Peace Prize instead of him when he was most likely to receive the prize and since then has been supporting the Burmese democratic change, called for the UN resolution on Burma together with his fellow democracy activist from South Africa and the Novel laureate, Desmond Tutu. Because of this action, Havel and Tutu were considered as the enemy no. 1 by the Burmese military regime. The regime had mobilized all their mouth-piece writers and artists to write and draw anything that denounce these two. As a result, mass media were full of essays, poems (including even Haiku!), and cartoons that talked about two men who were “trying to stir the quiet and peaceful water of Myanmar but will not succeed because the Myanmar water is deep”. And the Czech ambassador used to be the foreign affair adviser of Vaclav Havel. So we had to create double and triple measures to insure that the participants would enjoy the films without any intimidation. We decided hence to focus on animation films assuming that the military would consider animations as a child affair. For the extra security, we made a program so that it would start from cartoons for children, and invited children to the morning event.
On the day of the event, the effort paid off. The military intelligence came to the morning program, watching children running around with a cute mole projected onto the screen, looking like they didn't want to waste any more time with this, and left. And after they left, a stream of prominent political activists started to arrive. It included Min Ko Naing, who just came out of the prison where he had spent 15 years in a solitary confinement. They came mostly to convey their message to Havel through the ambassador to thank his support for the democratic path of Burma and to discuss how the Czechs could support further. We had hence to create a small spot at the venue for the secret political talk.
It was an unusual site. On the screen was cute puppets and characters playing around and behind the screen was a serious talk that later contributed to the political change in Burma.
But the Czech animations are not simply a child affair; they are not merely cute and beautiful, they are not even only the product of fantasy and imagination. Far from it. Most of the masters have worked under the harsh totalitarian regime, whether it was Nazi or the communist. Their movement and travel were severely restricted. Many of them were not permitted to show their works in public. Some had to emigrate and work abroad. The imaginative character of the Czech animation can be the result of the restriction imposed upon the authors. Strong political commentary and satire can be found in many of the films. Many of the characters of the Czech animation are not a simple optimist, they are deeply skeptical observers of the world. Beneath the beautiful and lyrical image lies the reflection of artists who have suffered and witnessed the brutality of the totalitarian regimes. “The Hand”(1968), the last work of the puppet master Jiří Trnka, is the saddest portrait of an artist who is forced by a regime to create a monument for them. His “The Emperor's Nightingale”(1949) is about the emperor who feels so mighty he can get anything he wants. Jan Švankmajer's “The Pendulum, the Pit and Hope” (1983) is a nightmarish picture of being tortured and killed. Some of the image may be so beautiful that you wish the world would be like that, but the Czech animation is also a poignant reminder that the world is not. Ironically speaking, these masterpieces had not been produced if the totalitarianism had not existed. In another word, they were one of the most beautiful things that had come out of the totalitarianism.
One of the Burmese political activists who came to meet the Czech ambassador stopped in front of the screen with his eyes glued to it. “What is it?” he asked. “I've never seen anything like that.” He stayed until the end.
Recently I met some people who had been at the event of that day. Thankfully nowadays in Myanmar we can laugh about the tensed moments like that in the past. I told them that I was going to organize the same Czech animation festival in Thailand soon. They laughed out loud. “Sure you do it because now Thailand is the military regime.”
Perhaps so, perhaps it is a déjà vu of more than a decade ago. But one thing is different. There is no Vaclav Havel. There is no politician in this world who sacrifices his own honor to try to save the democracy in other country that he has never even visited. There is no politician who speaks up for somebody or some country for no political or financial gain. Not anymore. And the totalitarian regimes that still exist today are benefiting from the void. One of the only few things that are left us to do thus is to learn from cultural productions.