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Being kind to the new

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Award-winning British film producer David Puttnam joined a panel of local experts in Yangon last week to discuss the links between culture, public policy and society, and the benefits of encouraging innovation in creative industries

It all started with cowboy films.

That was how the United States, which until the late 19th century was largely an immigrant nation comprising dozens of languages and no central identity, was able to forge for itself a coherent ethos to project to the rest of the world.

This was one of several examples of the tremendous power of film to shape ideas and attitudes that was presented by UK Trade Envoy and eminent film producer David Puttnam during his visit to Yangon last week.

“[The cowboy film] was very important to America because it created a set of identifiable figures who were mythic, who could be identified as good guys, bad guys, principled people, unprincipled people, positive influences, negative influences,” he said.

“Around this myth of the cowboy emerged the myth of America … and it has endured to a remarkable degree, to the point where the way America saw itself, as well as the way it was seen by the rest of the world, was through the cowboy myth, the sense of the good man who stands up for principle, the sense of fairness, the sense of the rule of law, the sense of moderation.”

Puttnam, who also sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords, knows what he’s talking about when it comes to the movies: He spent 30 years as an independent producer of award-winning films, which earned 10 Oscars, 25 British Academy of Film and Television Awards (BAFTAs), and the Palme D’Or at Cannes. Among his more well-known titles are Midnight Express (1978), Chariots of Fire (1981), The Killing Fields (1984) and The Mission (1986).

He was speaking at a panel discussion titled “Putting Culture at the Heart of Public Policy” held at the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) in Lanmadaw township on October 9.

The event, according to a press statement released by the British embassy in Yangon, “was aimed at providing a platform for policymakers and stakeholders to discuss how placing culture at the heart of public policy can help Burma achieve its ambitions”.

Among the panelists was U Kyaw Oo, the rector National University of Arts and Culture, who offered a narrowly defined concept of culture based on reverence for Myanmar traditions.

“Nowadays, most of the young people are not interested in the traditional culture. They are more interested in modern culture – not only music, dance, dress and design, but also behavior, communication and lifestyle.”

He complained that kids these days spend their time on Facebook, playing games, singing karaoke and drinking beer, but have forgotten the “duty on their shoulders” to maintain Myanmar traditional culture.

U Kyaw Oo said the cultural university played a key role in “strengthening the national unity and the perpetuation of the national culture”, adding that its activities “are not only propaganda and to strengthen Myanmar culture, but also putting the culture at the heart of the public, especially for the young generation”.

However, Puttnam suggested that truly vital culture lay somewhere in between the extremes represented by the traditional-culture-versus-misdirected-modern-youth dichotomy suggested by U Kyaw Oo.

Puttnam offered Ireland as an example, which in 1922 adopted as its official language the old Irish language and promoted veneration for traditional Irish culture, effectively stifling creative innovation.

But two things happened that dramatically changed this unfortunate situation, the first of which was the introduction in the United Kingdom of television broadcasts that could be received on the east coast of Ireland.

“All of a sudden young people were watching very, very good TV programs in English. They became resentful that they had this linguistic duality and dumped the Irish language,” he said.

The second was that the music industry rediscovered its cultural heritage, but tied it to new musical trends. Examples included female singer Enya, as well as the popularization of Riverdance, which was an updated version of traditional Irish step dancing.

“For some Irish traditionalists, this was an outrage. You couldn’t do this because there were very strict rules in step dancing. But it turned an Irish tradition into an international phenomenon,” Puttnam said.

“Really great cultures emerge when you use the very best of the past and have the courage to reinvent it and re-create it as something that is relevant to young people,” he said.

“If you leave [culture] in aspic and say, ‘well this is what we did 300 years ago, we’re going to make it again and again and again’ – that’s dead. What’s vibrant is young designers using traditional methods to reinvent something which is part of the soul of the country. I believe countries have souls, and those souls tend to reside in their culture. But they do need refreshing and reinventing. And that’s the challenge for a new generation here in this country.”

Panelist Grace Swe Zin Htaik from the Myanmar Motion Picture Association said she “partially agreed with U Kyaw Oo” about the need to pass traditional culture to the next generation, but also believes that “culture comes from innovative creative industries, and policy plays a vital role for industrial development”.

“The government always considers the creative industries as an entertainment tool … They have no idea to make policies to develop the industry by investing,” she said.

“But we do have to think of technical development. Our middle generation is facing the cultural shock of the learning technical know-how in our country since changing the policies in 2011 … We are not familiar with that technical development.”

Grace Swe Zin Htaik also said it was essential to create space for young independent filmmakers to work within the industry.

“We should have to create the space for them by merging our own traditional values and the technical know-how. That will be the main door for the development of the creative industries,” she said.

Puttnam largely agreed with Grace Swe Zin Htaik, adding, “There’s a whole generation that needs to enter the cultural arena, and what culture might mean to them might be somewhat different than what culture might mean to someone my age.”

“The cultural world offers young people the jobs they actually want … These are jobs that young people identify with, that they want to be part of,” he said. “They are part of the future. To ignore them is to ignore the genuine desire among young people to improve themselves, and to ignore the economic opportunities they offer.”

Panelist Nay Lin Soe represented the Myanmar Independent Living Initiative, which works to “build a society where people with disabilities can live independently and to their full potential”.

He shared his experiences as a disabled person living in Myanmar, and in doing so provided examples of how traditional cultural beliefs can have a negative impact on a significant segment of society.

After losing the use of his lower extremities at age three due to polio, one of his earliest experiences was being rejected from attending primary school because of his disability. Fortunately, his mother found another school that accepted Nay Lin Soe, and he went on to attend university.

He later started working for disability inclusion and the rights of disabled people in Myanmar.

“Public policy or development should not be limited only to economic growth of the country, but also to increase the wellbeing of human life by promoting social justice through the inclusion of all groups,” Nay Lin Soe said.

“Everybody is talking about how the country is opening and changing, but in reality many citizens with disabilities have not been included in such programs … We are still left behind on every developmental process of the country.”

He said public policies need to be put into place to remove the physical, attitudinal and systematic barriers that kept disabled from living in equality with others.

In response, Puttnam offered another example of the power of movies to shape public policy. He cited films like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Men (1950), Coming Home (1978) and Born on the Fourth of July (1989) – all of which depict the struggles of injured soldiers facing the process of readjusting to civilian life after war – as being instrumental in changing public attitudes toward disabled people.

“These films had the effect of reminding people that there was a generation, a whole group, that had been forgotten,” he said.

Mr Puttnam ended the panel discussion by cautioning against the misuse of culture.

“Culture can be used negatively as well as positively. Culture misused is a lazy word, a very exclusive word. It can mean ‘my culture, things I understand’, so that it becomes an exclusive word rather than an inclusive word,” he said. “Culture is something that has to be used judiciously, intelligently and generously.”

He also said that hard work is required to create an atmosphere in which young people have the “confidence to express themselves, confidence to believe that their contribution is valid and important”.

Once again he turned to film for an example, recalling a scene from the animated feature Ratatouille (2007) in which one of the characters says that the most important thing that critics need to remember is “to be kind to the new”.

“The new needs to believe in itself, and the new needs to develop confidence,” Puttnam said.

“Unless you put your toe in the water, unless you do these things, and believe you can do them and take them seriously, and get public policy to back them – because that’s what public policy is there to do – they’re never going to happen.

“It’s fine for us to sit here talking, but in the end none of these things happen unless you and the media and the public policymakers decide to make them happen. Otherwise we can have a nice conversation but nothing changes.”

This article appeared in the October 13-19 issue of The Myanmar Times.