Things Change. While Myanmar was undergoing slow progress toward becoming a more open society, the ways of shooting projects digitally were also advancing at a rapid rate. It was suddenly an expensive game of combining different older formats with newer ones, since I had been shooting for over two decades.
An odd chance meeting at a Chinatown DVD store with noted producer and martial artist Warrington Hudlin in 2011 led to an invitation to screen some of the material I had been building for my long-stalled Burmese documentary projects at his special film series program Fist and Sword, which he had curated at the Museum of the Moving Image. The show introduced the first rough sample of the Lethwei project. The lively dialogue with music composer Camus Celli and myself after the screening was moderated by Professor Charles Daniel Dawson, who himself had studied Burmese martial arts.
A new Burmese martial arts presentation was then developed based upon the initial screening and the reaction we received at the museum showing. The new version was presented at a special show organized by Saya Mary Mester in Connecticut on October 1, 2011. Our project advisor, Grandmaster Maung Gyi, PhD; Saya Mary Mester; Music Composer Camus Celli; and Master Zulfi Ahmed all joined in a lively discussion following the two separate presentations, the first on Lethwei and the second on Thaing.
In the meantime, funding was sought to begin a massive shoot and edit of the final documentaries. Nothing came through, so we organized the final screening of the last rough versions on June 16th, 2012, in New York City. This special showing again was anchored by special guests Grandmaster Maung Gyi, PhD, Master Zulfi Ahmed, and Camus Celli, who all helped create a wonderful event. Although a success, the project was on its last breath and died. No one was interested. No further funding came through.
Myanmar appeared to be opening up, and it seemed to be moving toward real democracy. Although we now know it was just an illusion and was just shifting to a quasi-Military dictatorship with enough freedoms attached to it to make it look good to the outside world. However, this new landscape was having an effect on the sport of Lethwei.
So I decided to create a totally new project with my own money aided by people who had stood by the project all along, which amounted to two people, associate producer/music composer Camus Celli and project advisor Maung Gyi, PhD. The new additions of effects and graphics designer Syafiq Jaafar, and associate producers Zulfi Ahmed and Paul Nikitopoulos injected new energy into the documentaries. I decided to make the final product in digestible chapters with the single documentaries Born Warriors and Born Warriors Redux leading each DVD and setting the tone for the supplemental material.
I went back to Myanmar and attempted to make these final documentaries on the lowest budget I have ever worked on in my entire career: one camera body, one lens, one mic, one tripod, and me.
Time was tight. There was very little money for anything. The shooting was intensified by the new people fighting for control over the sport, who were in conflict with those who had been there all along. What was once was a joyful organic process was now mired in the politics of a sport being turned into a commodity to be exploited for commercial gain. Though Lethwei was still fought in the rural communities untouched and without any intervention, as it had for decades, things were moving fast and in many directions. What you see now is the totally new and final Born Warriors. A long journey of close to two decades has finally come to an end.
Story and Photos ©2015 Vincent Giordano. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited.
Beyond the postcard beauty and bustling streets of Myanmar, there are stories. Some describe the people who survived the brutal military dictatorship that ruled the former Burma with an iron fist and cut most of its international ties. Other tales are about fragments of the past that survived to keep an ancient tradition alive. This is a story of a fighting sport: an ancient bare-knuckle martial art called Lethwei.
Lethwei is important because it’s intrinsically woven into the fabric of Burmese life. It was once an important rite of passage for young men entering into adulthood. Their legs were tattooed with powerful symbols they proudly displayed to the crowd. It proved they were strong enough to endure the pain of an ancient and grueling tattooing process. In ancient times, combatants fought to court a future bride, become a fighter of great renown or to earn money to support their families. A father taught his son to compete at an early age, just as his father and grandfather had done before him. The child fought simply to prove his strength and courage – attributes that would carry over into his daily life. It’s much like a father teaching his son to play baseball, soccer or football in the West, and then letting him display his skills in the actual contest.
I began living and training in Southeast Asia and India when I was young. I wanted to learn from the great teachers and fighters and survive the arts that were slowly vanishing. I used my skills as a filmmaker and a writer to document everything I could. First for myself, then to share with others. It is a labor of love that I continue to push up the mountain year after year. This series of documentaries is much like a book told in chapters over a long period of time. Born Warriors part one shines a light on the period before Burma was opened to the west. Born Warriors Redux reflects the new world since the country opened its doors to the outside world in 2011.
Lethwei, once the province of small groups of men dedicated to its survival, has now become the focus of a larger number of businessmen who are keen to transform the sport into a commodity that can exploited for commercial gain. Lethwei's evolution today reflects Myanmar's changing modern landscape – one that once suffered from a self-imposed exile from the world, but is now accelerating at lightning speed toward an uncertain future. It is an ongoing saga. The next chapter, now being filmed, will tell the human stories of the children growing up in poverty and struggling to survive. It will show the human face of the people of Myanmar.