In late January this year, history was made in a small park in downtown Yangon. Thakin Mya Park in Lanmadaw Township was the location for the opening event of the &Proud film festival – said to be the first ever LGBT event legally held in a public space in Myanmar. In a country where permission must be obtained from the local government to hold any public gathering and never before has an LGBT event gotten official permission, this is a groundbreaking move.
The film festival, now in its fourth year, is organized by a group of local and expat volunteers from the groups Colours Rainbow and YG Events with support coming from the Heinrich Boell Foundation, the Australian and US embassies and UNAIDS.
The festival’s main purpose is to bring together members of the community through art and culture and to give a forum to discuss LGBT issues and promote LGBT rights in the wider community.
“For the LGBT community, our main aims are to provide places and events for the community to come together to be entertained by film and music, but also to learn and share in our debates and discussions, and to meet and to flirt. We try to create greater awareness and understanding about LGBT issues within the larger society and to stimulate the discussion on LGBT rights,” said co-director, Willem van Rooij.
A film which won Best Documentary Film at Wathann Film Festival last year but was pulled from the schedule at the last moment, was chosen as the opening film for the festival. Directed by Hnin Phyu Phyu Soe, the film called ‘A Simple Love Story’ is about the love story and life of an LGBT couple from Yangon.
The &Proud festival was held over two weekends in late January and early February. The weekend of January 27th and 28th saw the opening event gather 7,000 members of the public in Thakin Mya Park for song and dance performances, a film screening, Drag Olympics and performances by major Myanmar stars including Ah Moon, Ar T and Mary followed by DJ sessions with DJ Bay Tar. Around the park were photo essays documenting the lives of local LGBT couples, food and drinks stalls, a sexual health awareness stall and a human library tent where members of the LGBT community were available to talk about their experiences and answer questions from the listeners.
“I loved the Drag Olympics. We pulled it together very last minute and half the participants suddenly signed up 15 minutes before the start, without makeup or shoes. But the response of the crowd was amazing, and you have to realise that it’s quite a thing to go onto the big stage and stand proudly with all the media photographing and filming. So I have a lot of respect for the participants who were not afraid to show themselves to all of Myanmar, and I was so happy to see all the families in the crowd laughing and having a good time!” recalled Willem.
The crowd gathered was a colourful collection of people – teenage couples, young families, elderly ladies and groups of friends of all genders and sexual orientations. The second weekend of the festival was held in the garden of the French Institute which has been the location for the previous three festivals. More short and feature length films from Myanmar, Taiwan, Korea, China and the USA were screened with some film makers attending the event for Q&A sessions after the screenings. The days were broken up with more activities including lip syncing championships, a panel discussion, performances from more of Myanmar’s pop stars and live DJs.
So where can &Proud go from here? Organisers will hold another smaller film festival in Mandalay at the start of March and continue spreading awareness through workshops and events around around the country.
“We’re in a great position now in that we can grow in different directions. With the addition of the park, our Yangon festival is growing towards a real pride festival and we’ll have our second Mandalay festival on March 2 and 3. We go to other towns in Myanmar with our ‘On the Road’ programme, have yearly film-making workshops, and we just started monthly picnics for young LGBTs who don’t really have places to meet in Yangon.”