Credit: Myanmar Film Collective / Zin Documentaire
by Sarah Williams Film

Sad Film | Vasili

September 12, 2021

As an authentic example of guerilla filmmaking (with its roots in independent rebellion, rather than serving as an Escape From Tomorrow-esque marketing ploy), Sad Film does its best to illustrate the face of a faceless society under dictatorship. Having been sent to Dutch backers for editing, as a rough cut whose original footage was soon destroyed, Vasili’s (pseudonym for an anonymous filmmaker) horror film is situated within the harrowing reality of a Myanmar in the uneasy aftermath of its latest coup. The existence of the footage is a feat in itself: a meta-film birthed from the country’s deterioration. Faces are blurred as filmmakers like Vasili hang onto the stolen chance they have made for themselves at creative freedom. The obscuring techniques grow increasingly creative, from a simple motion blur to full-faced colored masks, and then to conveniently placed flags, and finally, as simple as a sheet of paper with eye holes.

Sad Film’s eyes without a face serve as a clever metaphor of Myanmar’s Tatmadaw (the country’s armed forces) and their totalitarian control. Faces are never blocked in a way that removes their human connection and spirit — Vasili employs either a simple blur, a mask that leaves the eyes and soul clear, or the flag of a country that has expropriated their identities, ambitions, and freedoms. The people of Myanmar may witness the world newly built on their streets, but they may not give voice to the accompanying violence. These wordless visages, as well as the moments of poignancy where Vasili imbues his footage with affecting intimacy, are what separate Sad Film from the five o’clock news stories it otherwise has a lot in common with. Early on we see five lit candles burning away as the filmmaker, blurred, slumps onto the table, having burnt his own candle at both ends. Later, Vasili crawls into a suitcase, not as a human being but as cargo; a symbolic flourish accompanying the filmmaker’s dreams of making films abroad, under a less oppressive sky. What may be the early work of a potentially great filmmaker working outside the bounds of the industry (imagine low-budget, late-era Jafar Panahi) wobbles in consistency as it attempts to balance the urgency of depicting Myanmar’s bloodshed with the filmmaker’s own facelessness — as a filmmaker not even allowed to dream. It’s only in his final speech that Vasili relates his dreams of freedom, not through liberation, but through his own reincarnation, straddling the political bloodshed of a tyrannical state with the personal immediacy of its people.

Published as part of Venice International Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 1.