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Sundance prize goes to 'Midwives' — about a Buddhist midwife and her Muslim apprentice

A scene from <em>Midwives</em>: A baby whose face is adorned with thanaka — a kind of sunscreen made from wood bark.
A scene from Midwives: A baby whose face is adorned with thanaka — a kind of sunscreen made from wood bark.

The prestigious Sundance festival just gave one of its big awards to Midwives, a film about a midwife and her apprentice. That sounds like a simple story — but in fact, it's full of twists and turns.

The midwife, Hla, is Buddhist, part of the majority population in Myanmar. Her apprentice, Nyo Nyo, is Muslim, part of the Rohingya minority that has been denied basic human rights. They get along — but they also personify the tensions between the communities.

On Friday, the film won a Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Vérité Filmmaking at the Sundance Film Festival.

Filmmaker Dawn Porter announced the award in a Twitter video on Friday: "It's a surprising story of female self-determination in the face of militaristic oppression, directed with a rigor that demonstrates the resilience of both the filmmaker and her subjects."

NPR interviewed director Snow Hnin El Hlaing, who was born in Rakhine state in Myanmar and is now based in Berlin, and Burmese-Canadian producer Mila Aung-Thwin in Montreal. Hlaing says it is currently unsafe for her to return to Myanmar, where the country's military rulers have arrested journalists and filmmakers.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Warning: Some spoilers ahead.

Documentary filmmaker Snow Hnin El Hlaing is from Rakhine state, Myanmar. <em>Midwives </em>is her directorial debut.
/ POV/EyeSteelFilm
Documentary filmmaker Snow Hnin El Hlaing is from Rakhine state, Myanmar. Midwives is her directorial debut.

I was very moved by the hopes and dreams of Nyo Nyo. She's a real leader in her community. Not only is she training to be a midwife but she runs a microloan club for Muslim women. And she and her husband teach at an informal school. In the film, Nyo Nyo says that since the conflict, Muslim children haven't been allowed to study at the government school. Tell me more about her.

Hlaing: She has a great heart for her community. And even though she's younger than me, she feels like a mother or sister. Sometimes villagers just come to her house and say, "Could you please give me rice?" and Nyo Nyo will just give it to them.

I asked her why she does that, and she said, "Compared to other women, I have support from my family outside of Rakhine state. I'm more privileged than them. If I'm not helping them, who will?"

Nyo Nyo is not like other Muslim women in the village. She is educated. She can write and read and can speak the Rakhine language [which many Rohingya can't do].

Now tell me more about Hla. She and her husband help Muslims at their clinic but they also seem to dislike them. Hla uses derogatory language when talking about the Rohingya. She constantly expresses her distrust of Nyo Nyo. In one scene, she tells her: "You're not interested in learning ... you're only interested in money." In another scene, Hla's husband sits in a plastic chair in the clinic and watches a music video on TV. A woman sings: "Our ethnic purity is messed up because of them."

Aung-Thwin: I have to say that that's what initially pulled me into the project — when I saw the footage and saw those two things living in Hla. If she was just like Mother Teresa, I'd be so bored of the film after five minutes. But she lives with the contradiction.

In the film, you can see racism creeping into the environment from the military propaganda, the media. And so people — including Hla and her husband — start to accept it. It's similar to everywhere else in the world, where you're inundated with propaganda. After a while, you start to take on the views.

Hlaing: She is taking on a difficult role in the village. Nobody supports her. Sometimes she gets calls from Buddhist villagers who say, "why are you treating Muslim patients? You have injections. You should kill them." She has a lot of pain inside her.

What inspired you to make this film?

A silhouette of a mother and child from the film <em>Midwives</em>.
/ POV/EyeSteelFilm
A silhouette of a mother and child from the film Midwives.

Hlaing: I was born in the western part of Rakhine State, where I shot the film. When the Rohingya conflict was happening in 2012, I was surprised that the Buddhist and Muslim communities were fighting. My memory of those communities was that they were peaceful — they were friends. But suddenly, they weren't anymore. There was so much hatred and anger.

There are still 50,000 Rohingya still living among the Buddhist community in Rakhine state. So I wanted to know: How can the Muslims and Buddhists still coexist together after all this conflict happening in their region? How can they work together? Live together?

At the end of the film, Nyo Nyo opens up her own clinic even though Hla said she wasn't yet ready to be a midwife. Is there really nowhere for Muslim women to get health care, that they have to go to a half-trained midwife?

Aung-Thwin: Yes, that's the case, there's no health care. The midwife is the kind of rural doctor around that area.

There's a scene with Hlaing and Hla's mother, who lives on the top floor of the clinic. The mother is very old and seems to be in a lot of pain. She says that Hla's husband is mean to her and that Hlaing should not get married. What is life like for women in Myanmar?

Hlaing: Most women in my country — they have to work a lot. But they also have to cook for their husband. They have to take care of the children. It's a lot of responsibility. They're told when they get married that they can depend on men, but that's not really true. Women in Myanmar have such a big role.

One of the first things I Googled was the white markings that the women have on their faces. What is that?

Aung-Thwin: It's thanaka, a kind of wood paste that you grind and put on yourself, kind of like makeup, kind of like sunscreen. Burmese men and women wear it all the time, and it's very unique to the country.

Hlaing: It's also really good for your skin. That's why women's skin in Myanmar is so soft.

Also – what is Hla chewing all the time? She always seems to have something in her cheeks.

Aung-Thwin: What they're chewing is betel nut. A lot of countries in Asia sell it. It's a little bit addictive, it's not very good for you, but it's a popular stimulant — kind of like chewing tobacco.

Have Nyo Nyo and Hla seen the movie? What's their review of it?

Hlaing: They haven't watched it yet.

You can't send them a password-protected video link as you did with me?

Aung-Thwin: We're being very careful for their safety to not have it launch yet in Myanmar, even by accident. They've seen little clips of footage, but they're definitely willing to wait until things are a bit safer.

They are denouncing the military specifically in the film. And since the coup [in February 2021, when the military took over the government], there have been thousands of political prisoners who've been arrested for being, you know, activists. So now is the time to make sure that nothing bad happens in the future.

Eventually the film will leak probably online over the next year or so. So we're putting measures in place now where there's a reserve of money and a route, if they need to smuggle themselves outside of the village or go to a safe house or have access to emergency cash to do that.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Malaka Gharib is the deputy editor and digital strategist on NPR's global health and development team. She covers topics such as the refugee crisis, gender equality and women's health. Her work as part of NPR's reporting teams has been recognized with two Gracie Awards: in 2019 for How To Raise A Human, a series on global parenting, and in 2015 for #15Girls, a series that profiled teen girls around the world.