Mick Newnham, head of the NFSA’s Conservation, Research and Preparation team, investigates audiovisual preservation in Myanmar (Burma).
Arriving in a new country is always a bit disconcerting, more so at midnight. Yangon, Burma is not so different from any other South-East Asian city. The taxis take you at breakneck speed along roads of varying quality and the hotels have the familiar-to-the-region aroma of frangipani and mould.
The planning to this trip had been affected by the difficulty in identifying and communicating with key contacts. So it was with a little uncertainty that I set out to visit the National Library of Myanmar.
The library has had an unsettled few years beginning in 2008 when the building was destroyed in a typhoon. Since then it has been housed in a temporary location while the new building is being constructed in the capital, Nay Pyi Taw. After eventually finding the library, thanks to my driver Mr Than Oo Hlaing, I met with the Director and discussed archiving in Myanmar and the role of the National Library.
I had hoped to find a collection of oral histories and live recordings of traditional music that other libraries in the region have developed. Unfortunately this was not to be the case. The library had very few audio or video objects, and these were largely from other ASEAN countries. The Director mentioned the Myanmar Motion Picture Enterprise (MMPE), part of the Ministry of Information. Another laneway with offshoots every few metres finally led to an impressive building tucked in amongst some of Yangon’s more opulent homes.
Here I met with Mr Kyaw Zin Thant, the Director of Production. I explained the NFSA and my role and why I was in Myanmar. It transpired that the MMPE was interested in film archiving and did have an archive, and the archive was in Yangon… and yes he would be pleased to show the archive to me.
Mr Kway described the archive as just a storage area with poor conditioning. When we arrived the building did not appear to be in the best condition; the tropical climate and poured cement construction methods do not permit long-lasting structures. We entered the first vault and it was beautifully arranged with sturdy shelving and all the films in labelled cans in neat stacks. A long way from the worst I have seen in my travels. We talked about decomposition and vinegar syndrome and the staff found a can they were about to dispose of as it was deteriorating.
The film was very salvageable and needed only a low tension rewind and off gassing for it to lead a much longer life, even under the modest environmental conditions the archive could afford.
While the rest of the MMPE will move to Nay Pyi Taw, the films dating back to 1962 will most probably remain in Yangon. We discussed the actual building and how it could be made more suitable. Poured single thickness concrete is not a great start, however there were a few improvements that could be made to improve the thermal stability of the building without too much cost; largely this involved creating some insulation across the windows.
Insulation and thermal stability are important as Yangon can be subject to blackouts and blowouts. There is a very high risk of fire if conditioners are left on all day and night. When the power drops, the compressors jam and overheat the unit leading to catastrophic fires. Any improvements to a building have to live within these constraints. In the longer term cold room panels could be built inside the walls.
From a not very promising start, the day turned into a great success. But I could not have located any of these sites without the amazing help of my driver, Mr Than.