The Dagon Centre cinema in Rangoon was packed out yesterday as crowds of Burmese people queued up to see a Hollywood blockbuster. Due to a change in the law, they were able to watch James Cameron's Titanic on the big screen. Although some older people remembered watching foreign films before the country's military junta seized power, it was the fist time any of them had seen a film in 3D.
For many, the opportunity will have been as astonighing as the experience itself. Only last year, Burma declared the actess Michelle Yeoh persona non grata and turned her away at an airport, apparently because she had starred as opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi in international hit The Lady. Then, in January, it surprised critics by allowing an uncensored internatyioonal film festival to tak place in the capital, including a documentary about a recent political uprising.
The lifting of the ban on Hollywood movies will thrill fans. A thriving pirate DVD trade means that Burmese citizens are more familiar with these forbidden films than you might expect, but pirated copies are often poor quality and showing or watching them on the big screen entails considerable risk. It is also hoped that the change will encourage investment in the country's cinemas, which have struggled to survive over the last 50 years, with only a third of those built pre-revolution remaining.
Burma has a strong cinematic legacy of its own. Aung San Suu Kyi's own father, Aung San, appeared in a hit film before going on to fund the country's Communist Party and fight for independence from Britain. But political and artistically challenging filmmaking ended with the arrival of the junta, which imposed heavy censorship and gave permission for only a limited number of people to work in the industry. Now there are fears that Burma's unique cinematic voice may be silenced in a different way if big-budget Hollywood fare comes to dominate its few screens, but this is balanced by the hope that a new generation will be inspired to engage with cinema.