October 2015


Phillip Gwynne

The rule of law, soap-opera style

A scene from The Sun, the Moon and the Truth
An Australian author writes for Burmese television

It was my second day in Yangon and I was in a small, paint-peeled office, drinking sweet milky tea. Across the table a woman was telling me her story through a translator.

“My mother sold my virginity to an old man when I was 14 years,” she said.

The laborious interview process – the translator converting the woman’s words into English, my words into Burmese – seemed to add poignancy to her story.

“And then I was trafficked to the Thai border to work in a brothel.”

“How long were you there?” I asked.

“I’m not sure, four or five years. After that, I came back to Yangon and provided services to visiting sailors.”

What had I got myself into?

“Every day they would take me out to the big ships anchored offshore.”

Oh God.

“Once they left me on a ship for four days.”

A week earlier I had been sitting with my friend the Lawyer in a cafe in Bali, where we both live. He works across Asia on various human-rights issues, and was proudly showing me a selfie on his phone: he and the Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi. He told me about their meeting, how she had this idea of making a TV series in Myanmar to spread the message about the importance of the rule of law. I imagined some dreary Stalinist-style propaganda, but it turned out that the Lady was thinking of a soap opera, that she was a big fan of the BBC’s long-running radio serial The Archers. She’d even decided on the right setting: a village market.

The Lawyer finished his coffee. “Do you want to be involved?”

“Me, television?”

“Didn’t you once tell me that SBS had taken up one of your books?”

That had been the most dispiriting experience of my writing life. SBS had optioned my Darwin-based crime novel The Build Up. We were going to make The Wire, or The Sopranos. But we ended up making nothing, and I promised myself that I would never work in TV again.

But this was different. This was Myanmar, emerging from decades of brutal military rule. This was Aung San Suu Kyi, the most famous female politician of our time, who had endured 15 years of house arrest.

“OK, I’ll do it,” I said. “As long as I get a selfie with the Lady, too.”

At our first meeting with the NGO responsible for producing this series, it became apparent that they knew nothing about TV. Suddenly I was cast in the role of the expert, or, in NGO-speak, the “consultant”. There was more NGO-speak to learn: stakeholders were “actors”; this was going to be a “capacity-building exercise”; locals would be “upskilled”; and we needed some serious “buy in” to get this series up. The head of the NGO, a seemingly unflappable man in a pink shirt and chinos, had his own buzzword: there would be a lot of “nuancing” needed to get the series approved by Myanmar’s famously draconian censorship board. Things had loosened up a lot, but journalists were still routinely thrown in jail for upsetting the government.

Then the research started. We’d travel in a stifling taxi and find another organisation, another offshoot of Myanmar’s extraordinarily fertile civil society, ensconced in a dilapidated room. Once we’d taken our shoes off, and were served tea, we’d listen. To students, to farmers, to HIV activists, to labour organisers. And we heard stories of injustice, of degradation, of the denial of basic human rights.

“But how did you get away?” I asked the woman who’d been trafficked as a child.

“I met my husband,” she said, smiling for the first time. “He was one of the drivers on the boats.”

When you write for a living, when you furiously scribble to keep the wolf from the door, you can lose sight of the fact that sometimes what you do matters.

More meetings. More extraordinary stories. But one thing was worrying me: as much as I love Asian markets, I just couldn’t see how that setting could do justice to these people’s extraordinary stories.

The Lawyer wanted to show me one of his projects, the first legal-aid centre in Myanmar. As soon as I entered the humble building, with its new coat of paint, its ancient-looking computers, its fresh-faced legal-aid lawyers, I knew.

“This is where we set the series,” I said. “We don’t have to hunt for plotlines, they’ll just come walking through our doors.”

We knocked up a pitch document. Each episode would deal with an issue where the rule of law would apply, such as human trafficking, domestic violence or the environment. We would have characters from all walks of life: lawyers, crony businessmen, teaboys. And because it was a soap opera, we would have plenty of soap: love stories galore.

The NGO liked our pitch. But what about the Lady? Eventually, we received her notes.

Yes, she liked it. She even liked the setting. But she was concerned that socially conservative Myanmar wasn’t quite ready for a gay love affair.

What gay love affair?

I reread the pitch. I was finding it difficult to get my head around Burmese names, so I’d used a single capital letter for each character. Instead of D, our intrepid male journalist, falling in love with K, our female schoolteacher, I’d written L – our nerdy male lawyer. I changed L to K and the Lady was happy.

Normally on a TV series of this size – eight one-hour episodes – there’d be a team of writers. There were two of us. And one of us wasn’t even a writer. Every day, all day, we bashed out storylines. The Lawyer, as befitted his moniker, wanted to spread the message about the rule of law. And so did I, but only if it progressed plot and deepened character.

“But you heard those poor farmers?” he’d say. “They want us to put in the four-step land registration process.”

“Well, we can do that,” I’d say. “But half our viewers will have switched off by the time we get to the second step.”

I had doubts, of course. What were these two foreigners who couldn’t even speak the language doing telling these stories? I reasoned that in Myanmar free speech had been suppressed for so long that only now were writers, the storytellers, finding their voices. So until they came along – and it would be soon – we could look after their jobs.

Eventually, we had eight “treatments” – four-page plot synopses. As anybody in the industry knows, it’s at the treatment stage that the tough, nasty work is done. We sent them off to the NGO, and we waited, and waited, and waited.

“This is really, really bad,” I said.

“Maybe they’re in good shape,” said the Lawyer.

“Of course they’re not in good shape,” I snapped. “No treatment is ever in good shape.”

While we waited some more I wrote eight polished scripts and that’s when moe mee laung – the sky turned to fire, the Burmese equivalent of shit hitting the fan.

“There is no way these scripts will ever get past the censorship,’” thundered the formerly unflappable NGO head.

“So they need ‘nuancing’?”

“No, your scripts need fucking fixing.”

So maybe I did get a bit carried away with the eye patch–wearing Marxist labour organiser who beat time with a spanner on an antiquated machine as he chanted, “Workers of the world unite!”

The Lawyer and I argued some more. And I worked night and day, rewriting the scripts. My labour organiser did get to keep his eye patch, though.

Finally, the NGO was happy. “But what are we going to call the series?”

During one of our many meetings, I’d found myself sitting next to a younger woman whose English was excellent.

“This TV series you are making, it is important,” she said. “People in my country do not know their rights.”

When I noticed the scar tissue on the back of her hand, five or six circular welts the same size as the tip of a cigarette, a shiver travelled down my whole being.

“At high school I was an activist,” she said. “They put me in prison. They tortured me.”

I could say nothing.

“But Buddha said three things cannot remain hidden,” she said. “The sun, the moon and the truth.”

Back in Bali, I heard snippets from the Editor, an Australian woman who had been mentoring Burmese editors. Translation was a nightmare, they’d cast a big star in the lead, the wet season was playing havoc with shooting … And then, one day, the Lawyer returned from Myanmar with a DVD of the finished series.

I watched all eight episodes of The Sun, the Moon and the Truth on my computer, alone.

They’d butchered the scripts: crucial plot points had just disappeared; backstory was missing; the whole meticulously plotted fabric of cause and effect, which gave it shape and tension, was torn asunder.

I felt empty, gutted. Like I’d let down everyone who had shared their stories: the farmer who’d had his land taken away by the military and given to a crony, the woman who’d had her virginity sold by her mother, the girl with scars on her hands.

Weeks later, I ran into one of the Lawyer’s friends, an American woman who had lived and worked in West Timorese villages for more than 40 years. She told me that she’d watched the episode on human trafficking. She wanted to subtitle it and show it as a warning to all the vulnerable village girls in Timor.

“You should be very proud of what you did,” she said. “This stuff is universal.”

I forced myself to watch the eight episodes again. Maybe they didn’t make total sense, but they made enough sense.

On paper, we weren’t the strongest team: an NGO with no experience making TV, a lawyer with no experience writing TV, and a writer whose only TV writing had never made it to the screen. But we made it.

By the time screenings finish – on every one of Myanmar’s free-to-air channels – millions of people will have seen The Sun, the Moon and the Truth. Free DVDs have been distributed to isolated villages. Workbooks have been published. And the Myanmar Police Force is using it as a training tool.

The Lawyer and I have just finished writing the second series. I still don’t have a selfie with Aung San Suu Kyi.

Phillip Gwynne

Phillip Gwynne has written across a wide range, from picture books to crime novels, and won an AFI Award for his screenplay to the feature film Australian Rules.

View Edition

From the front page

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during Question Time yesterday. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Image

A web of lies

We may never know when Morrison knew, but there’s no doubt he has lied

Image of Stephen Graham as Joseph McCarthy in The Virtues

Its own reward: ‘The Virtues’

Topping February’s streaming highlights is a four-part series examining trauma and addiction, propelled by Stephen Graham’s affecting performance

Image of ‘Fragile Monsters’

‘Fragile Monsters’ by Catherine Menon

Memories of the Malayan Emergency resurface when a mathematician returns to her home country, in the British author’s debut novel

In light of recent events

Track your vaccine with Australia Post

In This Issue

An era over

Exit Abbott, enter Turnbull

An eye for tyrants

Snowtown director Justin Kurzel takes on ‘Macbeth’

The house loses

The Australia Council’s history of challenges and challengers

Standing on the outside

Cold Chisel reconsidered

More in Vox

Image of Omar bin Laden on horseback

The artist formerly known as bin Laden

Conversations with Omar bin Laden about art, cowboys and growing up the son of the world’s most notorious terrorist

Image of The Incredible String Band, Royal Albert Hall, London, 1969

Sikh and ye shall find

The psychedelic origins of a popular yoga blessing

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Newfound poems

Previously unpublished work from the giant of Australian poetry

Hanging on the telephone

What happens when kids encounter a landline

Read on

Image of Stephen Graham as Joseph McCarthy in The Virtues

Its own reward: ‘The Virtues’

Topping February’s streaming highlights is a four-part series examining trauma and addiction, propelled by Stephen Graham’s affecting performance

Image of Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl performing in 2019.

Celebrity misinformation

The Foo Fighters’ AIDS denialism should be on the record

Still from Minari.

Small glories: ‘Minari’

Childhood memories are suffused with an adult’s insight in Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-autobiographical film

Image of Eddie McGuire resigning as president of the Collingwood Football Club.

Tumbled Pie

On Eddie McGuire, racism and ‘doing better’