Looking To and From ‘February 1st’7 min readReading Time: 6 minutes
Written by Susan Htoo
February 1st (2021) is a nuanced portrait of Myanmar that spans beyond the titular date — a recollection of a time that precedes it and all that follows. Adopting a diaristic approach in both the script and screenplay, filmmakers Mo Mo (pseudonym) and Leïla Macaire share an intimate glimpse into their own histories with the country.
As the directors open up their worlds to diverse audiences, we too experience the incredible vastness of Myanmar in their documentation of the sights, sounds, and spirits that permeate in both familiar solitude of the past and the hopeful fortitude of the nation’s present state of affairs.
The film begins in January 2020, where we are introduced to our narrators as they take turns establishing their respective relationships with Myanmar. Mo Mo had just come back to Yangon after her finishing her studies abroad and found herself feeling like a tourist in her own country. She contemplates the strange comfort she feels in this fact as she captures the vibrancy of downtown streets and the locals that frequent them. She confronts her personal frustrations of living in Myanmar — she no longer had the same independence that she once did in New York, such as living on her own or having a career in the arts without it being relegated to a mere hobby by those around her.
Nevertheless determined to enroot herself back in her homeland, she quickly defuses any urges to escape. Asking herself, “And the only way to be free is to move to another country?”
She decisively answers, “No, I want to stay here. I will stay here,” ready to find her own personal freedom in Myanmar.
“1 February 2020” is scribbled across the screen, indicating a time jump and a shift of perspective from Mo Mo to Leïla. Compared to the 1 February in the year to follow, this one is perhaps insignificant — more fleeting. Multiple frames of the downtown Yangon Circular Train appear, enough frames to resemble movement in its stop-motion effect that also mirrors the transient quality of the memory itself.
Leïla reflects on learning about her Burmese zodiac, that she is of the Dragon sign as a Saturday-born, a peacefully mundane fact, but one quintessentially Burmese. As she recalls her solo trip, she reminisces on a certain serenity percolating throughout her journey. In this introduction, a common motivation becomes apparent for our two narrators: a personal sense of liberation that they each once knew.
What follows is an intricate vignette that explores the complex entanglement of the personal and the political; it is at the halfway point when we begin to see a pivotal moment in history that is reflected in the film — February 1st 2021, the day on which a military coup d’etat took place.
The shift in tone and mood at this peak is accompanied by the auspicious sounds of banging metal pots and pans — a gesture symbolic of warding off evil spirits — in response to the unfolding events of the coup. We see not only such precarious turns of events but also an increased sense of intimacy as our narrators visibly initiate their letter-writing to one another at this point. Mo Mo details to Leïla the different types of protests that take place. Highlighting how the three-finger salute has become a universal greeting among the people, Mo Mo notices herself becoming less apprehensive in interacting with strangers.
The expression has become a way of saying ‘hello’ while displaying solidarity. Another protest involved waving the longyi (a sarong-like garment mostly worn by Burmese women) like a flag as a way of using the outdated superstition that walking underneath the longyi can diminish a man’s hpone (their power or luck), against the very group of people — military personnel — who still adhere to such beliefs. An overwhelming sense of anticipation and promise emanate from these scenes as the longyis flow with the wind.
In her documentation, Mo Mo places an emphasis on these acts of protests as small victories essential for revolution, demonstrating the power of the people and the inexplicable feeling that comes with all of it — a dance of possibilities. While these ‘wins’ impassion protesters to continue the fight, Mo Mo is careful not to undermine the severity of the coup as a loud gunshot suddenly disrupts the optimistic sequence of these images.
Mo Mo writes to her friend, ‘Leïla, I am exhausted’, disclosing her more vulnerable state. Despite these victories in the early days, the reality is that the coup is not over; with almost a year passed since February 1st, the military continues to kill and torture.
I spoke to Mo Mo briefly later on and she tells me that when these images of victories are contextualised against what is still happening today, ‘it becomes traumatic’, like a ‘repressed memory’ when we think of it again.
For how long must one be brave, when courage has been exhausted and becomes a privilege that many cannot afford under such deadly circumstances? Documenting the coup is no easy feat either, and comes with very real challenges and risks that have led to Mo Mo directing and releasing the film under a pseudonym and having to use compact equipment during protests such as an Osmo Pocket for discretion and safety. Naturally, the film becomes a part of the fabric of perseverance through the practicalities of filming itself and producing under these conditions.
The film’s visuals are mostly dominated by a sequence of still images rather than video footage, reinforcing a patchwork of memories instead of linear time. This effect complements the letter-writing approach, underscoring the subjectivity of the narrators’ personal stories. As we near the end, it becomes clear how the idea of freedom has evolved for both Mo Mo and Leïla.
While Mo Mo’s initial quest for personal freedom becomes inseparable from the political, Leïla reflects on the beats of bliss that she found in the unknown during her time in Myanmar, realising that perhaps we find our freedom “in the images that we project through life” and what we remember from those instances. She says to Mo Mo, “this is where we find our weapon, in these images that we share.” This is indeed a film about the revolution, but it’s also a film about Myanmar as a whole at specific moments in time. As these memories unfurl along a particular trajectory of the film, we arrive at the revelation that collective resistance and solidarity are what leads to true liberation: to be free, together.
It is difficult to not feel emotional throughout such poignant portrayals by both Mo Mo and Leïla, comprising a thoughtful mix of idiosyncrasies and shared cultural experiences that exist both in and outside of the coup. The film is a mosaic of disparate memories that have become an essential documentation of our times, necessitating these stories to help us find our bearings in moments that often feel disorienting. As a film that explores intertwined ideas of personal and political freedom and what it means to resist, one can only hope that this February 1st nurtures a different tale — one of collective liberation.
February 1st (2021), a short film directed by Mo Mo (pseudonym) and Leïla Macaire, won Special Mention at Singapore International Film Festival (SGIFF) and Bangkok ASEAN Film Festival (BAFF), Best Documentary Short Film at PAME Film Festival, Nepal and was officially selected for Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinemas (VIFFAC), France.