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Director: Hnin Ei Hlaing (Canada, Germany, Myanmar). Year of Release: 2022

Rakhine State, Myanmar. One of those tourist informationy openings of smoke-swept mountains and monks bicycling down country lanes. We follow one particular bicycle with a prone woman lying on an improvised side car. She is very pregnant and being rushed to a midwife. Hla, the midwife is efficient but intemperate. At one stage, she says to the onlookers “I told you bitches to shut up”. Eventually, the baby’s head appears, and someone thanks Allah.

Opening titles tell us that a million Rohingya Muslims have been ethnically cleansed from Myanmar, giving the lie to Buddhism as an exclusively peaceful religion. As the film progresses, we witness actual pogroms – marches of people (including monks) calling on their fellow-villagers to join them in a procession to burn down a local Muslim neighbourhood. Hla’s practise is the only one in the area which serves Muslims, and helps women give birth with proper medical attention.

All of this makes Hla a highly impressive person, but she is no saint. She treats Nyo Nyo, her apprentice, as a child – or worse as a worker. The power balance between the two is clear to see. Hla’s husband explains that there are some Buddhist women who visit the clinic, and Nyo Nyo is not allowed to treat them because she’s a Muslim. At the same time as sticking her neck out to help Muslim women in need, Hia regularly uses racist language towards her subordinate.

For all the abuse, Hla is absolutely dependent on Nyo Nyo. She does not know the language used by the local Muslims, and requires Nyo Nyo to translate. This puts Hla in the position of many liberals who would like to condescend to those worse off than themselves, but find it hard either to show empathy, or treat them with less than contempt. There is a degree to which Hla’s actions are performative – even though this is clearly morally superior to burning down Muslim villages.

Nyo Nyo has desires to move to Rangoon where her sister lives, to fully train as a midwife, and to open her own clinic. This angers Hla who, while disparaging her subordinate’s every action, does not seem willing to allow her any autonomy. Nyo Nyo starts selling her golden jewellery and joins a local savings co-op, producing an interesting moral dilemma, as gaining money from interest payments is Haram in Islam.

Nyo Nyo’s plans are put on hold, when she becomes pregnant and decides to stay in the village. This is quite possibly a double blow for her, as it looked like she was looking forward to some time away from her deadbeat husband. In a memorable scene, Nyo Nyo’s mother is interviewed, sending a message to her daughter that men are just a burden and the very last thing she should do with her life is get married and spend any emotions on a mere husband.

Myanmar declares war on “Muslim terrorists” and everyone who supports them. Presumably, this includes Hla and her husband. After a while, the clinic is shut down, as part of a more general clampdown. Hla is forced to get a job selling fish. Anti-Muslim propaganda spews from tv channels, and the people in the clinic watch the reports with a mixture of incredulity and fear. While Midwives does show individual acts of racism, it is also clear about the culpability of the State.

About halfway through the film, a real war breaks out. Those pretty views of the mountains on the horizon now also include military fire. The people in the clinic are relatively sanguine, saying that this is a fight between governments, which has nothing to do with ordinary people. On one level, they are absolutely correct, but when the rich go to war it’s always the poor who have to pay.

The film mainly takes place in the 2010s, but towards the end, there is a military coup in February 2021. We see military excursions on the streets of Rangoon, but I would be interested to know more about the effects in the state of Rakhine. It’s clear that the people who are carrying out the coup are violent despots, but did their seizure of power lead to significant change in the villages where oppression was already institutionalized? The film ends abruptly before we learn more.

Before going to see Midwives, I was expecting to see a nice liberal feelgood film about how life would be so much nicer if we just forgot about our differences. But Midwives is clear enough about the disparity of power relations, so it shows that keeping quiet and smiling is much easier for one group than the other. While celebrating the contribution made by Hla, and people like her, it never hides away from showing her relative privilege.

The film’s editor Mila Aung-Thwin acknowledged this in a recent interview adding “In Myanmar, different ethnic groups had a complex multi-decade fight that was escalating and escalating. For the West, it was like, ‘Send in the UN and just stop these bad guys.’ I think people hated the naïve take of the Western media, but Snow [director Snow Hnin Ei Hlaing] was trying to show how what was going on in Burmese media wasn’t any more true.”

I guess that Midwives is, above all, a cry for help, a plea that someone, some time, should at least acknowledge the oppression of Muslims in Myanmar. The fact that it shows resistance to this oppression coming not from Saints but from deeply flawed people, makes it all the more humane. For me, the first half, while it was setting up its stall, worked better than the second, which consisted more of telling us what we’d already seen. But the whole package deserves to be seen.

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