“Nargis—When Time Stopped Breathing” is Burma’s first ever feature-length documentary made by native filmmakers who captured the aftermath of the 2008 Cyclone Nargis disaster in the Irrawaddy delta which killed nearly 140,000 people.

Fearing that their footage of mass destruction and death would be hugely embarrassing to the military junta, which was widely cited for incompetence in handling the post-disaster response, the documentarists chose to maintain a low-profile. They used pseudonyms on the film credits and did not release the film in Burma. It was, however, screened at 16 international film festivals and won four awards.

Now, encouraged by reformist President Thein Sein’s moves to ease restrictions on media, the film crew has collectively decided to stage a national premiere on Saturday, Sept. 8, in Rangoon—but this time with their true identities run on the credits.

The crew visited the affected area several times over a three-month period to shoot footage and interview victims of what was one of the world’s worst natural disasters in living memory. They rarely faced harassment from security forces because they always travelled with relief supplies for the people in distress, and the authorities simply ignored them or took them for a “bunch of shutter-happy city-folk taking pictures of their charity trip to the delta.” The disaster took its toll on the crew and many felt despair and trauma after returning from the harrowing experience. “The more people we interviewed, the more we felt their pain. We were unable to smile for days after,” said Thaiddhi. Myo Min Khin, one of the editors of the report, told The Irrawaddy that they tried to focus only on the human side of the disaster rather than look for someone to blame or analyze the authorities’ stuttering relief effort. “We concentrated on the emotional nightmare the survivors bore—what was going on inside their heads. We edited the footage to emphasize their trauma and how they struggled to survive in the wake of the cyclone.” As the co-producer of the film, Lindsey Merrison said she was deeply affected by the humane dimension of the unedited filmed material her students captured, and was immediately convinced that this footage would be crucial in providing evidence of what happened during and after the May 2, 2008, tragedy.

2012.09.07 The Irrawaddy Nargis Documentary to Premiere in Rangoon