At the beginning of “Midwives,” you see women in colorful outfits, but the place where the first and every subsequent baby is delivered isn’t anything like the brightly lit, antiseptic smelling hallways and rooms of US hospitals where nurses, orderlies and doctors wear monochrome scrubs and no window allows outside air to reach the patients inside.
Directed by Snow Hnin El Hlaing who was born in Rakhine state where this takes place, this documentary won a Special Jury Prize for Excellence in Vérité Filmmaking. “Midwives” revolves around the working lives of two women, both native to the area. Hla is a full-fledge midwife although there doesn’t seem to be an official certification program. She is Buddhist. Her apprentice, Nyo Nyo is Muslim.
During the delivery the midwife wears a face mask and yet is seems like meager efforts compared to what a North American pregnant woman might expect. Yet we’re clearly shown how different every day life is. Many of the roads are unpaved. People are riding bicycles. Girls fetch water from a spring and lug it back home in pots. Chickens walk around the house. The mother separates vegetables while asking her son if he went to Arabic school and how to say things in Rakhine.
The people wear patches of wood paste on their faces. Called thanaka, both men and women wear it. It’s supposed to soften the skin, prevent sunburn and keep mosquitos away.
The film notes that:
Myanmar is a country of many ethnic groups. The majority are Buddhist. In Rakhine State, there lives a Muslim minority known as the ROHINGYA.
According to the CIA World Fact Book, the country was colonized by Great Britain during the 19th center and only gained independence after World War II. The Military General Ne Win came into power in 1962 and ruled until 1988 when there was a military coup. In 1990, there was an election, but the military group rejected the results. You might remember that the leader of the main opposition party (National League for Democracy), Aung San Suu Kyi, was placed under house arrest for 20 years. Aung San Suu Kyi was allowed to join the government, but was unable to control the military operations, including its policies of ethnic cleansing. Commander-in-Chief Sr. General Min Aung Hlaing led a military coup in February 2021 and Aung San Suu Kyi has again been detained.
The CIA World Fact Book still lists the country as Burma, the ethnic demographics are 68 percent Burman (Barmar), 9 percent Shan, 7 percent Karen, 4 percent Rakhine, 3 percent Chinese, 2 percent Indian, 2 percent Mon and 5 percent other. Based on a 2014 national census, the religious demographics are 87.9 percent Buddhist, 6.2 percent Christian and 4.3 percent Muslim. The book notes that “as of December 2019, Muslims probably make up less than 3% of Burma’s total population due to the large outmigration of the Rohingya population since 2017.” The book further states that “since 1989 the military authorities in Burma and the deposed parliamentary government have promoted the name Myanmar as a conventional name for their state; the US Government has not officially adopted the name.”
Midwives and Muslims
Life hasn’t been easy for Muslims in Myanmar when the ethnic cleansing began. Nyo Nyo recalls, “In this area, we Muslims were once friends with Buddhists.” Now Muslims in this village aren’t allowed to travel. Nyo Nyo says, “They say they searched for ‘Muslim terrorists. Soldiers burned down homes, raped women, and killed Muslims. All the villages fled to the paddy fields. We built makeshift tents and hid. We were too frightened to stay in the villages. During the crisis, five or six babies were born out here. Right in these fields. Do you know what those children were called? ‘Children of Desperate Times.'”
There’s footage of an angry crowd that includes men dressed in Buddhist priest robes. The crowd is chanting: “We won’t tolerate Rohingya supporters. Terrorists who stole our land! Get out, get out! Terrorist Muslims! We won’t live with them!” One has to wonder if people in Europe and the Americas, where Muslims have often been stereotypes as terrorists watch these people and support their prejudices. Can the Western world feel sympathy for these Myanmar Muslims without being part of the Muslim minority?
Although Hla has accepted Nyo Nyo as an apprentice there is still some friction and the pressure of prejudice seeps into their exchanges. Bitter words and attitudes are casually cruel. But both Hla and Nyo Nyo understand that they might be the only medical attention these women have available. Their relationship, even though it is professional, bring threats from the locals. Some of the Buddhist villages don’t believe Hla should be treating the pregnant Muslim women.
What the audience sees and hears might not seem alarming, but this documentary has not been shown to either Hla and Nyo Nyo. They might even be in danger. The film emphasizes the importance of women advocating for the medical needs of other women, even during times of upheaval and social instability. There are more than one way to be an activist for women and Midwives shows two women shouldering this burden.
The film states:
In 2016, the Myanmar military began a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Muslims. Tens of thousands of Rohingya were killed. Close to one million fled the country. Those who remain in Myanmar are one of the world’s most persecuted minorities according to the UN. Since the military coup, over 1,300 unarmed protesters, including 50 children, have been killed, 11,120 have been imprisoned, and arrest warrants have been issued for 1964 others. Civil unrest and guerrilla warfare have spread to many regions throughout the country. Close to one million Muslim Rohingya remain exiled in refugee camps outside of Myanmar.
“Midwives” made its world premiere at Sundance on 21 January 2022. In Burmese with English subtitles. The one-hour-31-minute documentary was purchased by PBS and will air as part of “POV’s” 35th season.