Midi Z’s Jade Miners: Our Panic, Their Everyday Lives

by LIANG Yi-ni, Miho TANAKA / 2016-08-07

Director Midi Z came to Taiwan to study when he was in senior high school, and ended up staying for 10 years. Apart from studying, he had to think about how to make a living on the one hand, while on the other, he was introduced to film. Perhaps it was destined by fate: his independent and tough personality made him shy away from proper routes, swinging in and out of the system, allowing his grasp on the true essence of things that always being sharp and without interference. Jade Miners is his first documentary film, which he filmed during his return to his home country of Myanmar.

The film’s images are full of physicality: Miners wander unsteadily into the darkness, the rugged path illuminated only by the light on their helmets; chaos they cannot escape from, unimaginable hardships digging in the mines — and yet this is part of their everyday lives. Apart from just being a group portrait of these jade-mining laborers, this film is also a work that takes a “documentary” mentality to the exploration of “reality”. The following is an edited transcript of an interview with director Midi Z.

Q: Looking at your past works, between Dove in 2006 and Motorcycle Driver in 2008, your focus shifted from Taiwanese society to your hometown Myanmar. There is a clear distinction there. Was there an important inspiration at the time?

Dove was my graduation project at university. Since I was a foreign student, I had the pressure of looking after myself from the time I was in high school, and so I had to work all the time. I had lots of different jobs, but at the time I was leaning toward video production. My professor also encouraged me to use digital cameras to shoot short films, so I did.

Later, as I had been in Taiwan for 10 years and had not returned home since 1998, I decided to pick up my digital camera and head home to create something. When I returned home I met a very good friend of mine. He was working as a motorcycle driver and illegally importing motorbikes from China to sell. I rode a motorbike myself and followed him around for three, four days. I felt a lot of emotions, but I couldn’t capture any of them on film. It made me aware that there is a huge gap between the drama in films and in real life. That’s why there still hasn’t been a film that can completely reflect life.

Motorcycle Driver is a work that’s closer to me and fuses the concepts of fiction and documentary film. So Dove and Motorcycle Driver, even though the form and idea behind these two films are completely different, they actually both reflect my status as a student. I just did whatever I came into contact with; they’re not that great. Of course, if audiences can sense this behind the films, then I think the reason might be there’re subconsciously something related to themselves.

I don’t think this change means I had any new kind of thinking toward film. Rather, it’s just life and fate taking me in that direction. It’s always been like that since I started making movies. To be frank, the way I am is that if there’s a project today, one that can make a living and once again bring out my creative nature, then I’ll go make that film. It’s not planned filmmaking.

Q: You started in short films. Did you encounter any difficulties when you crossed genres into dramas and documentaries?

No, because it’s all part of my life. You see the way I am now: if you discuss my movies you have to discuss my life. They can’t be separated. From Dove, Motorcycle Driver and Return to Burma to my documentaries, you can say there’s a lot of obvious turning points or things, or you can say we’re actually fused with the films in our lives. It’s an accumulation of reading, writing and watching movies in daily life. When these dialectic processes and discourses build up over the days and months, that’s when you will have broad concern for and understanding of these people or this topic. That way, the things you say casually or during interviews will be able to express the connection to this topic and won’t be just on the surface.

Like when I made Jade Miners, I was thinking about the lives of my family and friends over there because I hadn’t been to that region. Apart from satisfying my curiosity, I also saw that the workers there share the same kind of hardships workers endure around the rest of the world - under the structure of globalization and capitalism, everywhere is the same. They all have commonality. That’s why I don’t see this as a “Myanmar film”. What I want to discuss is universal values like “human existence.”

What I seek from my fiction films or documentaries are those moving sensations, emotions and feelings through universal values. They’re not seeking a novelty — they’re capturing a different place for people to see.

Q: You spent a lot of time filming in the mines during the making of Jade Miners. How did you liaise with intermediaries at the time? Can you tell us what the situation was like at the jade mines?

Prior to 2008, jade accounted for 25-30% of Myanmar’s income. Those involved in the jade industry represent 10% of Myanmar’s population, so that shows how important the industry is to the country. The jade mines were controlled by the British during the 1920s-30s. After Burma gained independence in the 1940s, civil war resulted in the northern part of Myanmar falling under the control of the ethnic Kachin people. Before, Myanmar had intended to be ruled under communism, but it’s said that the country’s founding father was assassinated by the military junta, which later ruled under a dictatorship. The Kachins were unhappy, so they continued to occupy that piece of land and accepted payment for access. In the end, the mine regions were taken over by the national government in the 1970s, though privately it was still this group of independence activists collecting taxes.

So if you’re going to mine, it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, you’re still going to be controlled and exploited by both sides. From the late 1970s they began to use heavy machinery, and in just 20 years, the entire tropical forest was turned into a barren desert. In 2010, fighting between the local pro-independence army and government forces resumed. Due to war, the entire place has transformed into a ghost town. That’s why my older brother took this group of people to go mine there, from the time he was 16 until now, when he’s nearly 50 years old. They mined all day and night, and when the soldiers came to grab people they would hide.

All my family members were mining jade, so all the letters they sent to me were about jade mining. Hence I was really familiar with it all and didn’t need an intermediary. I initially followed the miners, but after the first day I felt it was too dangerous; I was too afraid to take camera out. After a while, all of these dramatic things became part of life. For instance, when the soldiers come looking for people, the first time was quite exciting, the second time felt like no big deal, and by the third time I couldn’t even be bothered running. So by the end, Jade Miners was able to look at these dangers very objectively.

Jade mines are actually quite similar to other places, but as it’s very complicated there, you need to be imposing; you need to have someone to back you. So when you make documentaries or go to such places to make films, 90% of it is not a challenge in creativity but a challenge in survival and getting along with people.

Q: With so much raw footage, can you share with us your method or process of editing the film?

I started editing after filming for about six months in 2012. I did it as I filmed, trying a lot of methods. I was reviewing the footage I filmed every day, but I felt like it was all the same every day, probably no change for a whole year. But later, if you look inside the lack of change, you’ll start to get a slight sense of time and events. Jade mines actually have massive problems, including the prevalence of drugs, blackmail from soldiers, destruction of the environment, and the sex trade — there are countless things to pay attention to. I once also tried to make the film very dramatic, very sensationalist, but after a while I realized that all the deaths and captures by soldiers were all just routine for these people.

So the aim of Jade Miners was to condense something very big into a single viewpoint, and that viewpoint is to see it as the norm of the miners’ everyday life. Through these 20 scenes, you can see that the miners have been in the same situation for 10 years.

Q: As your first documentary feature film, what does Jade Miners mean to you?

“Reality” is very important to documentary films. When I was a student I thought that reality was visual reality, but after filming I discovered that documentaries are just like feature films — there is no reality. They are merely trying to get closer to reality or grabbing a small part of the real world and magnifying it. All of the subjects you work with in the film are probably not after money, so the way to get along with them is to let them trust you, until you’re very familiar with each other, and then you can start filming.

Yet this film is actually very private. I selfishly generalized the miners or the lifestyles of all such workers in the world: the way they treat death as everyday life, the way they face poverty and their lack of a material life. Everyone thought the three previous feature films I made were very much like documentaries. It’s a good thing for me to go make a documentary film like Jade Miners at this stage in my life because this time I really took it seriously, learning and experimenting with what a documentary film looks like.

For more information about Jade Miners, please click here.

(Translated by Howard SHIH)