This article by RJ Vogt was first published by The Myanmar Times.
As the country emerges from the first civilian-led peace effort in more than 60 years, people around Myanmar are talking about reconciliation.
It’s not just this past week’s historic Panglong Conference in Nay Pyi Taw that has people talking, however – people have been buzzing about a new TV show featuring a particularly diverse Myanmar football team.
The Team, which has aired 11 episodes across networks MNTV and Channel 9, follows the struggle of a fictional young band of footballers, each from a different Myanmar ethnic group, as they strive to overcome their cultural differences and win a tournament.
Search for Common Ground, an INGO based in the US, created the show as a mechanism to drive conversations about nonviolent conflict resolutions in countries where violent conflict has become a fact of life. Versions of The Team have aired in 18 countries, including Israel, Sri Lanka, Congo and Indonesia, and each iteration focuses on issues specific to its country. In the Congo, for example, cameras follow an all-girl’s football team to take on issues of sexual violence – an effort to address the African nation’s high rates of rape and abuse.
Kara Wong, program director at Search for Common Ground in Myanmar, said the program was created by Myanmar scriptwriters and filmmakers to cater to this country’s specific issues. Episodes have included tension between Buddhists and Muslims, as well as differences between city dwellers and young people from rural areas.
“The story of the team includes all these different characters, coming in from all these different parts of the country. Inter-ethnic groups know very little about each other, so the story gives a window into a reality they’ve never seen,” said Wong.
There are characters like Thant Zin, a Hindu street vendor from Yangon; Messi, a star player from Kayah State; and Mi Kay Thi, a Mon journalist following the team’s progress. Each is played by actors from the corresponding state or region, and comes into the show with his or her own backstory. A 36-episode radio series detailed those stories in broadcasts on Shwe FM, but the TV series skips the prelude exposition and jumps right into the team’s first practices.
Brabhu, a Hindu actor from Yangon’s Pazundaung township, said he auditioned for the role of Thant Zin after his brother heard about the show and recommended it to him.
“‘The Team’ shows that teamwork works in real life. There are many nationalities in Myanmar, but we could all be united,” he said.
Not all of the actors are experienced like Brabhu, who appeared in some commercial work before auditioning for the show. Messi, the fictional team’s star player, is actually played by a Kayah State karate fighter, Aung Kyaw Soe. Common Ground held a casting call for Kayah actors, but failed to find the exact “Kayah” look they needed.
Stumped, they visited a tea shop in Loikaw where they discovered Aung Kyaw Soe sipping a cup of laphet yay. The dashing, athletic young martial artist had exactly the look they needed, and they approached him to see if he would be interested in trying out acting. He proved to be a natural.
“My family and friends are surprised, but they’re proud to see me being a Karen actor. They also like the message,” he said.
The “message” of overcoming differences to achieve a team success is optimistic for Myanmar, where a horseshoe of borderlands have harboured armed insurgency since the country’s independence from the British. It’s unlikely that the soap opera-style drama will prove the missing link in Myanmar’s peace process that inspires generals to sign peace treaties or soldiers to lay down arms. But Wong says a TV show can play a role in subtler ways: Mobile cinema screenings bring the episodes into local communities around the country, where locals can gather to watch them together. Afterward, Search for Common Ground facilitates discussions about the themes.
“Part of the entire project is … bringing people together. We have scriptwriters from different parts of the country, and people mobilising the screenings who’ve been part of the journey the whole time. They decide who the key people are in the community [that need to see the screenings],” Wong said.
The show is directed by Maung Myo Min, a Myanmar filmmaker with more than 16 titles under his belt. He noted that The Team is an aberration among programs on Myanmar television, in that it’s not following the typical formula for popular TV: It’s not a reality show, and there are no live musical performances.
But with high production quality – thanks to state-of-the-art film equipment and drone cameras – provided by Common Ground Productions and donors, such as the European Union, the story of a ragtag team of boys from every major ethnic group has struck a nerve with viewers. MNTV and MRTV have yet to release full ratings, but fans are vocal on social media, where thousands have demanded online videos of the episodes so they could catch up on their own time, a la Netflix binge-watching. Some have even recorded episodes with phone cameras and uploaded the “pirated” versions online; unlike most major production companies, CGP encourages the practice in order to reach more viewers.
In total, 21,000 people have liked the program’s Facebook page, but the numbers of viewers appear much higher: A recent post of the show’s theme song video – featuring famous Myanmar singers R Zarni and Ni Ni Khin Zaw – garnered nearly 45,000 views in the past month.
The final episode of The Team airs on MNTV on September 5.
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