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“Transcending Mere Political Analysis”: Midi Z Discusses ‘The Clinic’

By Sevara Pan

A couple sit in a dark restaurant, looking up at something out of frame.

Aung Min and San San Oo watching Aung San Suu Kyi’s speech in The Clinic. Courtesy of First Look

Known for lensing candid portrayals of people often living on the margins of society, Midi Z, who now lives in Taiwan, is among Myanmar’s few internationally recognized film directors today. His new film The Clinic, which world premiered last fall at IDFA, offers a complex and layered perspective of a nation in turmoil through focusing on a doctor couple, Aung Min and San San Oo, who also happen to be artists. 

Centering on the humble operations of the couple’s unassuming Yangon clinic, which bears more resemblance to a cluttered corner shop than a medical facility, the film zeroes in on the makeshift waiting room. We observe it filling up as patients and their accompanying relatives come for treatments of assorted physical and mental ailments. The tightly filmed portrait of the clinic gradually broadens to reveal the political context of a Myanmar which is beset by the civil war, riots, and deep ethnic tensions. This is further explored in The Clinic when Midi Z’s camera shifts to the behind-the-scenes takes of a politically charged fiction film, helmed by the physician-turned-filmmaker Aung Min, which navigates the lived reality of the Rohingya people in Myanmar.

Documentary reached out to Midi Z, who directed and co-edited The Clinic ahead of the film’s March 17 North American premiere at First Look, MoMI’s annual showcase for new and innovative cinema. This interview has been translated by Maggie Chau from Mandarin, and edited for length and clarity.


DOCUMENTARY: Could you tell us about the genesis of The Clinic?

MIDI Z: In Myanmar, even the smallest villages have at least one clinic, albeit primarily focusing on treating common ailments like colds and malaria. However, San San Oo and Aung Min’s clinic stands out as a rare exception. While they do treat common illnesses, most of their patients struggle with mental health issues, notably alcoholism. Over time, San San Oo and Aung Min have also integrated art therapy into their practice, making their clinic the sole facility in Myanmar offering such treatments for mental health. Given the patients’ dire financial situation, San San Oo and Aung charge minimal fees for medical treatments. Art therapy treatments are offered free of charge thanks to a sponsorship by a U.S. foundation.

I first met Aung Min and his wife San San Oo in 2016, and I started to contemplate the idea of documenting their clinic in mid-2017. At the outset, my aim was to capture the healthcare scenarios for ordinary patients who come to the clinic for treatments. Yet as I got to know the couple better, I felt compelled to document their work too, fuelled by our mutual connection and shared identity as artists. 

[What drove me to Aung Min and San San Oo is that] they are more than just medical practitioners; they’re artists. Observing their artistic personas, I couldn’t help but recognize certain aspects of myself in them while capturing them on camera. Aside from working as a physician, Aung Min is also a respected figure in Myanmar’s independent cinema scene. He serves as a screenwriting consultant to many young filmmakers in Yangon, contributing to independent and art films in some capacity. As for San San Oo, her role at a government mental hospital also adds another level of significance to the film.

D: “There are two clinics in the film; one is visible and the other invisible.” Could you elaborate on your statement in the film’s synopsis, and how the title encapsulates that?

MZ: Over the past 80 years, Myanmar has been mired in a series of civil wars, leaving many vulnerable to mental health issues. In a broader context, Myanmar itself resembles a clinic, with its populace essentially becoming patients. Aung’s clinic serves as a tangible representation of this reality, with many cases of insomnia, delirium, or hallucinations. However, the symptoms experienced by patients in this larger, metaphorical clinic may be even more profound. While the documentary bears the title The Clinic, its scope extends beyond Aung's clinic; rather, it serves as a reference to the “invisible clinic.”

D: The film opens with a tight shot of the cramped space of Aung’s Clinic before zooming out to an exterior shot, which seemingly reflects the film’s overarching approach, moving from a close-up of people’s inner lives to broader vistas of the nation in turmoil. Could you tell us more about your approach?

MZ: Initially, I spent a month quietly observing [the daily life at the clinic], without filming. This period was essential for establishing rapport with the patients and acquainting myself with the environment. Subsequently, I sought consent from the patients before commencing filming. Making this documentary was a laborious endeavor, following a nine-to-five schedule—starting filming when the clinic opens and stopping only when it closes.

As filming progressed, Aung Min began filming the ongoing riot and tensions among different ethnic groups, among other issues. It was then that I redirected my camera toward his filming process. Initially, my intention was solely to capture scenes of the clinic. However, as filming continued, I became increasingly aware that insomnia and anxiety suffered by the patients were induced by the civil war, riots, and other events that have befallen the country. The profound shifts in the societal and political landscapes also left me deeply troubled about the state of my hometown.

These anxieties prompted me to contemplate how to articulate the concept of the “invisible clinic” and employ the metaphor of a “visible clinic,” where the symptoms experienced by the patients aren’t necessarily innate but rather triggered by the current socio-political state of affairs in Myanmar. From the narrative standpoint, it follows a well-established and coherent structure. First, the patient's symptoms are presented, then the causes of their afflictions are shown, and eventually, even the psychiatrists and artists who care for them fall sick and turn to art as a means of self-therapy.

As the film draws to a close, the camera returns to the clinic, with a radio snippet reporting on the military coup of 2021. This signifies the passage of time, documenting the critical events as they unfolded.

D: The film’s title card appears a third into the film, at minute 33. Why did you decide to structure the film this way? And how did this particular structure influence the way the film is narrated?

MZ: This was one of the creative ideas of my co-editor, Wu Ke-Xi. The first one-third of the film portrays a “visible clinic,” the one that is run by San San Oo and Aung Min. Upon leaving that clinic, viewers come to realize that everyone in the country is afflicted in some way. That dramaturgy reveals how we are all ensnared in the “clinic-at-large.”

One of the reasons I relish making documentaries is that during both pre-production and filming, I am fully immersed in the act of shooting. For me, filming itself is a form of labor, where I don’t dwell on elements like story, characters, or even aesthetics. However, it is possible that I instinctively incorporate my sense of aesthetics into the process. My preference is to film thousands of hours of footage, setting them aside for at least three months before starting the editing process. Through such spontaneous and adaptable editing, I uncover and establish the film’s structure. Often during this phase, I incorporate elements that are unexpected, things I may not have considered before. I enjoy experimenting with new forms or aesthetics that may be unfamiliar to me, as a means to convey my thoughts. However, as I tend to be rather structured and rational, Wu Ke-Xi’s creative involvement in editing has been invaluable. I believe the film’s structure in general sets it apart from my previous, more conventionally structured documentaries. I feel this narrative aligns more closely with what I aimed to express.

D: “There is a film within your film,” you aptly noted in the synopsis. Why did you decide to incorporate Aung Min’s making-of scenes in your film? In what way are they productive to the exploration of themes in your film?

MZ: Integrating the various facets of Aung Min’s character into the film emerged as a central focus. I interspersed segments of Aung Min’s film with the behind-the-scenes footage I captured of him, as I wanted to highlight the connection between his work and his process of  creation. As a doctor, Aung Min helps patients grappling with mental health issues. Filmmaking hence adds another layer to Aung Min’s persona, and it goes beyond his creative pursuits. 

D: The Clinic also weaves together Aung Min’s short films, portraying youths carrying fishing nets or women bearing flower offerings. Why are they pertinent to the narrative of your film?

MZ: They are all interconnected. The fishing scene captures the turbulence of the Rakhine region, where the patient’s anxiety was exacerbated by the war, upon her arrival in the region. However, I deliberately refrain from explicitly mentioning the names of the places or events, as I want to avoid a journalistic approach. Instead, I prefer a narrative style, which embraces abstraction and metaphor. Such narratives effectively portray the complexities of human history, national identity, and political evolution, transcending mere political analysis.

For instance, a poem featured in the film is written by a Burmese female poet from 80 years ago, yet she remains nameless. In early texts, she is referred to as “U Kyaw’s Daughter,” indicating that while her father’s identity is known, her name was not recorded. Nevertheless, her poetry is quite amazing. At first glance, the verses may appear to describe heat, scorching weather, and intense bodily warmth. However, in Burmese, the word “heat” carries connotations of anxiety or trouble, thereby it delves into the realm of inner turmoil and restlessness. The poem culminates in a prayer to the goddess, beseeching her to shower dew infused with the fragrance of flowers, dispelling the “heat” of the world. 

Sevara Pan is an Amsterdam-based journalist and film critic.