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Midwives review – deeply moving study of sisterhood in Myanmar

Hnin Ei Hlaing's doc about two rural midwives in a sectarian region is fuelled by the undying energy of its remarkable heroines

As Hnin Ei Hlaing’s Midwives unfussily shows us, Myanmar is not an easy country to survive or thrive in, especially if you’re a woman or a Muslim. There’s violent sectarianism, tropical diseases, and grinding rural poverty conspiring to keep people down. To make a difference, you have to be a truly remarkable person, and at the heart of Midwives there are two: Nyo Nyo, a Muslim midwife, and Hla, her Buddhist mentor. These two incredible women, working in the conflict-wracked Rakhine province, make for moving and inspiring company in this consistently compelling documentary.

Hlaing builds the story out from the two women’s relationship – a noteworthy one in Myanmar, where warlike Buddhist supremacism and anti-Muslim attacks are not just condoned by the ruling classes but actively encouraged. We also see footage of the various skirmishes across the region – whether it’s fighting between religious and ethnic groups or Rakhine rebels in battle with government forces – and Nyo Nyo and Hla’s treatment of the local women, but it’s this central friendship that is Midwives’s guiding light.

It grounds vast societal issues in small personal stakes, and it’s impossible to not become deeply invested in the pair. Nyo Nyo wants to open her own clinic, and her cautious hope in the future of, at least, her local community is deeply moving as she fights to make her corner of the world a better place. Hla, meanwhile, is a bit spikier, more cynical and very un-PC, but she’s brave (mentoring Nyo Nyo has put her in the crosshairs of Buddhist supremacists) and a gifted doctor. Her habit of constantly telling her patients to shut up becomes very endearing, and a sequence in which she heals a sickly baby almost through sheer force of will is just amazing.

For a film called Midwives, there’s not as much focus on pregnancy and childbirth as you might expect, though the moments in which they do feature are frank and affecting. Midwifery in this world essentially boils down to women caring for one another, whether that’s Hla medicating her very elderly mother or Nyo Nyo starting up a women’s cooperative fund and giving out free medical care (aside from Hla’s husband, all the men just sit around eating while the women work). It’s a genuinely touching story of carving out a safe space within the reality of chauvinism and patriarchy, fuelled by the undying energy of its heroines.

Midwives is released in UK cinemas on 30 September.

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