Laundry is a seemingly mundane household chore, but for 23-year-old filmmaker Kyaw Shoon Le Yee, it represents much more. Le Yee, who hails from Myanmar and spent her formative years in Singapore after moving here at the age of three, grew up surrounded by the Burmese belief that women’s clothes are considered unclean.
It’s to an extent that freshly washed women’s clothes cannot be hung together with clothing of their male counterparts, and has to be dried out of sight.
“Every year, my family would return to Myanmar to visit during the December holidays where I would have to hand wash my pants, skirts, and undergarments (any clothing below the waist) and hang them at the back balcony of the house, away from the public’s eye,” she recalls.
“The housing infrastructure is not designed in the safest manner, and when I was 14, I almost slipped and fell out of the balcony while trying to hang my clothes out to dry. That was when it hit me – I almost lost my life conforming to this belief that women’s bottom clothes have to be hung away from the public eye. Is it worth losing a life over this? I asked my grandma about this belief, and she said that it’s just the way it has been for thousands of years; traditions are to be respected.”
I almost lost my life conforming to this belief that women’s bottom clothes have to be hung away from the public eye.Kyaw Shoon Le Yee
Hoping to tackle this societal expectation of women and address this decades-old practice of female oppression, the young filmmaker decided to make a short film on the topic for her final year project in her film-making degree at the Nanyang Technological University’s School of Art, Design and Media.
Titled Dirty Laundry, the short film is written and directed by Le Yee. Described as “a simple story about womanhood, forced conformity and cultural misogyny”, the film is shot in the Myanmar language, and centres around a teenager who disagrees with her parents on how freshly washed women’s clothes should not be hung above men’s clothes while drying out in the open.
“My aim for this film is for women to relate to and find comfort in this shared collective experience of womanhood, because after all, if we strip away the laundry aspect, the core message is applicable to many cases,” she asserts. “I also want to empower the audience to stand up for their beliefs and tell them that while it may be hard to change traditions, we can still try to negotiate our way around it. Only by then will we be able to slowly affect change.”
I also want to empower the audience to stand up for their beliefs and tell them that while it may be hard to change traditions, we can still try to negotiate our way around it.Kyaw Shoon Le Yee
With its compelling and thought-provoking narrative that carefully sheds light on this cultural conflict, Dirty Laundry made an impressionable impact on the judges at this year’s National Youth Film Awards (NYFA) – so much so that it clinched three awards: Best Live Action, Best Director and Best Screenplay in the Student category.
The film was also a finalist at the 24th Seoul International Women’s Film Festival (SIWFF).
“Filmmaking is tough. It eats up almost every ounce of my soul telling such a personal story and of course, as graduating students, we are often left wondering if we should pursue this path,” says Le Yee, on her impressive achievements for a film that started out as a final-year school project. “These awards and nominations were like a vote of confidence for myself and my team – that we are on the right track, and that we should persevere on this filmmaking journey.”
Here, Le Yee shares more about her passion for filmmaking, her thoughts on this traditional Burmese belief, and how she reacted when she first heard the news of her nominations and awards.