Doing Our Duty
By Chris Shields

The Clinic
Dir. Midi Z, Taiwan/Myanmar, no distributor

The Clinic screened Sunday, March 17, at Museum of the Moving Image as part of First Look 2024.

Myanmar-born Taiwanese director Midi Z’s The Clinic, filmed between 2017 and 2023, is a documentary-fiction hybrid following a couple, Dr. Aung Min and San San Oo, a doctor and psychiatrist, who operate a Myanmar clinic. The clinic, which resembles a junk store with boxes of medical supplies stuffed into every available space, is visited by a variety of people on the edge physically, socially, and psychologically. Aung Min administers injections and exasperatedly gives medical advice, while San San Oo provides counseling and invites patients to return to the clinic for art therapy. The clinic appears to be an oasis of good, but at the periphery of this Capraesque life is a simmering political strife that culminates in the 2021 coup by the Tatmadaw—Myanmar’s military—that deposed the democratically elected National League for Democracy and installed a military junta.

In The Clinic, as in his 2018 documentary 14 Apples and his 2011 debut feature, Return to Burma, Z uses long takes and a detached camera style. We watch from behind huddled backs as the doctor treats his patients. We see a man suffer a seizure before our eyes. When the attack strikes, the camera abruptly cuts, jumping to the exterior of the clinic as the man is loaded into the back of a car and sent to the hospital. None of this is framed with any particular eye toward drama, but with an objectivity that leads to the viewer’s enlightenment. It is in moments like these, with their sudden, jarring impact and visual rawness, that the viewer is reminded they are watching a documentary. Like in Z’s previous work, though, the line between documentary and fiction is not a firm one. From as early as Return to Burma, the director has been putting real people and places within gently controlled narratives. In The Clinic, the people and the place are real, as is the political context, but outside of this, it’s hard to say. This is the way Z seems to want it.

The clinic where much of Z’s film takes place is like many others in Myanmar. Between treating patients who have traveled from near and far, Aung Min strolls through the makeshift clinic with his hands behind his back, sagaciously bent forward. San Oo Oo, paces as she provides counseling over the phone, her shock of wavy black hair wildly bouncing atop her head. Things begin to change course when the pair go to a local shop to watch a press conference about recent attacks on Rohingya Muslims. Later, leisurely smoking a cigarette by an open window, Aung Min tells another unnamed man about the film he intends to make, presumably in response to the injustice he’s seen, about a Buddhist man mistaken for a Rohingya Muslim.

Aung Min casts a painter to play the lead role. As they shoot the doctor continues his duties—the camera is set up to film the lead actor as he is off screen treating a patient. The methods and location in this film within the film appear to be the same as those we’ve already encountered in The Clinic. By doing this, Z creates a subtly dizzying reflexivity, and while the film offers beatific minimalism it appears something thornier is at play here. Things are both profoundly simple and elegantly layered in Z’s film, wherein personal ambitions, political realities, art, and mental health combine to create a thematic complexity that is meaningfully diffused by the film’s bracingly direct photography.

Aung Min, his film now completed, participates in a Q&A at a film festival. An unseen speaker admonishes the director for criticizing the military in his film. It’s a tense but seemingly inconsequential moment. Afterward, San San Oo questions Aung Min about why he didn’t respond to the man, but he dismisses her concerns, saying militarism is a thing of the past. In a subsequent scene, we watch as Aung Min dozes during a festival’s awards ceremony where other filmmakers are honored, seemingly leaving his work as a doctor behind and embracing a more complacent, bourgeois existence as a filmmaker and artist. But as soon as Aung Min (and the film) has arrived here, the film jumps forward to 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the military coup. Z’s film consistently stays a step ahead of viewers, dropping them into situations in medias res, allowing the implications to wash over them. In the final sequence, this pays off powerfully, with the revelation of the military junta summoning the specter of militarism dismissed earlier.

The Clinic ends with Aung Min shaving his head and becoming a monk. This isn’t the first Midi Z film to show a man ceremonially removing his hair before entering monastic life. (In 14 Apples a man must live as a monk for two weeks.) Yet here it becomes an act of political and spiritual protest as well as a particularly Burmese Buddhist gesture of peaceful resistance. Aung Min’s act moves beyond art, reflecting Z’s work and his predilection for mingling documentary and fiction. There is something hiding just beneath the surface of both Z’s unvarnished images and Aung Min’s film: the gnawing question of filmmaking, and its efficacy, in a time of political violence.