Monday, October 14, 2013

Margaret Mead Fest ’13: Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls

What chance does “Girl Power” have in a country where “people power” has yet to take hold? Myanmar’s first girl group will find out.  As the military government slowly and ever so reluctantly releases its hold on the country, the music of Me N Ma Girls might perfectly underscore the changing times.  The growing pains of the girl group and their nation are captured in Juliet Lamont’s Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls (trailer here), which screens during the 2013 Margaret Mead Film Festival at the American Museum of Natural History.

Australian expat Nicole “Nikki” May came to Burma with her oil-and-gas man significant other seeking adventure.  The former dancer’s plan to form a group loosely modeled on the Spice Girls would take on wider cultural significance than she originally realized. It is hard to imagine the climate in which the group now known as Me N Ma Girls was assembled.  Colored wigs were outlawed by the government and the only songs that could be legally performed were adapted western imports.  Essentially, creativity was forbidden.  The mere act of performance was considered closely akin to working in a go-go bar.  Yet, somehow the five young women got the gist of May’s vision.

You might think a country without freedom of speech would not have to worry about scum-sucking agent-producers, but you would be wrong.  His name is Peter Thein and after dropping the fab five for not being “pretty enough” (huh?) he threatened to sue the women if they continued to use the name “Tiger Girls.”  They are so better off without him.

Lamont nicely establishes the personalities of each of the former Tiger Girls: Wai Hnin, Kimmy, Ah Moon, Htike Htike, and Cha Cha.  They include devout Buddhists and Christians, as well as one representative of the northern Chin minority. One even happens to be the daughter of a retired senior officer.  Arguably, they are a microcosm of Burmese society and they become more outspoken in their music following the release of Aung San Suu Kyi.

By documentary standards, MN & TG is practically a movie musical.  Lamont often incorporates music video style interludes that are rather catchy and shrewdly convey the individual struggles of each woman featured.  Indeed, the film starkly defines the very real stakes for the group.  This is not Fame in Myanmar, with five plucky kids following their dreams.  For most of Me N Ma Girls, it is about providing for families on the brink of ruin.

There is a lot of serious drama in MN & TG, but there is also some optimism and a lot of upbeat pop music.  May certainly learns more than she bargained for, but her notion Burma could use the energy and idealism of a group like Me N Ma Girls has been vindicated by time.  It is a fascinating story Lamont documents with unflinching honesty.  To see what the band has since produced, check out the aptly titled “Girl Strong” on youtube or itunes. For a vivid sense of where they came from, seek out Lamont’s Miss Nikki and the Tiger Girls.  Highly recommended, it screens Thursday (10/17) as part of this year’s Margaret Mead Film Festival at the AMNH.