How Adrian Zaw produced “A Journey Back to Myanmar” to lift up stories of his country of birth

Behind the scenes, Interviews
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Imagine taking a 20-hour flight from California to Myanmar every single month. For Adrian Zaw, that was a reality during the production of his film “A Journey Back to Myanmar.”

At the age of five, Zaw immigrated with his family from Myanmar to the United States, where he soon developed a passion for acting. Through Zaw’s acting career, he eventually expanded his talents and interests to photography, videography, virtual reality, social media and more.

In 2012, he founded his own media studio in order to “create innovated ways to serving small businesses, artists and filmmakers by incorporating new technology to make marketing content.”

Storybench sat down with Zaw to learn more about his current project, “A Journey Back to Myanmar,” and to find out exactly why he travels to Burma so often.

What inspired Zaw Studios?

So there were two main things that inspired Zaw Studios. Number one, there was a need to have speed in the media industry with a reactionary sense to being the change that we want to see in the world. For example, I started off as an actor, and as an actor, I needed headshots, and so I discovered how to do photography to serve my fellow actors better with faster headshots. That eventually transpired to needing a place to shoot photos and because I couldn’t rent a studio at the time, I had to build my own. I ended up building a media studio with ariel drones, films, video equipment, photo equipment and so much more.

But, at the end of the day, being the change that we want to see means doing video and doing photography better than anyone else has done before. Also, we wanted to serve more people. 

And so that was the main inspiration: to help good people succeed by providing our resources of video and photo content. 

Can you tell me about “A Journey Back to Myanmar?”

I go back to Myanmar once a month every month to give back to the community and to discover my own roots. I also do charity work there as well as empower a nation that is behind in the industry as well as just modern technology and culture.

In a year, we raised over 20,000$ to feed orphans and fund a variety of different charities for Myanmar. Through that journey, I was able to discover my roots of being born in Myanmar and meet the type of people that are still there. I discovered the need that this country has to modernize and it gave me a purpose to be the first Myanmar-American Hollywood actor to take my experiences, be able to give and share that and help the next generation of Myanmar succeed. 

Credit: Adrian Zaw.

What inspired “A Journey Back to Myanmar?”

“A Journey Back to Myanmar” was discovered at the height of my traveling career where Zaw Studios specialized in 3 main things: speed, quality and mobility. We shot faster and we edited faster. What takes others weeks to produce–it takes us a day. As for quality, having high-quality speedy productions are extremely good for small businesses. For mobility, it means that we would go anywhere around the world. 

For a year, I traveled and shot social media videos, Instagram videos, traveling videos, branding commercials and more. I discovered that there are amazing things that we can do for big businesses and brands, but that there are also many people out there who need a voice. Over the years, I’ve come to understand that everyone has a story to tell, but not everyone has a voice to tell it. To have a voice in today’s social media marketplace means having funds and having budgets so that videos can be made to share. Well, Burma doesn’t have that. So, what I am doing is, going back to Myanmar and feeding orphans, going to different schools and going to different charities. “A Journey Back to Myanmar” is to help the people in Myanmar tell their stories and help them raise their voices so that they can be heard and supported.

What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced with the film’s production?

The biggest challenge so far with “A Journey Back to Myanmar” is experiencing culture shock. Myanmar has a very different culture than the United States and it takes a lot of time to absorb, understand and navigate through the different cultures, traditions and work ethics. For example, in the United States, in the entertainment industry, when you have to be at a certain place at a certain time, you are expected to be on time. The concept of being on time is very important in the U.S. and in our culture. Time is valuable and you just can’t be late.

However, in Myanmar, there is a very different culture of tardiness and relaxed expectations. Oftentimes, many artists show up late to shoots and that a very big challenge to deal with. I remember trying to shoot one day in Myanmar, but the lead actor was over two hours late so we ended up rescheduling the shoot. Everyone was so casual about it though, no one seemed to really mind. It is very different for us in the states though. 

It really isn’t their fault, it just isn’t what they’re used to. For us in the States, if you’re late to a set, you’re fired! 

Credit: Adrian Zaw.

How have you overcome that challenge?

To overcome that challenge is definitely still a work-in-process. It will take a lot of time to adjust, but ultimately, leading by example is going to be the best way to overcome that obstacle. We have to be the better example and this goes back to the beginning of why Zaw Studios was even created: because we need to be the change that we want to see in society. It won’t do us good if we just sat back and complained. We have to go out there and be on time. We have to do great work and give more than we take. We have to be the person that people would love to work with in the future.

What are you most proud of with “A Journey Back to Myanmar?”

I am most proud of seeing the potential that Myanmar has and seeing the potential that the people have, to be the change that they want to see in their lives. Amongst their challenges, there is an incredible amount of people who are enthusiastic, passionate and dedicated to do good work and to be a better influence and lead a better future for their country, Myanmar.

How do you see this project developing in the future?

The future for “A Journey Back to Myanmar” is going to be a bridge that helps connect two completely isolated nations. The United States and Myanmar aren’t always on the greatest terms because of political complications, but with the new voting process being opened up, Myanmar is going toward a brighter and more democratic future. The need for a bridge is only going to get stronger. Serving as a bridge allows me to go back and forth between Myanmar and the United States. I want to be able to invite people from Myanmar to the United States and people from the United States to Myanmar to share, grow and invest in a nation that will be extremely profitable and successful in the coming decades.

What is the most important lesson you’ve learned throughout your career?

The most important lesson I’ve learned throughout my career is that success is defined independently by individuals. You have to live on your own terms of what success is and not someone else’s definitions because you can never fulfill anyone else’s expectations other than your own and most importantly, the person you need to make sure you are content with is yourself. So, personal development and mental health is the ultimate lesson of any incredible entrepreneurship journey because the world is already going to be challenging enough, and you don’t need to be more challenging to yourself.

What advice would you give to aspiring journalists or people who want to get involved in the media?

For anyone who wants to be a journalist or involved in the media, they must know that it is a lifestyle. My advice is to not ask for permission. Do what you know is right. It takes courage to do what’s right when everyone else says the opposite. In today and the future, it is more challenging for journalists ever. The lines of journalism are blurred with social media being so loud with uninformed and inexperienced people sharing false knowledge. So, the burden of true journalism is getting even heavier as we have to fight biases and fake news. It is a struggle. We also have the power of not having to rely on big foundations funded by big billionaires. In order to get the truth out, we just need to keep going, be vocal and not be complacent. Keep it up, that’s really it. 

Naomi studies journalism at Northeastern University.

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