By Dennis Hartley
(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 7, 2012)
Does a nation have a soul? While there are no definitive answers to such rhetorical questions, I can say that after viewing Robert H. Leiberman’s surprisingly intimate documentary, They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain, I feel that I have experienced something akin to an enlightening glimpse into the very soul of that country’s beautiful people.
I confess that I previously had not given much thought to the nation formerly known as Burma. I was aware that it is a Southeast Asian country with a history of British colonial rule. I knew it had been seized and occupied by the Japanese during WW 2. I knew that it had gained its independence in 1948 and since been plagued by civil wars. But beyond that, the country’s contemporary sociopolitical milieu was off my radar (as it was, I suspect, of most Westerners) until recent news footage of our Secretary of State embracing the most high-profile figure in Burmese politics, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Secretary Clinton was acknowledging Suu Kyi’s long personal struggle (including 15 years of house arrest) as head of the opposition party that has been attempting to bring democracy to her country, which has been under strict military rule for several decades (some particularly encouraging news emerged just this week, with Suu Kyi and other members of her party winning 43 out of 45 seats in the lower house of the Burmese parliament). Her changes in fortune added some happy synchronicity to Leiberman’s project. Just as he was wrapping production in 2010, he learned of Suu Kyi’s release from house arrest, and arranged for an interview, which he weaves throughout his film.
However, it is important to note this is not a documentary about Aung San Suu Kyi. Leiberman has said that he did not initially set out to make a political film; but as he learned during shooting (which was largely clandestine) it is next to impossible to remain apolitical while documenting a people who live under a totalitarian regime (probably only second to North Korea’s government for its dogged persistence in turning back the clock on its infrastructure) that has very little concern for their health, education or welfare. One theme running throughout is the palpable fear of speaking out (most interviewees requested anonymity). However, this state-mandated insularity is precisely what makes the film such a fascinating journey.
While there is much misery and suffering on display, there is also unexpected beauty; geographical, historical, cultural and metaphysical. What emerges at the forefront of the latter is the spirit and pride of everyday Burmese, who despite living in a state of abject poverty, maintain a Zen-like, “glass half-full” view of their lives that boggles the Western mind (then again…many are Buddhists). I liked this film, because it really made me want to root for the people of Myanmar. It’s a pointed reaffirmation of the power of film; this was basically one guy, armed with a hi-def video camera, and balls of brass. It may not be a huge production, but it sure has a big heart.