By Shelley Seale
for Northwest Asian Weekly
“They Call It Myanmar” is the story of Burma, told with stunning footage shot clandestinely over a two-year period by filmmaker Robert H. Lieberman. The film provides an astonishing and intimate look at what has been one of the most isolated countries in the world, showing the everyday life of the people that have been held hostage by a brutal military regime for 48 years.
A revealing interview with Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, shortly after her release from house arrest, is interwoven with extensive interviews and interactions with more than 100 Burmese people. The result is an impressionistic journey across the vastness of Burma. It traces the history of Burma from its beginnings in the ancient city of Bagan, through colonial times, recent uprisings, the devastating Cyclone Nargis that killed 150,000 people, up to the present day.
“From the moment I knew I was going to Burma, the second most isolated country on the planet, I knew I was going to do a film,” says Lieberman, who was originally contracted by the Department of State to create content that would help battle tuberculosis. After first going to Burma in 1988, Lieberman, a professor at Cornell University and a best-selling novelist, returned five more times in his desire to lift the curtain on what is happening in the country.
“I started out shooting in Burma with the intent of making a nonpolitical film. It quickly became obvious that was impossible. The politics manifest themselves not just in human rights violations, but also in the everyday life of Burmese — parents who can’t feed their children, children who cannot attend school and who begin to enter the labor force almost as soon as they can walk and talk.”
Keeping below the radar of the government security was the most difficult part. “Not for my sake, but for all the Burmese who were helping me.” Lieberman had to film in secret due to strict government controls. He was often hassled and questioned about his activities. While some individuals were eager to share their thoughts and experiences, others were afraid of the repercussions.
“They Call It Myanmar” explores the history of the country, taking the viewer through moments like General Aung San’s assassination in 1947 and the anti-government protest in 2007. Interspersed with these historic moments are interviews and shots of the daily lives of the Burmese, from doctors and parents to students. A touching moment occurs toward the end of the film, as Lieberman asks a 20-something man about his thoughts and feelings. After awkwardly, but honestly, expressing his dismay and also his hopes for Burma, the young man reveals that this is the first time he has ever told anyone how he feels.
Having been all over the Third World, Lieberman says that with the exception of a famine he filmed in Ethiopia, the conditions in Myanmar are the worst he’s seen.
“[This] is a resource-rich country with natural gas reserves, teak forests, vast agricultural lands, minerals, gems, and a huge coastline. So you have to ask yourself, ‘How did this happen?’ ” said Lieberman.
Unlike most filmmakers seeking higher ratings and box office sales, Lieberman has a different objective and measure of success for his film.
“My hope is that I have managed to give the viewer a sense of Myanmar’s people and culture, both of which are highly complex,” said Lieberman. Even with the film wrapped and showing in cities across the country, Lieberman’s thoughts still turn to the country’s future. “This is an incredibly diverse country, with seven major ethnic groups and more than 130 languages,” he said. “[I hope] the people can preserve their culture in the wake of the flood of business interests that are sure to engulf Burma.” (end)
“They Call It Myanmar” opens Friday, April 6, at Metro Cinemas, 4500 9th Ave NW in Seattle’s University District. For prices and showtimes, consult local listings or call 206-781-5755.
Shelley Seale can be reach at email@example.com.