Life in Burma, a suffering land
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, September 14, 2012
There are a number of quietly startling moments in “They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain,” a solid and subtly moving portrait of the people of Burma by filmmaker Robert H. Lieberman.
Perhaps the most startling of those moments are shots featuring the hands and feet of interview subjects who didn’t want to show their faces. They’re not criminals; they’re simply afraid of the repressive military regime that has run the country into the ground since 1962, and which frowns on people talking to Westerners. Of those whose faces do appear on camera, several have their eyes digitally obscured. Almost no one is identified by name. The level of fear is palpable.
It’s therefore all the more astonishing to see Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy activist and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner. Her celebrity, presumably, confers certain advantages, despite her having lived under house arrest for 15 of the past 21 years.
She is eloquent in expressing her frustrations and hopes for her country, but she is not the most eloquent in capturing the peculiar brand of fatalism that seems to characterize her countrymen, one of whom opines with a tone of resignation, that, in Burma, “thinking is not an option.”
(Despite an official name change to Myanmar in 1989, the country is still widely known as Burma, and everyone interviewed for the film, including the people who live there, use that designation.)
Of the strange complacency of the Burmese drivers who ferry pilgrims and tourists up a narrow mountain road to a famous Buddhist pagoda -- and whose vehicles are said to flip over at the rate of about once a month, killing many occupants -- one Westerner speculates that the drivers must consider it good karma to die while helping people.
Whatever the reason, the Burmese shown in Lieberman’s film seem almost preternaturally accepting of the country’s widespread poverty, lack of health care, abysmal educational system and child labor. Despite Suu Kyi’s ongoing political efforts at reform, and the so-called saffron revolution of 2007 -- in which peacefully protesting monks were beaten and arrested -- the film captures a level of endurance that is heartbreaking. Buddhists, Lieberman explains in the narration, believe that if they are being punished in this life, it must be because they did something bad in a past life.
“They Call It Myanmar” isn’t slick. Wind noise in the microphone sometimes competes with what is being said, and the camerawork is occasionally shaky -- presumably because much of the film was shot surreptitiously.
Still, Lieberman manages to capture the country’s beauty, along with the proud perseverance of its people. “They Call It Myanmar” presents a sad and sobering glimpse at a stoic and long-suffering land.
Contains brief images of violence. In English and Burmese with English subtitles. The director will appear for Q&A sessions at the following opening-weekend screenings: Friday at 7 p.m.; Saturday at 5 and 7:20 p.m.; and Sunday at 1:20 and 7:20 p.m.