They Call it Myanmar

Holding a mirror up to Myanmar’s authoritarian regime.

Electric Shadows presents: They Call it Myanmar is at The Hutong on Sun 18
Can a documentary truly change the world? Sure, films tackling corporate giants such as McDonald’s and Walmart have all raised social awareness, but these are easy lays. What if your target is bigger than that? What if it’s a country? Anyone can walk into a McDonald’s, stuff themselves with 20 Big Macs and monologue to a film crew; it takes a lot more guts to walk into Myanmar (formerly Burma) with just one cameraman for company.
They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain does just that. This bold 90-minute documentary has been edited down from over 120 hours of footage shot over two years by US novelist, academic and director Robert H Lieberman. During this time, he visited markets, a boxing training camp, a health clinic and even schools, interviewing over 100 local people in an attempt to paint a portrait of a country that has been largely hidden from the world since 1962. But what did he uncover?
‘I’ve been all over the Third World,’ recalls Lieberman, ‘and, with the exception of the famine areas of Africa, [conditions in Myanmar are] the worst I’ve seen. Many people can’t feed their children. Child labour is everywhere. This is a resource-rich country with natural gas reserves, timber, large agricultural lands, minerals and gems. You have to ask yourself – “how did this happen?”’
The most convincing answer to that question is probably addressed by the film’s centerpiece interview with pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi. She was recently released from a 15-year-long house arrest for representing ‘oppositional interests’ opposed to the ruling military regime. She describes herself as ‘a normal politician’ and nails what she sees as the basic problem behind Myanmar’s troubles: greed. ‘I think politicians who think that they can go beyond being a politician are very dangerous. That’s when authoritarianism comes in,’ she says candidly.
They Call It Myanmar essentially arose out of a side project for its maker. Lieberman was hired by the US State Department to uproot from his 130-acre farm in Ithaca, New York to Myanmar to work with young local filmmakers. ‘I brought over French and American documentaries and musicals like Little Shop of Horrors and Dreamgirls. Though they were intrigued by them, the ? lm that absolutely captivated them and had them roaring with laughter was Some Like It Hot,’ he recalls. But the opportunity to document a world not often seen by many proved too inviting for the filmmaker. 
‘I started out trying to make a non-political film,’ he explains. ‘Of course, that became ultimately impossible.’ Myanmar’s culture and recent past is complex. It is a massively diverse country, with seven major ethnic groups and over 130 languages or dialects, while 80 per cent of the population are Buddhist. ‘In the movie, we briefly take you through the history of Burma to give you some background, but we really hope that you will draw your own conclusions about why conditions are how they are.’
There is a fine line between investigative journalism and portraying the reality of life. This is something They Call it Myanmar is particularly sensitive to. ‘The news reports coming out of Burma tend to focus on the political aspects as well as the civil wars that are ongoing. Our film, on the other hand, is an attempt to put a human face on the country,’ Lieberman says. ‘The movie is not all doom and gloom. Despite the grim conditions, the Burmese have a wonderful sense of humour. It’s easy to crack a joke with them.’
But any film dealing with an authoritarian government is fraught with dangers, both for the maker and, more importantly, for interviewees. Some are scared to be seen on camera, so Lieberman only uses their voices. For those who are brave enough, or who have less to lose, he explains that he had to act delicately as he suspected many of them didn’t fully comprehend the risks. ‘We felt compelled to blur out their faces. Then there were ordinary people who we could film without worrying about the consequences because they were just going about living their lives and weren’t touching on any sensitive topics.’
It’s probably still a myth that filmmakers can really make a difference, but what’s inspiring about Lieberman’s film and his understanding of Myanmar’s situation is how we can fight the enemies within. Such films remind us how social change can gradually be brought about through our own self-examinations and having the curiosity to understand a world that seems very alien. In portraying some of the horrors of Myanmar, it is undoubtedly a shock to witness, but the warmth of the people is not lost, which is what makes this a powerful work. In the end, change may be hard but you have to start somewhere.
  • 4 out of 5 stars