All is calm and all is bright in Burma — at least from the air. Clouds drift across a patchwork of land parcels. As the plane descends, the glittering steeples of Buddhist temples come into view. The scene is ethereal. Even on the ground appearances can be deceptive. The sun rises over the quiet countryside. A boat glides across a glassy river. But there is something ominous brewing beneath this serene façade.
“I took off from Thailand and landed in Rangoon. It was a bit of a surprise.” Prof. Robert Lieberman, Physics, clandestinely captured life in Burma over a two year period. A best-selling novelist and eclectic filmmaker (Lieberman recently directed the Ithaca-based comedy Green Lights), Lieberman is visibly moved by the narrative of a country he frequently describes as quiet and glorious.
Burma once promised to be a land of great glory and peace. The country was the “rice bowl” of Asia, and the Burmese took pride in having one of the most advanced airports in the region. What the world knows about Burma since the military junta took over in the 1960s has been hazy. The country is widely believed to be run by repressive and eccentric generals who play golf and build multimillion dollar mansions in the administrative capital Nay Pi Taw as the people languish in growing poverty and anguish. While this image might be a caricature, it is not without truth.
Under military rule, the former British colony has warranted comparisons to the fictional countries in George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. As an interviewee asserts, “this is not your typical military dictatorship. There is no cult of the personality here,” so it is more “insidious … you can remove one and replace him with another.”
The result is a devastating climate of fear. But just what does fear look like? A female interviewee compares the uncertainty that pervades life in Burma to her unreliable gas supply; she never knows when to start cooking. Lieberman remembers filming only the feet of many of his interviewees: “Before, you showed a picture of Aung San Suu Kyi, you got arrested. People were terrified. If you got into a taxi right away, people will tell you right away, ‘I hate this government.’ If you were alone in a taxi and you were a Westerner … When I asked, ‘Can I record you?’ No. Those who weren’t, I was worried that they didn’t understand the risk.”
By 1988, many Burmese did not have enough money to buy a sack of rice. As a Burmese interviewee recounts, the Ne Win government dealt with the economic hardship in an “absurd” way. The government withdrew some currencies from circulation, sparking nationwide protests. To quell the unrest, the government fired into the crowd. On that day, some said that the sewers in Rangoon were “running with blood,” clarifying that “they were not trying to be poetic.” Since then the government has continued to be accused of human rights violations, most recently prohibiting foreign relief teams from delivering crucial supplies to Burma when Cyclone Nargis devastated the delta region of Burma in 2008. About 130,000 people lost their lives.
Remarkably, the Burma Lieberman captures is one that maintains grace under pressure. The people are dignified and soft-spoken, carrying themselves “like princes” even though they might be “dressed in rags,” as a female interviewee observes. Buddhism plays a central role in Burmese society, and much of the film is appropriately devoted to chronicling the religious practices of the Burmese. Despite their material poverty and isolation, the people do know what is going on in the world, according to Lieberman. The ever-resourceful youths capitalize on the “porous border” between Burma and China: “[The youths] use proxy servers. They go to internet cafes. They know Western music, they download Western music.”
But Lieberman, like many of his interviewees, fears that resilience and adaptability might not be enough. Burma is resource-rich, and other countries are “drooling” at the prospect of doing business in the country once economic sanctions are lifted. However, the people and their leaders are largely uneducated and inexperienced at dealing with foreign organizations. In the striking words of a Burmese interviewee, “In America you have access… In Burma you don’t have access. Thinking is not an option. If we don’t use our brain we have no development.”
Lieberman acknowledges that “the fear is less” now that President Thein Sein has assumed office and promised to hold the first free, fair and clean elections on April 1. But Lieberman is uncertain about the prospects of political reform in Burma. He points out that only about 50 of the 656 parliamentary seats are up for grabs. Most Burmese have never expressed their political opinions, not even to close friends, so freedom of expression and other democratic ideals are alien concepts. “Aung San Suu Kyi is running for office,” Lieberman notes, but the country is still ruled by “the military that’s shed their uniforms and put on suits and ties. So democracy? I don’t know.”
Lieberman’s interview with Ms Suu Kyi, the iconic opposition leader, was unanticipated; she was released from house arrest shortly after filming concluded. The Nobel laureate is as revered as her father, General Aung San, who was assassinated shortly after leading Burma to independence from British rule. In the film, she speaks candidly about her country and sheds some light on her 15-year stint under house arrest. While Ms Suu Kyi has yet to articulate concrete policies during her current campaign, many Burmese trust her because she sacrificed her life for Burma and still believes in her cause: “A strong, firm authoritarian hand cannot create unity; it can only give the appearance of unity.”
While Lieberman is mesmerized by the raw beauty of Burma, as evidenced by the lush opening scenes, he is cautious to avoid romanticizing the scenes he captures. He lets the images and interviewees do the talking. The result is a stupefying hybrid of a documentary and home video in which the most mundane occurrences seem to hold a weighty significance.
The rich-poor divide is stark. A mansion sits resplendent in the sun. Across the street, a man pours a bucket of grimy water over his head in front of his shanty town home.
There is another blatant sign of poverty. Child laborers are a ubiquitous sight on the streets and worksites of Burma. “As long as they can move,” as one interviewee says, children as young as five are sold to wealthier families or to neighboring countries to work as laborers, domestic helpers or wives. The situation is heartbreaking, and Lieberman incisively underscores this by juxtaposing scenes of child laborers at work with the quaking voice of a Burmese man: “How can I think, how can I go away, if my neighbor’s daughter is going to be sold away?”
This appeal is piercing enough, but Lieberman persists. He is a tough interviewer, and the film benefits from his intensity. It is clear from his relentless questioning that he is eager, almost desperate, to continually prod deeper. Amidst lush greenery in a rural neighborhood, he meets a young girl who, like many of the elementary school age children in the film, cannot afford to go to school. He inquires why she would like to go to school. She repeats her answer twice, “I want to be educated.” Lieberman presses on, “What does that mean?” The question resonates in the still, sunlit air with a philosophical profundity that clings to every gesture or word in the film. The girl is thoughtful, albeit a little bashful. She says, quite simply, “I want to be a doctor.” Her answer is startlingly innocuous. As the rest of the film makes apparent, she will not be able to fulfill her dream if things do not radically change in Burma. The quality of education is low, and what students do learn is “almost useless.”
Lieberman deftly demonstrates what this means with an oddly disquieting scene. He asks students at a local elementary school to share what they have learned. They sing a patriotic song, obediently but not enthusiastically, “from revolution to decolonization, fight to the death of the enemy fascists [for the] freedom of our nation.” One can only hope that the right enemy is targeted.
They Call It Myanmar will be screened on March 27, 7.15 p.m. at Cornell Cinema, Willard Straight Hall.