Title: They Call It Myanmar
Director: Robert H. Lieberman
Held in socio-economic limbo for almost a full half century by a military dictatorship that turned away the just election of eventual Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, and sentenced her to two decades of house arrest, Burma (or Myanmar, as it’s known to many inside the country) is probably the second most isolated country on the planet, behind only North Korea. Filmed clandestinely over a two-year period, the contemplative new documentary “They Call It Myanmar” provides a fascinating, beyond-the-manicured-travelogue-hedges snapshot of the second largest country in Southeast Asia, home to more than 60 million people — many stuck in terrible poverty but still hopeful for their country.
Directed by Robert E. Lieberman, a physics and former math professor at Cornell, “They Call It Myanmar” is a work of humanistic reportage, blending together stunning footage of everyday Burmese life with interviews from Suu Kyi and others. Tourism travel is permitted in Burma, but foreigners are watched, and filming and photography — especially of governmental buildings and institutions — is controlled. Ergo the discreet arrangements, in which many surnames are withheld in detailing the stories of children who only spend two or three years in school, and families who habitually pawn their blankets and cookware just in order to be able to afford busfare to work.
Lieberman eschews didactic set-up, but still provides an effective historical overview for those unfamiliar with the country — its rich tradition prior to British colonial rule, and its wars and messy existence post-independence. He also imparts a sense of the culture and climate, pointing out such details as the tropical weather by way of a special, cooling wood paste many people wear on their faces.
The rich emergent portrait of underclass life and love is marked by moments of heartbreak and joyfulness, sadness and levity (one of Lieberman’s guides requests that he brings along a DVD set of “Perry Mason”), and slots favorably alongside Dutch filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich’s “Position Among the Stars.” That nonfiction film charted the tumultuous ups and downs of an extended Indonesian family trying to work their way out of the slums, but did so with an artfulness that approached heart-stopping. Lieberman’s movie casts a broader net, and his technique isn’t as honed, but it achieves a similar spell in its best moments. “They Call It Myanmar” features smart, light musical contributions which underscore the film’s sense of latent prosaic wonderment, and its visits to religious temples and other sites are amazing.
While going out of its way to point out the unusual (and perhaps more insidious) nature of the oligarchic control of Burma’s isolationist military dictatorship — which doesn’t rely on a cult of personality — “They Call It Myanmar” also illustrates the gap between populace and regime, which is a dignified goal and achievement. For those with an interest in the world at large, and especially the challenges inherent in abetting democracy in developing countries, this is an absorbing work.
NOTE: For more information on the movie, visit www.TheyCallItMyanmar.com.
Written by: Brent Simon
A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International and Magill's Cinema Annual, and film editor of H Magazine. He cannot abide a world without U2 and pizza.