They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain
Aung San Suu Kyi, Robert H. Lieberman
US theatrical: 14 Sep 2012 (Limited release)
If you want to bring an end to long-standing conflict, you have to be prepared to compromise. If either or both sides insist on getting everything that they want—that is to say 100 percent of their demands to be met, then there can never be a settlement. So we have to negotiate the kind of compromise that is acceptable to all the parties concerned.
—Aung San Suu Kyi
I tried to make a movie that was not political, but of course, that was impossible in the end.
—Robert H. Lieberman
During her current visit to the United States, Aung San Suu Kyi has been describing the difficulties and the rewards of compromise. Emerged from her many years of house arrest in Burma, she embodies what seems a remarkable calm, whether she’s sitting for interviews or speaking before the US Congress, as she did on 19 September, when she at long last received the Congressional Gold Medal that was awarded to her in 2008.
Throughout her years of imprisonment, Aung San Suu Kyi maintained her commitments to peaceful protest and cooperation. The daughter of General Aung Son, assassinated when she was only two years old, she holds fast to the ideals he represented and continues to inspire admiration, appreciation, and—we might hope—emulation. While such reaction is in itself admirable, in the States, it’s typically framed by the vast mystery that still surrounds Burma, a nation that for decades has remained remote and unknowable to the West. In Burma—controversially renamed Myanmar by the military government in 1989—observes Robert H. Lieberman in They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain, “You’re in another world, like no other country that I have ever been in. Burma is different.”
That difference is visible in his documentary’s extraordinary collection of images, shot over years and most often in secret. “You have to be careful about filming in Burma,” he explains over handheld, sometimes blurry frames, “You cannot shoot without permission.” While Lieberman’s voiceover provides an outsider’s perspective and questions, the visuals and anonymous interviewees’ voices offer something else, a range of views and experiences rarely, if ever, made available outside Burma.
These many images show village roads and city streets, temples and classrooms, illustrating what Lieberman describes as a “surreal and slow moving environment,” as well as extreme class differences, “shantytowns and mansions across the street, the super wealthy and super poor.” The film offers glimpses inside a closed country, indicating the many ways that individuals live with limits and look toward a future when restrictions might be lifted. Lives are frequently shaped by fear, encouraged by the presence of armed soldiers and police. As one man describes his detention—“They put a bag over your head so you can’t really see, barely can breathe”—the film first shows the view through a car’s windshield traveling over a bridge, then cuts to another shot, looking up at a tassel dangling from a rearview mirror, set against a pelting rain and indistinct street lights hovering in the night. Cut to a woman’s hands, mobile and expressive, barely contained in the frame. “Filming in Burma is tremendously risky,” she says, “Because you just never know who’s watching.”
You might pause here, and consider your own watching, the risk posed by footage that has escaped Burma, and also, how watching can be a threat, in any number of circumstances that aren’t yours. “Someone is always watching, someone is always listening, somebody is always reporting back,” she adds, as you see a series of shots in which subjects looking into the camera. One man, his face blurred to protect his identity, assures Lieberman that when he spoke with authorities asking about him—Lieberman—he told them they were “always talking movies.”
While the laughing, blurred-face man suggests he’s allayed tensions by his report to authorities, the film doesn’t confirm his story. Instead, it allows the idea of “movies” ro hover, a means to show and see, at the same time that tensions also hover. You’re aware of the danger of filming even as the film doesn’t resolve that danger: each scene you see going forward represents another risk, to be seen seeing. As the film leaves a range of questions unanswered—what might have happened to any of its anonymous subjects, how they might resist or elude restrictions—you’re also left to guess at the motives and thoughts of unseen as well as visible subjects.
Such questions can feel “intimidating,” as Lieberman observes; at the very least, they provide an unusual framework for a documentary. Rather than offering a report or a declaration of seeming facts, the film proposes that such reporting is always suspect, a function of various motivations and produced by particular framing or editing.
This broad conceptual dilemma, concerning what might be trusted and what might be constructed, is both specific and pervasive in Burma. One interviewee suggests that a new generation is emerging now, even as Aung San Suu Kyi is freed to move out into the world. Speaking with a young man, Lieberman asks how it feels to be able to talk about politics (off camera). “It feels weird,” the young man says, “strange and excited.” An older woman’s voice provides context, “The new generation are more frank, open, friendly, and they may have more chances.” A man’s voice, sounding over shots of young people with backpacks and ponytails and jeans, suggests that as this next generation has access to an education, its members are seeking new and other experience elsewhere, “anywhere but Burma.”
The future for Burma, another man notes over shots of children at play, in groups, smiling and active, is open now. As you can see in, so young people in Burma can begin to see out.