Friday, July 13, 2012

They Call It Myanmar (Rhoades)

Burma: “They
Call It Myanmar”

Reviewed by Shirrel Rhoades

I got out my world atlas and flipped through the pages, searching for the country called Myanmar. Admittedly, I’d never heard of it. I wasn’t sure which continent to examine. Finally, I found it, a fat yellow blot wedged between India, Bangladesh, China, Laos, and Thailand.
Turns out, it’s the land we used to call Burma.
Now known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, it’s the second largest country in Southeast Asia. And the 24th most populous country in the world with over 60.28 million people.
In 1989, the military government renamed the country, “Myanmar” being the literary description of the country’s largest ethnic group. However, some countries (including the US) have not recognized the name change. No wonder I had trouble finding it on the map.
Following three Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824-1885), Burma was colonized by the British. But following Burma’s independence it fell under military rule.
From 1962 to 2011, the country has been controlled by repressive military juntas. The United Nations has cited it for human rights violations, human trafficking, and suppression of freedom of speech.
That’s why author Robert H. Lieberman secretly filmed over 120 hours of footage showing life in this “second most isolated country in the world.” He culled that down to 70 minutes and titled it “They Call It Myanmar – Lifting the Curtain.” This documentary is now showing at the Tropic Cinema.
A longtime Cornell University physics professor, Lieberman’s work outside the classroom includes writing and filmmaking. His novels (“The Last Boy,” “Perfect People,” et al.) tend to have an underlying social theme. As a Senior Specialist with the Fulbright Program, he became interested in Burma, first visiting there in 2008. He found a country that had been overlooked by the rest of the world.
During what’s known as the Ne Win years (a reference to the general who took control of Burma through a coup d’état in 1964), almost all aspects of society were nationalized. In 1988, another coup d’état formed the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), the military regime that changed the country’s name.
In 1990, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won in a free election, but the military junta refused to cede power. Suu Kyi remained under house arrest – one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners – until her release in 2010.
Visiting the country under a US State Department teaching scholarship, Lieberman began clandestinely filming this documentary. It took five separate visits to complete the film.
“I got into trouble repeatedly, as you’ll see in the movie,” he says. “But I managed to always squirm my way out of it.”
He interviewed more than 100 people, including Aung San Suu Kyi. Many were fearful of appearing on camera. But what emerged was a collage that shows modern life set against ancient tradition. What we get with “They Call It Myanmar” is “a mix of rare beauty and disturbing brutality.”
It will never again just be a yellow blot in my atlas.

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