"They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain": a truly remarkable documentary

Things finally seem to be looking up in the Republic of the Union of Myanmar (formerly known as the Union of Burma): as I write these words, longtime political prisoner and dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been elected to the national Parliament’s lower house. Though Myanmar’s military junta will maintain its overwhelming parliamentary majority, the country will soon be enjoying its first small taste of electoral democracy in half a century.

Generally considered the second most isolated country in the world (North Korea, of course, being number one), Myanmar has been the subject of several recent documentaries, including Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, and Burma Soldier. While better than nothing, these films were understandably limited in scope due to tight censorship restrictions.

They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain, a new feature directed by Cornell physics professor Robert Lieberman, provides a much broader view of life in this impoverished Southeast Asian nation. Opening Friday, April 6th at Landmark’s Bridge Theatre in San Francisco (sadly, an East Bay run is not in the cards), the film contains footage shot clandestinely by Lieberman over the course of a two-year NGO stint. Despite government disapproval and widespread fear of the camera, the result is a truly remarkable documentary.

Conquered by Britain in 1886, and granted independence shortly after World War II, the country has been ruled by a horizontalist military government since a coup in 1962. Though overwhelmingly Buddhist, Myanmar is a true melting pot of ethnic diversity where more than 150 languages are spoken, but its cultural complexity has played into the hands of the generals. As Kyi (the only Burmese citizen willing to both speak and be identified on camera) explains, it’s hard for people to unite against a dictatorship when they cannot communicate with one another.

Everything is unpredictable

A land of glittering pagodas once known as the ‘rice bowl of Asia’, Myanmar is now a poverty stricken country burdened with crumbling infrastructure, an unreliable power supply, and an omniscient security state. As one off-camera Burmese explains, it’s a place where “everything is unpredictable”—with the exception, of course, of Big Brother. Someone is always watching, listening, and reporting back to the government.

Lieberman details the country’s many ailments, including child labor, poor healthcare, limited educational opportunities, and spies, spies, spies. Myanmar’s income gap is vast and only 2% of its GDP is dedicated to health, welfare, and schools.

They Call it Myanmar is however, much more than a dry history lesson or depressing exposé of government ineptitude and malfeasance. It’s also a love song to the people and land of Myanmar, a place Lieberman approvingly notes lacks the corrosive influence of corporatism while maintaining its own rich and unique culture. Indeed, when his camera travels to the 42-square-kilometer abandoned city of Bagan, or alights upon an unbelievably massive boulder covered with centuries of gold leaf, the film could be considered grade-A material for the Myanmar tourist board.

There are things here you’ve never seen before — some of them surprising, some shocking, and many breathtakingly beautiful. This is the best film I’ve seen about Burma, and well worth a trip to the West Bay.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.  

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Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box...