Aung San Suu Kyi is the bait or hook for They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain. Director/cameraman/co-producer/narrator Robert H. Lieberman’s two hundred hours of (often clandestine) footage was nearly completed when the lionized symbol of democracy was freed from house arrest, and, through connections, he was able to interview her and incorporate the additional frames along with her June 2012 delayed 1991 Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech in Oslo.
The unique documentary, however, is a travelogue at heart but not of local color and tourist destinations -- though that, too, from “golden mystery” Schwedagon Paya to boulder stupa Kyaiktiyo (with a humorous voiced comment about grabbing its gold leaf and running), from Bagan’s acres of monuments to Inle Lake leg-oarsmen. Rather, the eighty-four minutes is a picture of the human resources and diversity of the recently opening up second most isolated country in the world whose diverse ethnic groups speak over a hundred and thirty languages. The result is a mosaic of faces (a few fuzz-filtered for protection) and off-screen voices, almost entirely not identified (again, for fear of consequences).
Filmmaker, novelist and university physics-mathematics professor Lieberman was asked by the U.S. State Department to go to the Anglo-named Union of Burma (contrary to PC misconception, Union of Myanmar has been the official name since at least the 1200s) to instruct young cinema aspirants and then continued on with an NGO working on TV commercials. He traveled as widely as permitted (and, feigning innocent ignorance, sometimes beyond that) by the nearly half-century military dictatorship. There was talk of severe penalties for others who flouted censorship, but the filmmaker remains as calm as the inhabitants of this most Buddhist nation who smile and passively -- too passively for impatient outsiders -- bear their current karma.
Elsewhere, the director remarks that it turned out impossible to make this the intended apolitical non-fiction. There are obvious visual and aural indications of the poverty and deprivation of this once-rich (but, contrary to legend, difficult) British colony with a wealth of potential resources, although only one scene -- a dying child’s deep tubercular lesion -- is gruesome. There are shots of child labor and families pawning and later redeeming meager possessions to survive one more day, while viewers learn of children being sold, of unacceptable health-care, sanitation, education, and transportation infrastructures, of media and power blackouts, of arrests and intimidation.
The audience-friendly documentary avoids most subtitles in favor of accompanying translator voiceovers. Similarly, in clear classroom voice, Lieberman places Burma on the map and lets restrained archival footage place it in historical context, from olden kingdoms on to 1886-1948 British colony and through World War II to independence, from junta to junta and through the violently repressed June and August 8-8-88 uprisings and Saffron Revolution led by marching monks. Siding with the forty-million population--impossible not to--the film is nevertheless even-handed. There is a rare reference to Suu Kyi’s revered father Bogyoke Aung San’s initial wartime support for Tokyo until the Rising Sun revealed its true colors as worse racist overlords than London. And the ruling military is granted some comment as more misguided than (despite a wedding diamond) greedy, believing itself misunderstood in seeking good for its country. Though the uniformed dictatorship avoids any cult of the Great Leader, however, facts speak for themselves in the severe cutbacks in public services and an unfathomable refusal to act or to accept foreign humanitarian aid following 2008 Cyclone Nargis.
The government’s recent softening of attitudes and policies and the country’s tentative welcome back into the world community do not figure here. Nor is this a negative film even if it does delineate the dark side. Above its other admirable attributes, TCIM:LC presents a wide scope of the culture and very human side of the unknown land “quite unlike any you will ever know” which, for all his Imperial swagger, Kipling pegged as “in all the world there is no place like Burma.”
(Released by PhotoSynthesis Productions and Ithaca Filmworks; not rated by MPAA.)