Tag Archives: Myanmar

April Film Countdown: Undercover Documentaries


Today started off my April Film Countdown with 2 international documentaries, both shot secretly in countries with totalitarian regimes. Both in theaters–and in need of support–now.

Film #1: This is Not a Film 

Renowned Iranian director, Jafar Panahi, received a 6-year prison sentence and a 20-year ban from filmmaking and conducting interviews with foreign press due to his open support of the opposition party in Iran‘s 2009 election. In this documentary, which was secretly shot by Panahi’s close friend Mojtaba Mirtahmasb and smuggled into France in a cake for a last-minute submission to the Cannes Film Festival, Panahi shares his day-to-day life as he awaits for a decision on his appeal.

I saw this smart, thought-provoking film with the same friend who took me to see Academy Award winning The Separation, another brilliant offering from Iran. Granted, I’m primed to love anything smuggled in a cake, but this truly is worth the price of admission!

It’s a quiet study of the psychic costs of not being able to create, of the intricacies of coding and negotiating art under censorship, and of the creative process itself. Together the film Panahi wanted to make and this film he does make show how the study of an interior can be an indictment of an entire nation. Against the backdrop of Tehran’s volatile streets, symbolic situations fall into Panahi’s lap all day long, culminating in a breathtaking ending. A bit like My Dinner with Andre, except with much, much higher stakes (given that the director/subject is now serving 6 years in prison)!

Film #2: They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain

Shot clandestinely over a 2-year period by novelist and filmmaker (and Cornell physicist!), Robert H. Lieberman, this film provides a rare look at the second-most isolated country on the planet (North Korea gets top honors). It lifts the curtain to expose the everyday life in a country that has been held in the iron grip of a brutal military regime for 48 years. This feature length documentary, culled from over 120 hours of striking images, is an impressionistic journey. Interviews and interactions with more than 100 people throughout Burma, including an interview with the recently released Aung San Suu Kyi, are interwoven with spectacular footage.

Terrific Q&A afterwards with Director/Renaissance Man Lieberman. He explained how the narrative couldn’t follow a character/”hero” the way most documentaries do, as that would be unsafe for the subjects, so the film editor had to create a panorama of characters with a chorus of unidentified voice-overs. The result is a bit disconcerting (who are these voices and why do so many sound like British elite?), almost like those Come-to-the-Land-of-Smiles travel ads, but with a dark underbelly. (I got all nostalgic seeing the ruins of Pagan and other major Buddhist sites.)

Burma has vast natural resources, plus incredible geographic, linguistic and ethnic diversity (125 languages!). This, plus the huge mansions next to slums, the lack of electricity, and the cleptocracy of The Generals–primarily poor, uneducated folk–reminded me of Nigeria (though I didn’t feel that upon visiting all those years ago). A shocking 2 percent of the GDP is devoted to education, health, and social services combined!

Fascinating historic footage of the Japanese occupation and the Father of Burma (as well as of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi) Aung San working for independence. Surreal, scary Manchurian Candidate-like footage of the collective, nameless Generals who never attempt to connect with the populace. I recognized the heart-pounding footage of the Saffron Revolution taken by the gutsy underground video-journalists profiled in that other great documentary, Burma VJ. The film advances the interesting theory that every one of Burma’s governments, from the ancient monarchy to the invaders/Colonialists to The Generals, saw its role as keeping out other nations, never providing for the people.