By Caitlyn Collins | April 5, 2012
Director: Richard H. Lieberman
Burma, known as Myanmar to the Burmese people, became an isolated country after a military coup in 1962. Richard H. Lieberman, director of They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain, explains early on in his documentary that it is in fact the second most isolated country in the world. Burma has been in the news quite a bit lately due to their elections and Hillary Clinton’s visit in December. Clandestinely shooting over the course of two years, Lieberman was able to capture a country rarely documented. Because of the military regime still in power at the time of filming, only one person is identified by name and many speak to the camera with their faces blurred. The only person to be named is Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Suu Kyi.
The film covers many of the topics one can look up in an encyclopedia, or in this day and age, Wikipedia. Lieberman touches upon the country’s name and occupational history as well as cultural diversity and religion. Unfortunately there isn’t much of a narrative flow from one topic to the next. The sections of the film seem to be as independent as various headlines on a Wikipedia page. This isn’t to say the film is uninformative, however. One of the most striking aspects of the footage are all of the Buddhist temples. Many of the temples are covered in gold paint, and gold leaf can still be purchased to rub onto Buddhist statues. It’s incredible to see such opulence given the percentage of the population living in abject poverty.
This is the side of Burma the strict military government does not want outsiders to see. Leaving Rangoon, Lieberman is able to capture a long, slow shot (something he comments on) as a train begins its way out of the capital city. Soon the conditions people are living in become shockingly clear. Multiple times Lieberman is forced to point his camera toward the ground as he’s questioned, evident by the translator accompanying him. Many of the interviewees are afraid, for fear of government retaliation. One unidentified man describes his harrowing tale of being strung upside down — left to bleed from his nose, eyes, and ears –- after being caught recording with a camera.
The living conditions –- people bathing with dirty water, lack of proper medical care, lack of food -– affect all family members. This forces many families to put children as young as eight or nine into the workforce. Lieberman seems absolutely astonished that young people are working so young, and rightly so. Many young people are not camera shy and readily stand in front of it answering questions about their age, occupation, and educational experience. For a country where education is supposedly free, most poor children cannot complete more than a year or two as they cannot afford it. Despite working, there are mostly smiles on the faces of the children captured on film.
The saddest tale is that of a little girl whose mother cannot afford to get her anti-tuberculosis medication. She is seen being treated by a woman in a clinic who only has rudimentary medical experience and is by no means a doctor. Because of the conditions of Burma, many of the young men and women who study at medical schools abroad do not return. Doctors are scarce, especially in the countryside, leaving the sick to the hands of quacks -– people with little to no medical training.
They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain shows the conditions caused by the military regime. It glosses over British and Japanese occupation which helped shape the country. And while Lieberman mentions the 152 languages spoken in Burma and the array of ethnic groups, little time is devoted to them. They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain is a fascinating film, allowing viewers into a rarely seen place. However, the film itself needs a bit of polishing.