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Archive for April 2013

Roger Ebert and me: the Myanmar connection

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Director Robert Lieberman (left) screens his documentary film They Call It Myanmar
at the British Council in Yangon in January 2012.

On April 4 came the news that legendary, Pulitzer Prize–winning movie critic Roger Ebert had died. Aside from feeling sadness at the passing of one of the most prolific and well-respected film critics in the United States, I was reminded of the tenuous connection I had made with Mr Ebert in the context of a film about Myanmar.

In March 2012 The Myanmar Times published my review of a documentary film titled They Call It Myanmar, directed by Robert Lieberman. My story was aimed at readers living in Myanmar, so I was compelled to move beyond the “isn’t Burma strange and exotic” angle and take a more in-depth approach.

A few days later, Mr Ebert wrote his own review of the film, which was posted on his website. A friend sent me the link and pointed out that the critic had used my article as a source for his review, and had even mentioned my name. Here’s the relevant excerpt from Mr Ebert’s article:

Lieberman’s film is the only doc about Burma available. I gather he may not be an infallible source. He’s informed by a fellow foreign passenger that the buses leading up a steep hillside to a temple often plunge off the road, killing everyone on board. Douglas Long, in the Myanmar Times, writes: “The drivers, the man further explains to the camera, are not bothered by the prospect of dying. On the contrary, they consider it an honour to sacrifice their own lives while performing the meritorious deed of carrying pilgrims to one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Myanmar.”

Long says in his nine years of working for the newspaper such an accident has never occurred, and “those who live in Myanmar will immediately recognise the man for what he is: a charlatan unable to resist the compulsion to impress others with ‘special knowledge’ about the supposed dangers of visiting ‘exotic’ locales like Myanmar.” I am reminded of the tall tales told by local guides in Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad.

Not exactly earth-shattering, but it was still cool to score a mention from the man himself.

My original article is posted below:

They call it sneery: Mixed reaction to film on Myanmar

In one of the more peculiar moments in Robert Lieberman’s recent documentary They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain, the director is sitting in a truck at the bottom of Mount Kyaikhtiyo in Mon State, waiting to be driven up to the Golden Rock.

The lorry is crammed with Buddhist pilgrims, but Mr Lieberman gives his attention to another foreigner seated next to him, who quite ominously explains that the trucks frequently veer off the winding road as they make their way to the top of the mountain, plunging into deep ravines and killing everyone on board.

The drivers, the man further explains to the camera, are not bothered by the prospect of dying. On the contrary, they consider it an honor to sacrifice their own lives while performing the meritorious deed of carrying pilgrims to one of the most sacred Buddhist sites in Myanmar.

To back up his story, the man cites The Myanmar Times, which he says carries articles about these tragic accidents on a weekly basis.

Foreigners who have never been to Myanmar might have little reason to doubt the veracity of the man’s tall tale. He is, after all, a subject in a documentary, and good documentaries are meant to be all about revealing the truth.

But those who live in Myanmar or who possess reasonable knowledge of the country will immediately recognize the man for what he is: a charlatan unable to resist the compulsion to impress others with “special knowledge” about the supposed dangers of visiting “exotic” locales like Myanmar.

Those of us working at The Myanmar Times were doubly amused by the account: In my nine years at the newspaper, I have neither read nor edited a single story about trucks plunging into the abyss at Mount Kyaiktiyo, much less published such stories “every week”.

We might easily excuse the inclusion of this buffoon in the film as an instance of the wool being pulled over the eyes of Mr Lieberman and editor David Kossack, but at the same time it illustrates the risk of documentaries serving as an inadvertent vehicle for misinformation if careful choices are not made about what to include and what to keep out.

Mr Lieberman is an American director, novelist and physics lecturer at Cornell University, and They Call It Myanmar is getting unprecedented attention from media and audiences in the United States. The film, according to a statement released by the producers, purports to be “an attempt to put a human face on the country” rather than a “message” film.

The movie was edited down from about 120 hours of footage shot by Mr Lieberman during four trips to Myanmar from 2008 to 2010. He had first visited the country while working on short films for tuberculosis prevention.

The timing of the film’s release could not have been better. With Myanmar ostensibly moving toward some form of democracy, and with perennial newsmaker Daw Aung San Suu Kyi now taking part in the political process, the country is, as Mr Lieberman said in an email to The Myanmar Times, “suddenly hot news”.

As a result, They Call It Myanmar has in recent weeks been shown to sold-out audience in most major East Coast cities in the United States. The film is playing at Lincoln Center in New York City on April 3 before moving on to cinemas in Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego.

That’s not to say that the positive attention is based entirely on fortunate timing: Contrast the buzz surrounding They Call It Myanmar with the poor reception for French director Luc Besson’s The Lady, a biopic about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi released earlier this year that has garnered few positive comments from either critics or audiences.

Mr Lieberman’s film features many beautiful scenes shot in different regions of Myanmar, a testament to what can be accomplished by a single person using a high-quality handheld video camera.

There are also plenty of home-video-quality scenes shot with a shaky hand, but rather than detracting from the movie, these support the press statement’s assertion that while in Myanmar, Mr Lieberman “shot video constantly, even though it was forbidden and risky for him to do so”.

This point, that the footage was shot “clandestinely” despite admonishments from locals that filming in Myanmar is extremely dangerous, is repeatedly driven home in press coverage of the movie published in the US, a brilliant bit of PR that helps sell tickets to Western audiences who have come to accept the paradigm that any media report from Myanmar involving the covert gathering of information will reveal truths previously unknown to the outside world.

While it’s worth noting that Mr Lieberman only occasionally strays from the well-trod tourist path, where foreigners with still cameras and small video cameras are a common sight, They Call It Myanmar does provide an informative introduction to the country for those who have never been here, particularly on the subjects of culture, history and poverty.

The film opens with an introduction to the use of thanakha, ubiquitous throughout the country but wonderfully unfamiliar to newcomers, and later provides a quick lesson on the country’s recent history. Other scenes document the poor state of the healthcare system and the widespread use of child labor.

Reviews from international critics have been favorable, but it’s also instructive to compare these glowing reports with comments from local viewers, who saw the film when it was screened in Yangon in January.

Like international audiences, they appreciated the overviews of history and traditional culture, which serve as effective introductions to the country for foreigners. But there are also those pesky moments that are likely to pass unnoticed by most overseas viewers but were troublesome from the local perspective.

One of these moments was the coupling of an image of volunteers sweeping the platform at Shwedagon Pagoda with a voiceover of the narrator speaking about lack of employment opportunities in Myanmar.

Uninitiated viewers might assume from this scene that sweeping pagodas is a form of paid employment in Myanmar, rather than a means for Buddhists to perform selfless deeds, thereby gaining merit toward their next life.

This might seem like a minor point foreigners, but when I’ve described this scene to Buddhist friends in Yangon who have not seen the film, the reaction has ranged from mild disapproval to deep shock that a director could be so poorly informed about the subject of his movie. The handful of Christians I surveyed were more forgiving.

(When asked in Yangon about the pagoda-sweeping slip-up, Mr Lieberman placed the blame squarely on the shoulders of the film’s editor.)

Some audience members at the January screening in Yangon also questioned the title of They Call It Myanmar, about which Mr Lieberman responded that he thought the title was somewhat ambiguous: “I mean, who is ‘they’?” he asked the audience.

Of course when foreigners talk about Myanmar, particularly those like Mr Lieberman who make a point of referring to the country as Burma, there is really only one “they” from which to choose. It would be a stretch to assume that the word is a reference to the poverty-stricken people depicted in the film.

One anonymous Myanmar national who helped Mr Lieberman with the film, presumably before knowing what the title would be, even refused to attend the screening in Yangon.

“[Mr Lieberman] insists it’s fair but I object very strongly to the title, which sounds sneery. I have told him, and others, that we call it Myanmar because it’s the original name of the country,” the person in question said in an email to The Myanmar Times.

“Outsiders do not know or care about the reality of the name Burma as opposed to Myanmar, because Burma was coined by the Brits and Myanmar is the name etched in stone during the Bagan period, 1235AD to be exact,” the email continued.

One audience member at the Yangon screening also asked Mr Lieberman whether he believed the country had changed since the November 2010 election, to which the director responded that he thought there were “no changes on the ground”.

“There have been huge changes politically, but people are still trying to feed themselves,” he said.

Of course it would be absurd to expect Myanmar, even under the most benevolent leadership, to solve its deep-rooted poverty issues in a few months, and in the next breath Mr Lieberman did acknowledge that there has indeed been a different kind of change, of the sort that is important to people in Myanmar in ways that most Westerners can barely imagine; that is — to borrow the title from a book by Aung San Suu Kyi — the freedom from fear.

“I’m less afraid [in Myanmar] than I was a year ago,” Mr Lieberman said.

Written by latefornowhere

April 26, 2013 at 6:36 am

Nearly killed by Lonely Planet

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View of Bagan in central Myanmar

As a reasonably experienced traveler, I should have known better than to trust the guidebook without also gathering some local intelligence about the wisdom of my plan.

At the same time, I’m always reluctant to consult non-cyclists about my cycling trips. It gets tiresome explaining that, yes, I am capable of riding more than 3 miles at a time without collapsing in exhaustion, and, no, I’m not all that bothered by hills or other challenging terrain.

The idea was to spend a day cycling from Bagan to Salay and back. The distance, according to Lonely Planet, was 22 miles each way, so the 44-mile total would be well within my physical capabilities. I also had at my disposal a Trek mountain bike with 24 gears, which would help make easy work of the region’s gently rolling topography.


The road to Salay

The biggest challenge, I thought, would be the heat. I was making the trip during the Thingyan Water Festival holiday, and in central Myanmar in mid-April, temperatures exceeding 40 Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) are not unusual.

With 44 miles to travel, I knew that if I started at dawn I could make it to Salay and back by 12 noon, even allowing for a couple hours exploring some of the old wooden monasteries for which Salay is famous. There would be some heat to contend with, but I would escape the worst of it by finishing before lunchtime.


Dry river crossing on the way to Salay

As the day of the ride made its entrance from the east – a subtle emergence of the blazing red sun through the morning mist – I was already pedaling west from Nyaung Oo along empty Anawrahta Road. There were few people about as I rode past the silent, centuries-old monuments of Bagan: Wetkyi-in-Gubyaukgyi, Buledi, Ananda Temple. At the end of the road I turned left and started riding south toward New Bagan, Chauk and Salay.

I confidently reveled in the simple thrill of cycling on the open roads of Myanmar, gliding over gently rolling hills and through tree-shaded villages shrouded in smoke from morning fires, where kids and adults alike shouted hello as I passed.


Local villager along the road

After about 30 minutes of riding, my wife Pauksi caught up with me – she was traveling on the back of a hired motorcycle, shooting video of the villages and the landscape along our route. She rode on ahead, after we agreed to stop for a rest at Chauk.

A short while later I rode across a wide, sandy wash that marked my departure from Mandalay Region and entrance into Magwe Region. There were some hills with oil fields to cross, and then I reached Chauk after exactly two hours of riding. Pauksi and the motorcycle driver were waiting at a teashop on the main road. Surely, I thought, Salay must be close.


Villagers along the road

But it was here that I discovered that the day would be longer and more difficult than anticipated: The motorcycle driver informed me that, according to his odometer, we had already traveled 27 miles, and a local patron at the teashop delivered the unfortunate news that Salay was still 17 miles away.

Utilizing every spare brain cell at my disposal, I calculated that this added up to 44 miles, exactly double the 22 miles claimed by Lonely Planet. Which, calculating further, meant that the day’s total cycling distance would be 88 miles.


Farm girl along the road to Salay

Despite this fairly conspicuous discrepancy, I decided to forge ahead anyway. It was just past 8am and the air was already warm, but still comfortable for cycling.

The savannah-like landscape south of Chauk was a punctuated by several decent-sized hills, after which came the turnoff to Salay. I found myself on a narrow, bumpy and pleasantly quiet road lined with Indian neem trees and flanked by paddy fields, where groups of women stopped working to wave as I passed.


Carvings at Youqson Kyaung

We made it to Salay just after 9am, and stopped at a teashop for water and some excellent nan gyi thoke before heading a couple hundred meters down the road to Youqson Kyaung.

We found that the museum inside the monastery was closed for the long Thingyan break, but I wasn’t disappointed: We were still able to study the famous teakwood figures around the outside of the structure, and frankly I was happy to have an excuse to spend less time in Salay and start the ride back to Bagan sooner rather than later.


Carvings at Youqson Kyaung

I started the return trip around 10:30am. The heat was starting to build, and the small but repetitious hills were taking their toll on my legs.

Worse, around the time I reached the turnoff to the main road back to Chauk, I noticed my front tire was going flat. I had a spare tube with me, but my mini-pump, after eight years of unblemished service, picked that moment to stop working properly.

A group of locals had gathered to observe my struggles, rivers of sweat running into my eyes as I made a heroic effort to inflate the tire with my dying pump.

Mercifully, not all of them remained idle spectators: One man eventually retrieved another pump from a nearby house, allowing me to complete my repairs. Effusive thanks, smiles and laughter were exchanged, and I was on my way again.

I re-crossed the big, barren hills, a bit more slowly than I had in the morning, and then flew downhill into Chauk, where Pauksi was waiting at a snack shop. I ate two scoops of best-ever strawberry ice cream, drank a liter of cold water, and bought two more liters to take with me.


Carving at Youqson Kyaung

Before I had the chance to re-mount my bike, the motorcycle driver did me the dubious favor of pointing out the temperature gauge mounted to the side of a nearby building. It read 48 degrees Celsius (118 Fahrenheit). It was just past noon, and I still had 27 miles to ride.

At that point I could have justifiably bailed out and hopped into the back of a local truck with my bike for an easy ride back to Bagan. Instead, I told my wife to get back to the hotel and out of the heat as quickly as possible, and I would make it back on my own.

With this decision Lonely Planet, no matter how sketchy or unreliable its information, was absolved of all responsibility. My demise would have to be ruled suicide by stubbornness or stupidity.

The rest of the day was a bit of a blur. The small but incessant hills, the fatigue of riding for hours on end, and the hot, hot heat all conspired to make for a challenging stretch of cycling.


Villagers in Salay

I remember reading somewhere that the signs of heat exhaustion included excessive sweating, thirst, extreme weakness or fatigue, headache, nausea, lack of appetite and giddiness, pretty much all of which I experienced during the long slog back to Bagan.

But these are also sensations that can be triggered by hour after hour of long-distance cycling, regardless of the weather, so in this case I couldn’t tell whether I was dying or having fun exercising.

Difficulties aside, at long last the hideous Serenity Garden Resort loomed into view, marking my return to the Bagan area. I drifted like a ghost through New Bagan and Myinkaba, and soon made the turnoff onto Anawrahta Road. I took the last few gulps from my sixth one-liter water bottle of the day, the liquid made as warm as green tea from the power of the sun.


Buddhist nun in Salay

The last stretch seemed to take hours, the heat relentless, my fatigue reaching unprecedented heights as I pedaled on and counted down the miles – four, three, two, one – until I was back at the hotel with my wife, enjoying yet another liter of water, followed by a cold beer, in the air-conditioned room.

I later read in the local press that the “official” temperature in Chauk that day was 46.1 degrees Celsius (115 Fahrenheit), the highest in 28 years. Several villagers in Magwe Region were reported to have died as a result of the heat. I consider myself lucky to have not been among them.

The ill-conceived foray to Salay certainly was not the first time in my life that willful foolhardiness provided a memorable travel experience, and I knew, even as I lay in the hotel room bed that afternoon, giddy with exhaustion and survival, that it wouldn’t be the last.

Written by latefornowhere

April 24, 2013 at 5:10 am

The Last Day of Pleasant Music

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Darkest Tears from My Heart at Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon (photo supplied by the band)

Yangon’s death metal underground searches for acceptance in an ocean of pop and hip-hop

Things were not going well for the young headbangers of Yangon. Forty minutes into a rare outdoor concert that had brought together nearly every band involved in the city’s death metal underground, the plug had been pulled and the lights were out.

Was it part of a sinister plot by iron-fisted authorities to silence the 14 bands on the bill, which boasted a spine-tingling litany of acts such as Nightmare, The Last Day of Beethoven, Darkest Tears From My Heart, Married for the Pain and Take My Last Breath?

Not quite, according to show organiser Aung Khant. At work was a force much darker than censorship, a force that has had an enormously negative impact on Yangon’s metal scene: lack of respect.

“The problem was not the government. They gave us a permit for the concert. The problem was the people who run [concert venue] Kandawgyi Park, who took our money to rent the stage but didn’t supply us with enough voltage, so the music blew the system,” he said. “This is something that would never happen to a big-name pop or hip-hop act in Yangon.”

Popular musicians not only get all the voltage, Aung Khant complained, they also get all the sponsorship money. With Yangon suffering from a lack of small venues suitable for up-and-coming bands, the majority of concerts are held on big stages in parks and theatres, and they don’t come cheap.

“In Myanmar there are hundreds of shows every year, but there is no place for underground metal,” said Novem Htoo, the vocalist of Nightmare. “No one will sponsor our concerts. When we approach potential supporters, all they want to know is what famous musicians will perform, and then they never get back to us.”

“They don’t understand music. All they know about is money,” added the band’s guitarist, Aung Myo Linn.

The watershed year for underground metal in Yangon was 2007, which saw the formation of Nightmare, The Last Day of Beethoven, Darkest Tears From My Heart and a handful of other groups.

Five of these new bands immediately got together and recorded two songs each, releasing them on a ten-song compilation CD, which was distributed for free at shows. Around that time a promoter named Ko Ye also kicked off an underground concert series called Woodstock, named after (and funded by) his fashion shop in Yangon.

“We had big audiences for the first few concerts in that series. They knew our songs from the CD sampler,” said Pho Zaw, guitarist for The Last Day of Beethoven.

Darkest Tears From My Heart singer Moe Lone added that the Woodstock series was launched out of love for metal music, but organisers eventually fell prey to the clarion call of big-name acts, adding local superstars like rocker R Zarni to the bill for the fifth and sixth concerts. They would end up being the last shows in the series.

“The organisers understood metal music in some ways and misunderstood it in others. They made a mistake by mixing metal and pop-rock music,” Moe Lone said. “Our fans wanted to see metal bands, and the other fans wanted pop music. It ended in conflict and disappointment for everyone.”


Left to right: Aung Myo Lwin (Nightmare guitarist), Aung Khant (promoter), the author, Flitz Brown (promoter), Novem Htoo (Nightmare vocalist)

It was the beginning of a downturn for the metal underground. For a few years no one stepped in to organise shows exclusively for metal fans, and bands lacked the funds to record and release their own music. Many of them bowed out of the scene for good. In 2012 there were only two metal concerts (including the Kandawgyi Park fiasco), and audiences were small.

“It’s expensive to book time in recording studios, or even to buy instruments,” said Novem Htoo. “Some of the bands lacked the patience to deal with these problems, so they broke up and some musicians moved overseas.”

Others, including Nightmare, have soldiered on. The band plans to release their debut CD, with all-original material, some time after April. Currently in the mixing stage, the 12-song disc titled Nga Dto Thamine (Our History) will be the first solo album to come out of Yangon’s death metal scene.

Nightmare was formed by friends who shared an interest in metal music, with influences including American bands Suicide Silence and Lamb of God. Novem Htoo said they chose their name to indicate that they were a force that could not be ignored. “People don’t like having nightmares, but it’s not their choice and they can’t avoid them,” he said. “They have nightmares whether they like it or not.”

Musically the band matches the growling, ripsaw intensity of their brethren in the West, but while Western death metal lyrics often focus on violence, horror and the occult, Nightmare writes about topics like broken families and people who destroy themselves in the pursuit of material wealth.

“We want to give our fans who are having personal troubles something to grab onto, something to make them feel reassured,” Novem Htoo said. “We want to give them a sense of self, tell them to live happily, and then when it’s time to die, they will die like everyone else.”

The Last Day of Beethoven also focuses on self-realisation. “Most of our songs send a message of not giving up, of not being so downhearted. And some songs are just meant to get an energetic reaction from the crowd,” said guitarist Pho Zaw.

He added that the band has not been affected by the recent relaxation in the censorship of music lyrics resulting from Myanmar’s slow plod toward democracy. “We don’t write rude songs or use rude words like some hip-hop singers, so we never had problems with censors,” he said.

And the band’s name? “Beethoven created pleasant music. What we mean is that when we take the stage, there will be no more pleasant music, it’s the last day of pleasant music,” Pho Zaw added.

With any luck, Yangon metal fans will soon have more “unpleasant” music to enjoy. Aung Khant is currently scraping together money to organise another group show, this time at a venue where he hopes the power will stay on. He’s aiming for June, but an exact date has not been set.

In another positive sign, he said he has noticed an increased interest in metal music among teenagers, despite the lack of concerts and recorded material.

“A couple of years ago, 16- and 17-year-olds were only interested in hip-hop. But now we’re seeing some new young guys getting into the metal scene,” Aung Khant said.

“Everyone has their own musical tastes,” Novem Htoo added. “I think some of these young people come from family situations or economic backgrounds that are not so good, and maybe for them the passion and the screaming vocals of metal music provide some kind of respite.”

Whether Yangon’s underground metal scene remains stagnant seems beside the point for some of these musicians, who look set to continue making their music with or without fans and concerts.

“Compared with pop music and hip-hop, metal takes a lot more time and practice to do well, and we’re all dedicated to improving,” Moe Lone said.

“I don’t even understand why I like metal so much, but I know it’s lodged in my blood and in my mind. And whenever I listen to other types of music, I get a headache and feel a little sick,” he said with a smile.

This story was published in the April 2013 issue of Southeast Asia Globe monthly magazine.