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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