They Call It Myanmar - Lifting the Curtain: Film Review

They Call It Myanmar Poster - P 2011

They Call It Myanmar Poster - P 2011

Robert H. Lieberman defies the odds of creating a travelogue and, instead, delivers a compelling portrait of an entire nation being kept in captivity and ignorance

An effective portrait of a country that's little known and even less visited.

AMSTERDAM – When confronted with taglines, one tends to be cynical. But They Call it Myanmar - Lifting the Curtain does live up to what comes behind the dash: it truly lifts the curtain on the dictatorship that time forgot. International theatrical sales will certainly be limited, but television and a myriad of festival appearances are sure to follow.

Truth trumps artistry in this unassuming documentary, made by Cornell professor and author Robert H. Lieberman (Last Boy: A Novel), who used a sojourn to be an educator in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) to profile a land, not forgotten by time, but abandoned by the conveniences of politics, to stand (and rather not move) as one of the last bastions of complete dictatorship.

Approaching his subject, as one assumes he did himself, carefully but curiously, Lieberman takes us on a tour of his new surroundings: views from the airplane window, locals on the streets – noticing, as we all would, a false sense of contentment that could and can be misinterpreted as serene happiness.

He soon discovers that all is not well, starting with the fact that filming is not permitted, education is comprised of nationalist slogans and health care is so abysmal that some audience members will be compelled to run for the nearest bathroom.

Lieberman takes all of this in, with the help of a small camera that is rarely discovered by the powers that be (when it is, we do witness some small tussles), but his inherent curiosity and conversational charm take him further, trying to understand how a geographically large country, with lots of mineral wealth can be so shiny on the outside, but so rotten, behind the curtain

Technical credits are overall good, as Lieberman was able to film quite freely when government officials were not around. While he is not able to paint a picture of their lifestyle visually, he does make good by providing enough background for us to imagine how life is on the other side.

His interview with Aung San Suu Kyi, clearly the seminal personality when it comes to Myanmar in the last 20 years, and now present on the big screen due to Luc Besson’s The Lady, does fall a bit short of high expectations, but does provide a much clearer picture of a career politician, as opposed to a savior, than any films up to this point have.

More importantly, he uses his time to tug at our heartstrings, and effectively so: scenes of bodies floating around after a tsunami create goose bumps in the most jaded of audience-members, while the oppressive nature of the regime dwells with you for an inordinate amount of time.

They Call it Myanmar - Lifting the Curtain cannot and probably should not be singled out for individual achievements. But it does stand on its own – with a subject (and the handling of it) trumping all other arguments. It is, as of now, the definitive film on a country, its peoples and an oversight long overlooked.

Venue: IDFA Documentary Festival (in competition)
Production company: Ithaca Filmworks
Director: Robert H. Lieberman
Producers: Deborah C. Hoard, Robert H. Lieberman
Director of photography: Robert H. Lieberman
Editor: David Kossack
Music: Cameron Hoard
No rating, 90 minutes