By Lisa Anderson
NEW YORK (AlertNet) - Robert Lieberman, now a novelist and Cornell University professor of physics, fell in love with Myanmar as a child, seduced by words like Mandalay, the Silk Road and Rangoon.
His new documentary, “They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain,” is his love letter to that country and a rare window for the rest of us into what is the second most isolated in the world after North Korea.
As Aung San Suu Kyi, Nobel laureate, longtime political prisoner and now opposition leader in Myanmar’s parliament, recently made her whirlwind tour of the United States, receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor, Lieberman’s film has been gaining a buzz through small showings throughout the world.
“I wanted to give you a novelist eye’s view of the country. I thought it would have been a six-month project, and it’s been three years,” he said in an interview.
It took him five trips to Myanmar, also known as Burma, over three years between late 2008 and early 2012, to capture a video portrait of life in that ancient and little-known country. Most of the filming was done clandestinely, at some risk to Lieberman and the more than 100 people he interviewed.
As a result, he took precautions. “I take you all over the country, but I don’t tell you where you are,” he said. “Anyone you used as a main character would be arrested. So, there are no main characters. This is essentially a hundred voices talking about Burma. There are very few faces.”
And, of course, there are no names.
No names, except for one: Aung San Suu Kyi.
Suu Kyi was the daughter of General Aung San, who founded the country’s modern army and negotiated independence from Britain before he was assassinated in 1947. Her mother, Khin Kyi, was ambassador to India and Nepal in 1960 and Suu Kyi returned home to care for her in 1988.
Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, Suu Kyi didn’t physically receive it until June 2012, after spending more than 15 years under house arrest for political dissidence and pro-democracy activism.
During that time, she was separated from her husband and their two young sons who lived in Britain. She feared that if she left Myanmar she would not be allowed to return. Denied a visa to visit her, her husband, Michael Aris, died from prostate cancer at the age of 53 in 1999. He had only been able to see her five times since 1989, when his wife was first placed under house arrest.
“I started trying to make a non-political film but it became impossible. How can you talk about Burma and not talk about politics? How can you talk about Burma and not talk about her?”
Lieberman not only talks about Suu Kyi. We meet her when he briefly interviews her in a white, colonial-style house belonging to her political party. Slim, elegant and with her signature flowers in her chignon, she tells him that “a strong hand, an authoritarian hand only gives the appearance of stability.”
She goes on to say that in Myanmar, “our most important resource is our human resource, but that has been neglected.”
Those human resources provide a rich canvas for the film. There are images of golden temples, lumbering elephants and houses balanced on slender stilts, but it is the images of the people that linger in the imagination.
We see a nine-year-old auto mechanic working on a car’s suspension, a child who only completed second grade in a country where few children go to school.
There are many other children, some carrying baskets of gravel on their heads, others who work as waiters in restaurants, all of whom can’t afford to go to school in a country where most people earn less than $1 per day.
Others are sent overseas. “You can send them as a maid. You can sell them as a wife. You don’t know,” one woman told Lieberman of the many children exported by Myanmar parents.
And then there are the medical quacks Lieberman meets, people who work in clinics as sweepers or cleaners but who routinely perform obstetric episiotomies with kitchen knives sterilised with candles. Most of Myanmar’s doctors left the country after the military junta took over in 1962 and never returned.
Still today, young people want to leave. One young man told Lieberman, “Anywhere is good, except Burma.”
Contrasting with this tension are images of a country that is achingly beautiful, landscapes with glittering temples silhouetted against a blazing sunset.
For a schedule of viewings and information on how to pre-order the video of this documentary, click here.