THE film is jinxed. Due to screen at the Sydney Film Festival today, Dancing with Dictators has been pulled at the 11th hour after a series of calamities.The problems began when the Australian filmmakers, Hugh Piper and Helen Barrow, were arrested and chucked out of Burma last November. Then the subject of their documentary, journalist Ross Dunkley, was arrested in February by the Burmese authorities on sexual assault charges.
His trial, which began in April, has wound slowly through the weeks and months, taking it right down to the wire for today’s scheduled screening.
It didn’t quite make it. The trial isn’t over. In fact, yet another hearing is scheduled for today, flummoxing the filmmakers who had said they wouldn’t screen the feature-length documentary until Dunkley’s trial was safely over.
“Today we officially withdrew our film from the Sydney Film Festival,” Barrow says. “It was a difficult decision but we had a moral obligation not to screen until the court case was concluded.”
An Australian publisher working in one of the most repressive countries in the world, Dunkley has been playing with fire for a long time. As the editor of the Myanmar Times, published in Burmese and English, he was a natural target for Burma’s xenophobic generals, but for more than a decade he had managed to keep moving.
In the end, he didn’t escape the long arm of what passes for the law in Burma. He was arrested and locked up for nearly seven weeks in Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison before he was released on bail.
He told Radio Australia that he didn’t want to comment on the case too much, adding there was “a game going on behind the scenes” and politics was an ugly business.
The lengthy trial continues, despite his accuser, a prostitute, saying she was pregnant, and not well, and couldn’t come to court and wanted to drop the charges. Once, she fainted in court. Dunkley has repeatedly denied all the charges.
Piper and Barrow had the prelude to his arrest safely captured in digital images: the difficulty of dealing with ruthless official censors; the Myanmar Times reporters working in an atmosphere of government menace; Dunkley’s habit of pushing for incremental change. And all this in the tense build-up to Burma’s first elections in 20 years, since widely derided as a sham.
It’s not surprising the Burmese authorities finally pounced on the filmmakers, but the Australians had a fall-back plan. Their arrest could have been a disaster physically, personally and professionally.
But these days, in the internet age, it’s not so easy for irritated Burmese soldiers to wreck carefully sourced raw footage. The shiny jackboot stamping on tapes, or spools of film, and ruining weeks of work is a thing of the past.
“We were quite careful as to what we did with our material,”
Piper says, reflectively. “We had worked out ways to get it out. You can download, make backups. If we couldn’t do that, then it would be a different story.”
Scheduled to screen on ABC later this year, Dancing with Dictators promises an inside look at life in the shuttered nation. Ruled by military despots for five decades until power was transferred to a nominally civilian government earlier this year, Burma has not developed in the same way as its Asian neighbours. But it has a charm that draws people in again and again.
“I think on one level it’s a repressive place,” Piper says. “At the same time, when you’re in the country, it’s really a very exciting place. It’s very dynamic.”
It’s not so exciting for the 2200 political prisoners locked up by the regime for telling the truth, or for having a meeting, or for writing a book, or for reporting on the news, or for making a film. It seems several people interviewed for the documentary, including Dunkley, speak their minds freely, which could leave them dangerously exposed to the regime’s wrath.
But Piper doesn’t think the film will endanger anyone. “I don’t think so, no. We’ve given a huge amount of thought to that.”
Dunkley has raised official eyebrows in Burma by pushing for a daily publishing licence for the Myanmar Times and inviting Piper and Barrow in to film him.
Still, many critics argue that he has not pushed hard enough, and that he has played along with Burma’s oppressive military regime, submitting the newspaper to rigorous censors, providing a facade of Western acceptance and contributing to the whitewash of a nation in ruins.
Dunkley’s arrest was shocking, but it has given an undeniable edge to the documentary. Piper and Barrow couldn’t get back into Burma for Dunkley’s jailing and his trial, but it is included in the film. Piper has no compunction about telling the tale. “It was certainly a huge blow for him, but a story is a story,” he says. “He’s a journalist, he knows these things.”