Burmese daze finally sees the light

THEAUSTRALIANlogo It was test of patience and perseverance that would derail most filmmakers. It began late last year when Burma’s xenophobic military authorities deported the Australian filmmakers Hugh Piper and Helen Barrow. They were in Rangoon, working on a documentary about the nation’s first elections in 20 years, tied in with an Australian newspaperman and his quixotic attempts to champion freedom of speech in one of the most repressed nations on earth.

Then, within a few months, the newspaperman, Ross Dunkley, was arrested on seemingly spurious sexual assault charges and jailed in one of Burma’s notorious prisons. Because Piper and Barrow had been deported and consequently blacklisted, they couldn’t get back into the country to cover the proceedings, a hindrance which pushed them to extraordinary lengths.

Finally, to cap it all off, Dunkley’s trial dragged on for so long the documentary had to be pulled at the eleventh hour from the Sydney Film Festival. The filmmakers were concerned Dunkley’s admittedly incendiary comments in the film might influence the Burmese judiciary. Even so, it was galling for them to finally realise that although both Festival screenings were sold out, the documentary would have to stay under wraps. “We didn’t want to be the ones responsible (for an adverse verdict),” Barrow says. “We’ve held off for a year now.”

Making a documentary in the long-shuttered nation was never going to be easy. Burma has long been known for the ruthlessness of its military regime. But Barrow and Piper may not have been prepared for the quantities of stealth and sheer endurance required to make a simple documentary.

They were buoyed, though, by the courage of many ordinary Burmese who had lived under the military fist for as long as they could remember, but who agreed to be filmed, or agreed to help. One young journalist, Myo Myo, let them come to her home and interview her mother, helped them get footage of the nation’s notoriously rigged elections last year, and somehow ducked an inquisitive military police officer who wanted to take their names. “She was fantastic,” Piper says. “Small acts of everyday bravery. It was inspiring.”

Although they shot a lot of footage before they were deported from Burma, and they shot more with characters in Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Perth, they needed footage of Dunkley en route to court. His plight had made headlines around the world. A film about Dunkley without the crucial scenes of him handcuffed and under guard would be incomplete, to say the least.

The trial was one of the first where the Burmese media were permitted to photograph and film the accused and various others arriving and leaving and waiting to get into the court-room. Piper and Barrow knew shooting at the court would be possible, and finally they convinced a local cameraman to film for them.

But, in a sobering indication of the level of fear prevalent in Burma, this cameraman was only happy working where he was covered by the anonymity of a press pack. Piper and Barrow couldn’t get him to film, for instance, even the exteriors (let alone the interiors) of Insein prison, where Dunkley was held for 47 days. Nor could they get any post-arrest footage taken inside the offices of the Myanmar Times, the weekly newspaper Dunkley edited and published before his arrest.

But within the limitations of safety and expediency, the Burmese filmmaker did a sterling job, and Piper and Barrow used a substantial amount of his footage in their finished documentary. He provided scenes of Dunkley holding his manacled hands up to the cameras, trudging upstairs followed by guards, and getting into a grim prison bus. He even managed to ask Dunkley an on-camera question regarding his health and happiness.

Piper says he spoke to the cameraman at an early stage of the project. He had been reluctant to work for them, an understandable reaction considering the number of Burmese reporters and filmmakers who languish in prison for the ‘crime’ of providing footage to international networks.

“Once Ross had been arrested, we approached him (the filmmaker) again; he then delivered in spades,” Piper says. “Ross’s court appearances were the first that ever been shot by the Burmese media, and he really got stuck right in there.” The footage was smuggled out of Burma and it is now a gritty counterpoint to scenes shot in Burma’s picturesque streets or the footage Barrow and Piper secured inside the offices of the Myanmar Times before they were deported.

Eventually, after a trial that wound its way interminably through the year, Dunkley was acquitted of all bar one of the charges laid against him, and he is now apparently appealing against the simple assault conviction. With the trial out of the way, Piper and Barrow finally managed to get their film screened, at the Brisbane Film Festival last month.

“Dancing with Dictators”, shot largely in crumbling Rangoon, is replete with rare footage shot by the filmmakers during Burma’s widely-ridiculed elections, the first in 20 years. The documentary is now scheduled for a cinematic release in Sydney, Canberra, and Perth, beginning on December 8. A screening on the ABC is planned for early next year.

Dunkley appears brash and outspoken in the film, but he also appears to have a firm philosophy on how to deal with the military regime that ruled Burma for five decades. “Engagement”, he says on camera, is the key to Burma. While it’s true that US and European sanctions have isolated the nation economically but done little to really sway the generals, getting too close to the military regime can lead to damaging perceptions. On camera, Piper accuses Dunkley of coming across as “being in bed” with the generals. Not at all, Dunkley replies with a grin. “I’m not in bed with anyone; not even my wife”. These comments were particularly pointed, because Dunkley was later arrested and tried for assaulting a prostitute; a dubious charge that appeared politically motivated, and which was further frayed by the prostitute’s attempts to recant the allegations.

Burma has changed since the film was shot. The elections were widely condemned as almost farcically rigged. The military’s proxy political party won with a massive majority; a number of senior military figures simply exchanged their uniforms for civilian clothes to stand for office, and anyway, one quarter of all seats in the new parliament were reserved for serving military officers. Khaki still rules in Burma, and the new administration is barely quasi-civilian. Crushed by an oppressive military regime for nearly 50 years, the nation has suffered: beset with wide-ranging poverty, on-going bloody clashes, and one of the world’s worst human rights records.

But now a series of small but significant developments have bolstered hopes for real change. There is a sniff of progress in the air, although it came too late for Dunkley and the Australian filmmakers. Democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi, released from long years of house arrest after last year’s elections, has travelled to rural centres without undue harassment. Her party, the National League for Democracy, even decided recently to contest a series of by-elections.

Stringent censorship of newspapers and journals, including Dunkley’s Myanmar Times, has relaxed a little. Certain western journalists have been officially permitted to enter the country. A number of political prisoners, including the famed comic Zarganar, have been freed, although many remain immured in Burma’s prisons. The construction of an unpopular dam in the country’s north was halted. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton plans to visit Burma on November 30 in a clear signal that icy relations between the US and Burma have begun, very slowly, to thaw.

“My general feeling is huge excitement,” says Piper, who has felt at first hand the Burmese military’s relentless oppression. He is now thrilled by the tentative changes afoot in the country, and he believes that one day he will again be permitted to visit the long-dark nation. “One day,” he says. “Yeah, one day.”

By Elizabeth Hughes

“Dancing with Dictators” will be screened at the Chauvel Cinema in Paddington, Sydney; Greater Union in Manuka, Canberra and Cinema Paradiso in Northbridge, Perth, for one week from December 8, 2011.