Friday, April 29, 2011

Lieberman's 'They Call It Myanmar' shows the hidden Burma

Robert Lieberman
Robert Lieberman directs a television commercial for tuberculosis prevention in Burma, with a group of Burmese schoolchildren.
Filmmaker and senior lecturer in physics Robert H. Lieberman risked imprisonment and deportation while making his most recent documentary, shot illegally and clandestinely in Burma over a 30-month period. Cornell Cinema is showing the film, "They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain," May 3 at 7 p.m. in Willard Straight Theatre.
Lieberman shot more than 120 hours of video and interviewed hundreds of people to produce the 90-minute documentary -- a portrait of the Burmese people and their country, which is mostly unknown to the rest of the world, rich in resources and ruled by an oppressive military regime.
"It's a very unusual country because of its isolation, and the Burmese are very different from the rest of southeast Asia," Lieberman said. "They have an incredible sense of humor, and despite the oppression, they smile, and it's a genuine smile."
Lieberman's previous films include "Green Lights," shot in Ithaca, and "Last Stop, Kew Gardens," about the Queens, N.Y., neighborhood of his youth.
He says "Myanmar" is "an impressionistic film ... it shows you what the Burmese look like and how they live and how they eat. It puts a human face on Burma."
Lieberman made four trips to Myanmar, starting with a post in 2008 to the American Embassy in Rangoon as a Fulbright senior specialist, training young directors to produce commercials, including public service ads for tuberculosis prevention. On a subsequent trip, he taught film production at the fine arts university in Rangoon.
"I knew you weren't allowed to film," Lieberman said. "These assignments were my chance to film. The first trip, I was nervous about bringing equipment, so my wife wrapped my microphones and cables in Christmas wrapping."
He began filming in December 2008, several months after a cyclone killed more than 100,000 people in Myanmar.
"I decided not to make a political movie, but I discovered [that] to understand Burma, and its people, you cannot avoid touching on the politics," Lieberman said. "The fear is all-pervasive. People are really scared in ways that people in other oppressive countries are not."
His interview with former opposition leader Aung Sang Su Kyi occurred late in the filming, soon after her release from more than 15 years of house arrest.
"She unwittingly melded right into the film," Lieberman said. "I started to ask her questions that took her for a loop; they're not the questions journalists would ask. I asked her to just 'tell me about Burma.' She said, 'What? I can't tell you in five minutes. I can't do it in five hours.' She started, and we had our narration for the film."
Lieberman had others help him smuggle his footage (on hard drives) out of the country.
"For all their censorship and control, the authorities can't prevent information coming in from the outside," he said. "They don't want to let journalists in. The regime really seems to be indifferent to world opinion. They basically govern by terrorism. And I really wonder if I am ever going to be allowed to go back -- I know another filmmaker who is blacklisted."
The film still needs some final post-production touches, and Lieberman is adding titles and subtitles. He screened it in Washington, D.C., recently for invited guests from the State Department, nongovernment organizations, the Voice of America, Radio Free Asia and others; and he plans to show it in Norway and at major film festivals before seeking distribution.
"This was meant for a general audience, for the average person to understand," he said. "If we succeeded, this could be a mainstream movie."