May 4, 2011
By Max Schindler
Prof. Robert Lieberman ’62, physics, who has taught thousands of Cornell students since 1976, released his latest documentary, “They Call it Myanmar,” Tuesday night. The film provides a detailed view of the culture and politics of Myanmar, a country often labeled as one of the most repressed in the world.
Lieberman shot the film, which premiered at Cornell Cinema and was produced by the Ithaca film company PhotoSynthesis Productions, in secret during two years of intermittent trips to Myanmar under the auspices of the U.S. Embassy.
“I think this movie will take you into the country,” Lieberman said. He added that he chose to film a documentary instead of writing a non-fiction work “because we are a post-literary generation.”
The country, formerly known as Burma, has endured nearly 50 years under a dictatorial military junta.
When he began the project, Lieberman said he attempted to produce an apolitical film but soon realized “you can’t be in Burma and not talk about politics.”
Lieberman said he had always been fascinated by Southeast Asia and that he gravitated toward the country’s culture and people.
“It’s a beautiful country the size of France,” Lieberman said. “I’m very well connected with Burma … I have a number of high-level contacts in Burmese society.”
Through numerous interviews, the movie aims to portray the hardships that many Burmese citizens face daily.
Still, in such a closed and authoritarian country, documentary film-making proved risky, Lieberman said, as he could not publicly film in the country.
He visited Myanmar four times on a tourist visa, filming for about a month on each visit. On his visits, Lieberman could only shoot with “a very small HD camera” and said he experienced harassment on more than one occasion.
He recounted a close encounter with the authorities while filming in Myanmar.
“I was on a street and I wanted people flowing by around me,” he said. “A woman tapped me on the shoulder three times and kept walking … I immediately realized that I was in trouble and I began packing up.”
Whenever Lieberman thought he was in trouble with the authorities, he warned his Burmese counterparts to flee, he said. “If I had Burmese around me, I would always tell them to get lost — don’t accompany me,” Lieberman said.
After nearly 15 years of house arrest, Nobel Peace Prize winner and prominent leader of the dissenting National League for Democracy Daw Aung San Suu Kyi granted a rare interview to Lieberman in the film.
Lieberman said he was impressed by Aung San Suu Kyi’s resilience following decades of house arrest.
“I was able to take her into areas where she could talk about things, her life and father,” he said.
According to Lieberman, the junta’s name change from Burma to Myanmar remains controversial, as some Westerners continue to use Burma.
“The resistance to the name is due to the military junta,” Lieberman said. “I still use Burma, but I’m old-fashioned.”
Lieberman said he plans to distribute the film nationally and internationally, but he is constrained by its budget. He expressed hope that donors will help fund the final promotion and distribution.
“I probably won’t be allowed back into the country after this film,” Lieberman said. “If you were the military junta, what would you do?”
-- The Cornell Daily Sun --