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They call it Myanmar: meeting the maker

A boat on Inle Lake in a scene from They Call It Myanmar
A boat on Inle Lake in a scene from They Call It Myanmar. Photograph: Robert Lieberman

Tall, wiry Robert Lieberman, 72, doesn’t walk up the stairs from the ground to the third floor of the Cambodiana hotel – he runs. After gripping my hand in a firm handshake, the Canadian film director, novelist and Cornell physics professor is eager to talk about his 2012 documentary They Call It Myanmar: Lifting The Curtain. He doesn’t want a drink – just the music turned off. The documentary has been lavished with international praise: “… the best possible introduction to Myanmar” (The Hollywood Reporter) and “…definitive film on a country…” (Washington Times). From 200 hours of raw footage, secretly filmed between 2008 and 2012, Lieberman has distilled a 90 minute portrait of Burma and its people – a revealing depiction of everyday life in the country. An extensive interview with Aung San Suu Kyi introduces the documentary but, unlike elsewhere, she is not the focus. Viewers follow the film into the heart of Burma – an explorary journey very much an hour and half in his company.

The film will be shown at Meta House Friday, Feb 15 and a screening at Bophana Cultural Centre will follow on Saturday March 2.

For They Call it Myanmar, you shot 200 hours of footage, and spent three years filming. What took you so long?  

I started making a film that was non-political but that was not possible. If you are not talking about the assassination of Suu Kyi’s father Aung San father and things like that, you are not talking about the country. People think everything is fine and beautiful in Burma now. That’s not the case. The military still controls 25 per cent of the seats in the parliament. Suu Kyi has only seven seats.

Shortly before the interview with Aung San Suu Kyi, you were told not to ask any personal questions. How did you cope with that since you didn’t want to shoot a political film?

Yeah, and I figured I was f*****. I had come 8000 miles from the US and I am not interested in political questions. So for once in my life I was smart enough not to react and let it pass. So we started talking. And we came around talking about her father and it went very smoothly. You cannot confront her. I could feel she doesn’t suffer fools. If she doesn’t like you, she will throw you out and shut you down. But you can come from the side. In the end I asked someone she worked with about her children and private things. After all, the movie is not about her but Burma and the people.

Do you think it was the right decision for Aung San Suu Kyi to go into politics?

I don’t know, but a friend of mine who runs an NGO in Burma says she should have stayed a moral force: like a Bishop Tutu. I am not interested in politics. I am interested in people. I am trying to put a human face on Burma. If you can identify with people, the country makes sense. There are so many children in my movie. Despite the conditions and the poverty, there are so many smiling faces.

Did you avoid showing the people in their misery and poverty?

No. You will see a scene showing a girl who has been treated by a quack. She has TB and deep holes in her chest. I show misery, but it is not a message film.

What is your feeling about the Burmese people?

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They are very soft, except when they are fighting. I think they have a very good chance of preserving their culture. But they also want electricity, refrigerators, and air-conditioning.

Do you think it is good that an untouched country like Burma is opening up?

Yes, people are starving. But you deal with the devil. The question is: do they have the expertise to resist this, or the control over the investments coming in. I am worried by Burma being raped, about all the sleazy businessman and corporations that are coming in. It is already happening.

Did you get in trouble for filming?

Yes, and always for filming very innocent things like the National Library. The camera was running and I said he wasn’t filming. Then I took the battery out and said look its dead. I also got in trouble for filming vegetables once. But I was always more concerned about the Burmese that were with me because they could really get in trouble. You could talk privately but not freely. It was much worse than in Eastern Germany. I have been there. People were scared of the Stasi because they could lose their jobs when they criticised the regime. But they were not tortured. I know people that were horribly tortured in Burma, like hanging them head down of the ceiling. In Eastern Germany people were scared. In Burma, they were terrified.

You were never afraid of filming?

No, in February I am going to be 72 years old. My father was dead at 65. I was in situations where I flipped cars. I have been in very dangerous situations and I have come out. So I was going to be dead at 40, that was my plan and I am still alive so everything is gravy. I have nine lives but I have used up eight and a half. Big things like life don’t bother me. It’s the little things that bother me, like too much noise. I know I am an adrenalin junkie. I need a certain level of arousal so a little danger is good.

What is your motivation for going into countries with autocratic governments?

Name a country that has an autocratic government – I have been to them all. I am very interested in isolated countries because you see them intact. Burma is so interesting because when I went there the culture was unspoiled in a way. You have 135 languages there, I think. You have eight major ethnic groups. You have religious diversity: Christians, Buddhists and Animists.

What is the next film going to be about?

I have a book coming out The Nazis, My father and Me and the star is a German boy. I might need some Germans for the film…

As a German, I suggested the cast of Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards to Lieberman. From there he went on talking about Tarrantino being a “sleaze bag” who used unnecessary violence that desensitised children. We talked about sex in films, Cambodian beaches, the eco movement in Germany. Lieberman linked the topics together with fluidity - and the ease of a man who seamlessly mixes Ivy League physics with personal filmmaking.

To contact the reporter on this story: Julius Thiemann at ppp.lifestyle@gmail.com

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