They Call It Myanmar

By: Shelley Seale
Myanmar, Mandalay division, Bagan, ancient temples shrouded in mist, at sunrise. Getty Images / martin puddy

I have never written a post on this blog two days in a row, until now. But I wanted to follow up on my piece yesterday about the beautiful, magical Inle Lake in Myanmar (formerly Burma).

After posting yesterday’s story on one of the most unique and incredible places I have ever been, last night I attended a screening of a new documentary, They Call It Myanmar, presented by the Austin Film Society at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. Today, I wanted to share this powerful film with you.


They Call It Myanmar is the story of Burma, told with stunning footage shot clandestinely over a 2-­year period by filmmaker Robert H. Lieberman. It provides an astonishing and intimate look inside at what has been one of the most isolated countries on the planet, lifting the curtain on the everyday life of the people in this land that has been held hostage by a brutal and superstitious military regime for 48 years.

The New York Times ran a story about the film, with the headline: Tantalized but Cautious, Filmmakers Capture Long-Hidden Myanmar. The film has been named an Official Selection for several film festivals around the world, including the International Human Rights Film Festival in Austria.

A revealing interview with Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi conducted just after her most recent release from house arrest is interwoven with extensive interviews and interactions with Burmese people from all around this incredibly diverse nation. When I visited Burma it was in October 2010 – just weeks before Aung San Suu Kyi was released from her house arrest of more than 15 years.

The film, culled from over 120 hours of striking images, is an impressionistic journey that leads across the vastness of Burma. It traces the history of Burma from its beginnings in the ancient city of Bagan, through colonial times, recent uprisings, the devastating Cyclone Nargis that killed 150,000 people, and up to the present day.

I started out shooting in Burma with the intent of making a non­political film,” says director Robert Lieberman. “It quickly became obvious that it was impossible. The politics manifest themselves not just in human rights violations, but also in the everyday life of Burmese—parents who can’t feed their children, children who cannot attend school, and who begin to enter the labor force almost as soon as they can walk and talk.

I’ve been all over the Third World, and, with the exception of a famine I filmed in Ethiopia, conditions in Myanmar are the worst I’ve seen. Yet this is a resource­-rich country with natural gas reserves, teak forests, vast agricultural lands, minerals, gems, and a huge coastline. So you have to ask yourself – ‘How did this happen?’

My hope is that I have managed to give the viewer a sense of Myanmar’s people and culture— both of which are highly complex. This is an incredibly diverse country, with seven major ethnic groups and more than 130 languages.

They Call It Myanmar is playing in several cities around the country in the coming weeks, including New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Seattle – and more cities are being added. Check the website for showings and dates; and you can also buy the documentary on DVD.

As someone who has been to the country myself, I can tell you that the Burmese people want contact with the outside. They want people to see them and to know they exist. They welcome visitors to their country, as does Aung San Suu Kyi. When I was there, I visited a fourth-generation lacquerware maker and wrote about his art in American Craft Magazine. Sein Naing of Mya Thaw Tar in Bagan can take months to complete one piece. Yet, this centuries-old craft is in danger of being lost forever, because there are simply not enough people to buy it.

“From the moment I knew I was going to Burma, the 2nd most isolated country on the planet, I knew I was going to do a film,” Lieberman says. Keeping below the radar of government security was the most difficult part, he told me. “Not for my sake, but for all the Burmese who were helping me.”

Fortunately, the tourist ban has been lifted and more people are going to Burma. While I don’t want to see it get overly-touristed or developed, full of McDonald’s and huge tour buses; I do feel that it an amazing place in which both residents and visitors alike can engage in a meaningful cultural exchange that can be important to both their lives.

If you consider going, please follow “responsible travel” guideline tips, such as I shared in yesterday’s post; basically, make sure you do not stay in government hotels or use government tour agencies. Keep your money with individually-owned and run organizations.

I asked Lieberman what was his hope for the people, and future, of Burma? “That the people can preserve their culture in the wake of the flood of business interests that are sure to engulf Burma.”