Aung San Suu Kyi was under house arrest in Myanmar for more than a decade before being released in 2010. A new film by Robert Lieberman, who is a physics professor, novelist and filmmaker, explores the south Asian nation.
That plan shows quite a range, from the beauty of Buddhists trekking to a holy site to the squalor of a health clinic where a tuberculosis-stricken child is treated by a nonprofessional health care provider who is dressing her ulcerated sores without surgical gloves.
"This is a novelist's eye of the country. I want to take you on a journey," he said.
A Risky Venture
The journey entailed some personal risk to Lieberman. He was constantly reminded by his allies in the country that his whereabouts and activities were being tracked.
"They were asking about me from the ministry?" he asks a friend in a scene in the movie, the concern palpable in his voice.
Another incident in the film details him being questioned testily by a guard for trying to take video of the national library.
Lieberman also describes an unnerving experience he had as he was shooting a scene in Rangoon, just trying to gather video to demonstrate the nature of street life in the capital city.
"I felt three taps and no one was there, and I knew I was in trouble. ... It was a warning. ... I was out of there fast, lickety-split," he said.
Overall, a fascinating picture emerges of a country kept tightly under wraps but persevering. Such a description also fits Suu Kyi, as she endured her many years of house arrest.
The film does indeed unfold like a journey or novel. This isn't a standard talking heads documentary, or at least it wasn't planned that way.
But plans change. As Lieberman and his producers were putting the final touches on editing the film, Myanmar began inching along with reforms, which culminated in two momentous events in late 2010: parliamentary elections and Suu Kyi's release.
Lieberman scrambled to return to the country to interview her. Her ground rules stated that the emphasis had to be on the political process, which diverts the film from some of its image-heavy tone.
But her interview does not detract as much as it supplements, providing a political voice to the film. This is significant, given Suu Kyi's own iconic status in the country and internationally as a stubborn advocate of a more open society.
When Lieberman asks her whether she considers herself a politician, she provides a hint of why she has become such a charismatic figure.
"Yes, of course I'm a politician," she says on camera. "I think politicians who think they've gone beyond being politicians are very dangerous."
Coming as it does in the middle of a U.S. campaign season that is heavy on the rhetoric of freedom and sacrifice, such a movie, and a figure like Suu Kyi, is a stark reminder that the United States, for all its problems, is light years removed from the oppression in a country such as Myanmar.
U.S. citizens and political figures are free to express their views and practice politics in ways that are virtually unthinkable in the south Asian country.
Yet changes continue in Myanmar. In May, the administration of President Barack Obama eased some investment sanctions in response to political reforms the government had agreed to. In August, the government of Myanmar announced that it would cease pre-publication censorship of the country's media.
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