Robert Lieberman on “They Call It Myanmar”

Note: This interview originally ran on April 3, 2012. They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain opens Friday, September 21 in the Film Center for a one-week run!

The next film in our ongoing series Art of the Real, dedicated to showcasing innovative and consciousness-raising nonfiction filmmaking, is Robert H. Lieberman's documentary They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain. The screening is a timely one given the recent elections in the country, in which the opposition party, the National League for Democracy lead by Aung San Suu Kyi, enjoyed an auspicious victory over the military regime that has ruled Burma for over 20 years.

We asked director Robert H. Lieberman to answer a few questions about himself, his film, and the situation in Burma by means of introduction:

I know you have an academic background. Can you talk about how you come to be a filmmaker as well and the other projects you've worked on?

I‘m trained as a scientist but I’ve been a novelist since age 18. I think film is just an outgrowth of novels. I’ve written and directed a comedy call Green Lights.  I’ve done a number of films for PBS. I did a film in Ethiopia during the famine. I have a film about growing up as a child of survivors of the Holocaust in Vienna called Last Stop Kew Gardens. We’re sort of in a post-literate generation and the truth of the matter is if you make a movie millions of people see it. I had a book that was a best seller and it sold 300,000 copies, but that’s nothing compared to one movie. Of course movies are not just... it’s imagery also and I’ve always been fascinated by films. If you’re asking me to explain it, I can’t really. I have a schizophrenic existence, I guess. I think my mother said I had to have an honest living so I went into science.

What is your approach to documentary filmmaking? Is there anything you try to do or avoid doing when approaching your subject?

This was a very unusual situation because I was in Burma and I wasn't legally allowed to film and so i couldnt have a film crew—no shooters, no sound team—I had to do it all myself. And one of the limitations was that I couldn't have any stars, in terms of following a child, or a parent, or a family, because anybody I used could get arrested. So that was a real limitation for filming.

I wanted to put a human face on Burma, you know. There have been films that featured Burma, about the uprising, films that were done on the border with refugees, but I wanted to show you what the people look like, how they live, how they sleep, how they eat, what the education system is like, what healthcare is like. I didn't want to make a message film. I didn't want to go political with it, although that turned out to be impossible. There was no way you could make a film about Burma without taking about the politics. But the film is really meant for a general audience; I wanted to take you into the country with me.

How did you first become interested in Burma as a subject?

Well, I'm a child of the second World War so names like Rangoon and Mandalay always evoked exotic images for me. It was just a place I always had interest in. I'd worked in Southeast Asia before. I'd been to the border and, you know, from Thailand you can look across the border at the Burmese and the Burmese look back across at you, and I'd always wanted to go in. When I finally had a chance to do so I didn't want to go in as a tourist, that was never interesting to me. I wanted to work in a place and get to know the people. We had a fellow at Cornell doing Burmese studies and she got me in contact with some people and next thing I knew I was in the country. The first time I went in I worked with young filmmakers half the time and the rest of the time I worked for an NGO. And I've been there five times over three years, since then.

Can you take us through a bit of the timeline between the film's inception and its completion? Did the project change once you started filming or editing?

At the beginning I didn't even know what I was doing. I was just shooting things that struck my fancy. We ended up with 200 hours of film and it was my editor David Kossack who really shaped it. At the beginning he said, "what am I supposed to do with all this?" And I said, "I don't know, you're the editor!"

What was interesting was that we were close to completion and then Aung San Suu Kyi got released. So, of course, I went back and fortunately I have good connections now in Burma, people connected to the Democratic Voice of Burma, and I had a lot of help from them. So I managed to snag some time with her, which was, of course, the cat's meow. I was able to ask her questions that integrated right into the film. I knew where we were headed, since we really were almost locked, and I think she integrates very nicely into the film. And, of course, the film now is more relevant than ever.

Where did you actually interview her and what was that like?

I interviewed her at the National League for Democracy headquarters and, again, I was filming alone and I had to get all the sound and shoot it myself. I had to get her up against a window where there was some light filtering in because the light quality was terrible and I had no lighting. I was only using available
light because I didn't have the permits to do otherwise.

They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain screens tonight as part of our ongoing documentary series Art of the Real. The event is currently standby only. The film will screen in Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Diego in the coming months. Visit the film's official website for more information.

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