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Sunday, Feb. 10, 2008


Film focuses on 'the other Burma'

Special to The Japan Times

Here, in Irene Marty's film titled "In the Shadow of the Pagodas — The Other Burma," we encounter the wretched of the Earth. This haunting documentary gives a voice to Burma's traumatized ethnic nationalities, taking us to the war-ravaged border regions where internally displaced people struggle to survive in harsh conditions under the ever-present threat of the Burmese military.

News photo
Irene Marty, who made "In the Shadow of the Pagodas," a stark view of today's Burma and its "hidden war."

The interviews with orphans who saw their parents gunned down and beaten to death by soldiers viscerally convey the grim reality of life for hundreds of thousands of Karen, Shan and other Burmese nationalities that have felt the jackboot of relentless "pacification" campaigns.

We also meet students who fled to the jungle after the 1988 uprising "to carry on their struggle for democracy," and other guerrilla groups that have been fighting for the past 60 years to get the autonomy the government once promised.

Marty, 49, a Swiss filmmaker, juxtaposes the tranquil "tourist corridor" of Buddhist monasteries and pagodas with the plight of the internally displaced people (IDPs) suffering from persecution that involves rape, forced labor and conscription at the hands of a military run amok.

Marty has kept her promise to those who helped make this film possible by drawing global attention to this "hidden" war — but she told The Japan Times that she remains unsatisfied that the situation has not improved, despite growing international condemnation of Burma's junta. She marvels at how stoic Burma's IDPs are in recounting what they have suffered, conveying their quiet dignity.

As the film draws to an end, we learn that some of the villages and refugee camp depicted, places with an eerie normalcy of daily life, have also been caught up in the maelstrom.

News photo
A still from Marty's film shows a young ethnic-minority girl who witnessed Burmese soldiers kill both her parents, and who has no family she knows of left.

Marty says she first visited Burma in 1981, but it was only in 1998 that she began to learn about the Burma tourists never see. Eventually she filmed there under the guise of shooting a tourist-promotion video and later, between 2001-03, she managed to smuggle a film crew into remote jungle areas along the Thai border, at times posing as Christian missionaries. Bribing their way through checkpoints and winning the trust of locals, she pulled together an appalling story of human-rights abuses, while also herself battling cancer.

Marty remains actively engaged in trying to focus world attention on their nightmare. Since its completion she has also made a documentary about an ethnic Chin (one of Burma's largest ethnic groups, with 1.5 million people, mostly Christian, living in western Burma) who was forcibly deported by the Swiss police back to Burma — where he was given a 19-year prison sentence.

Lawyers around the world have used the film to successfully battle deportation of their clients, an impact she never anticipated. She laughs when asked about Sylvester Stallone's adventures with Burma's Karen people in the latest "Rambo" movie, adding that in some ways Hollywood can raise awareness in ways that independent filmmakers can't. She hopes her film has an impact in Japan, saying, "Those who see this film should know how much these people need their support. The dictators don't care what the U.S. and EU think about them, and thus it is important that Asian countries like Japan give these people hope by offering them support and pressuring the regime. Hope is all they have."

"In the Shadow of the Pagodas — The Other Burma" will screen daily at 10:30 a.m., 12:30, 14:30 and 16:30 p.m. from March 15 at Uplink X in Shibuya.

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