Robert H. Lieberman arrived in Myanmar in 2008, credentialed to teach film and create public-service ads. Clandestinely Lieberman, a full-time Cornell professor and part-time filmmaker, carried a small Sony camera and used it to record daily life: countryside moments, street scenes, casual interviews with everyday people. He sought to create a non-censored document of daily life in what was, aside from North Korea, probably the world’s most autocratic country.
Lieberman was able to meet and interview Aung San Sui Kyi, the country’s Nobel-prize winning advocate of democrat reform.
Thirty years earlier, a young marine biologist named Htun Han and his wife Khin Mae Thaung took the reverse direction, fleeing their homeland in search of freedom. The couple arrived in the US in 1978 and began making a new life for themselves on the East End of Long Island.
Han’s stories are harrowing. “If you went into the street and three people hold a conversation, you assume one of them is a government informant,” he told me some years ago. “That’s how the state maintains strict control.”
Back in the U.S., Lieberman edited his footage down to 88 minutes. The result, “They Call it Myanmar,” was released this spring to critical acclaim.
“Eye-opening and insightful,” said the New York Times.
Robert Ebert wrote, “A recurrent, compelling presence in the film, (Aung San Sui Kyi) comments eloquently on the country’s past and future (conveying) a notion of a land (whose) population seems extraordinarily radiant.”
The Hans meanwhile put down firm roots in Amagansett. She found work at Gurney’s Inn and he obtained a real estate license and became a partner in an Amagansett brokerage Hamptons Realty Group. They both became citizens in 1985 and participate in community institutions like the Amagansett Fire Department.
Retaining the memory of growing up in a police state, Han exhorts his neighbors to exercise their right to vote. Authoritarianism, Han says, “begins when apathy is allowed to take hold.”
Myanmar, of course, is very much in the news these days. After half a century of police control, the populace finally voted last year. A new president has implemented economic and political reforms. Aung San Suu Kyi has been released from house arrest and elected to Parliament. The United States has resumed diplomatic relations. Beginning Saturday, President Obama begins a three-day tour, the first U.S. president to visit.
On Wednesday, Htun Han reacted to the film after a screening at the Charles B. Wang Center at Stony Brook University. The Wang Center co-hosts a screening of “They Call It Myanmar,” presented by the Port Jefferson Documentary Series (The originally-scheduled screening last month was rained out by Sandy).
The author of this article works for the Port Jefferson Documentary Series as a public relations representative.