BANGKOK — Maung Thura, known and loved throughout Burma as Zarganar, was jailed in 2008 for 35 years after criticizing the government’s response to Cyclone Nargis, which left at least 140,000 people dead. The year before, British filmmaker Rex Bloomstein met Zarganar in Burma, never using the footage he shot. Later, upon hearing about his arrest and imprisonment, Bloomstein returned to Burma with German comedian Michael Mittermeier. As expected, their attempts to meet Zarganar came to nought, and the pressure-cooker, paranoid atmosphere inside the country meant that none of Zarganar’s friends would agree to be interviewed for the documentary. On at least one occasion, the team came close to arrest.
“The Prison Where I Live” was screened in Bangkok over the past week at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand and the Bangkok Art and Cultural Centre. Irrawaddy correspondent Simon Roughneen caught up with Rex Bloomstein, who was in town to discuss the movie and the challenges of filming under the nose of one of the world’s most repressive regimes.
Question: Burma is infamous as a place where freedom of speech is non-existent, where the media is heavily censored, where reporters are given lengthy jail terms for working with foreign journalists. What was it like working inside Burma as a foreign journalist?
Answer: Firstly, I am not a journalist, but I say that with the greatest respect for the best journalism, which is fantastically important. I made a film on freedom of expression, which led to this film. As a documentary maker I am doing something different, I don’t have the time pressures a journalist faces, and I have less excuse to be simplistic. But ultimately we are all concerned with the same thing, namely exploring in a truthful way the lives of others, and in Zarganar’s case attempting to convey the profound injustice of his sentence and what it means for Burma.
The most profound problem in Burma is fear, because the regime exercises its control through spies, agents and informers. People are worried about who is watching them, and those who stick their head above the parapet and challenge how things are, including Zarganar, are imprisoned and tortured.
Those who keep their head down can presumably lead some kind of normal life, but Zarganar is not one of those. Zarganar is fearless.
When Michael and I tried to talk to those colleagues of Zarganar’s who had initially agreed to participate in the movie, we found this too dangerous after arriving in Burma.
We went in as tourists, we knew that we would endanger people if they collaborated. But there was a price to be paid even under those prohibitive circumstances, as one of our fixers had to flee the country after we were spotted filming near the prison in Myitkina, where Zarganar is held.
There are ethical issues and practical challengers when working inside a place like Burma, and it is very difficult to meet all of these simultaneously,
Q: Can you tell the readers a little about the genesis of the film? How did it come about, and what format is it in?
A: I filmed Zarganar in 2007 but never used the footage for various reasons. I was called 15 months later by a NGO in London, and I was told he was in jail. I had three and a half hours of footage, and went about trying to use that for a film. Note that in normal circumstances, you would make a documentary using 50,100 or more hours of footage, out of which would come the end product, be that an hour or ninety minutes, whatever the case may be.
To the best if my knowledge, the interview footage with Zarganar is the first such footage that has been filmed or broadcast. Despite the fact that there were only three and a half hours, it seemed to be that there was a lot of content, given the range of subjects we covered.
Through various contacts, I was put in touch with a leading German comedian, Michael Mittermeier, who has a deep interest in Burma, has visited the country, supports charities there. I was intrigued by the fact that a contemporary German comedian was so interested in a brother comedian in Burma.
So when we looked at the material, we decided to go into Burma.
Q: During the making of the film there were some moments of particular danger, of high tension. Can you take us through some of these again? What was it like when the work was in progress? one example that stands out is when you all returned to the outskirts of Myitkina prison to do a second take. Do you feel that was somewhat foolhardly?
A: Yes, I do, and I said in the film that we should not have done it. But we wanted to get as close to Zarganar as we could. I was struck by the fact that a German comedian was trying to get as close as he could to man he feels is a kindred spirit. The dangers were such that we backed away from our first attempt to film near the jail, but thought that we should go back.
But as soon as we started, we were spotted, and we knew we had to get away. We were lucky, we thought we were going to be arrested, either there in the town, or back in Rangoon. They took the details of our vehicle. That led to our fixer having to leave. But we waited frankly to be arrested, we assumed it was passed up the chain of command, but nobody came.
We took small domestic-looking cameras, so we were unobtrusive with our equipment and therefore, I think, we managed to get out OK.
Q: Do you have any contact directly or indirectly with Zarganar now? I recently interviewed Htein Lin, who is listed as a consultant to your film. He said that Zarganar’s health has improved somewhat of late. Do you have any more up-to-date information?
A: I don’t have anything new on that. The man has another 33 years to serve of his sentence. He has had many health problems and a number of illnesses as I documented, not to mention the stress and trauma of jail, of being separated from his wife and children. Can he survive while he is so vulnerable? Can you imagine it—the rest of your life, 33 years, in jail?
He and more than 2,000 others are political prisoners in Burma. The junta is playing a cat and mouse game with the future of their country, and uses Burma as a means for sustaining itself in power. They will decide totally arbitrarily whether these prisoners will ever emerge. That is a disgrace. If the elections are not to go down as a total sham, let us give the huge benefit of the doubt that the new legislature can produce something positive. But we must retain hope that the generals will see sense and allow freedoms to emerge, though the world is skeptical. I am always hopeful, though, that we will see Zarganar free sooner rather than later.
Q: And finally, tell us something about Zarganar the man. What were your impressions of him after meeting him?
A: one of the most open human beings I have ever met, totally modest, and displaying a total commitment to exposing the wrongs and injustices of the country in which he lives. A very sharp observer of his country, a very funny man with a wonderful sense of timing, a multi-talented man, producer, songwriter. What a gift to any country this man would be, but here he is in jail.
He told me he would never satirize Gandhi, Buddha or Aung San. I asked him would he join Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. He said no, that his role is to be independent. And that is him—a great independent spirit, but one who has crossed the line to become an activist as well as a performer, to take part in the struggles of the society he comments on. He calls himself the People’s Loudspeaker, and that is so true.Show