The Southeast Asian Film Festival returns this week to 8Q@SAM, being in its 2nd edition. already proving its value for its themed focus on films from around our immediate regions, whose cinema are clearly a lot more vibrant with an eclectic selection to have made it to our shores on platforms like these, with filmmakers in attendance to share their experiences behind the scenes. My first film from the festival is Dancing with Dictators, an Australian documentary set in Myanmar, which in recent years, is akin to being that troubled kid amongst the distinguished ASEAN community.
While the focus of the documentary is about press freedom or lack thereof in one of the world's few remaining reclusive countries ruled by a military junta, this film by Hugh Piper take on a very different narrative in what I thuoght would roughly be three acts - that of the story of the founding and operations of The Myanmar Times, one of the few, if not the only newspaper with a foreigner stake at 49%, that of the 2010 Myanmar elections in which democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi was not permitted to participate in, and the final act on one of the co-founders, CEO and publisher of The Myanmar Times, Mr Ross Dunkley.
Each of these acts are aces in the hole in presenting a view of a country seldom seen from the outside, or at least the non-sanitized version is relatively hard to come by. The first arc explained how The Myanmar Times came about, where business and politics are the same bedfellows - if the politics isn't healthy and one loses some grip on power, someone else in the hierarchy will pounce on this weakness and take over, just like how co-founder and Burmese partner Sonny Swe got accused and locked up when his father, a military Brigadier General connected with the Military Intelligence department, fell out of favour amongst the top brass with the gazette of Military Intelligence as an illegal organization. This power play eventually installed Dr Tin Tun Oo (TTO) into the newspaper's ranks, the source of plenty of disagreements and more power play with Ross Dunkley.
The elections would prove to be another issue of contention and talking point, especially since a mass boycott by Aung San Suu Kyi's party affiliates meant an overwhelming odds for the military backed party to win the elections. TTO enters the fray to serve his aspiration as a politician, and the film takes on a different approach to cover the historical milestone of the country. In between the first two story arcs we get to catch a detailled glimpse of Ross Dunkley's work ethics, because the final arc will have a sole focus on the man linked to a controversial incident where he gets accused of assulting a woman. We follow his court hearings through snippets of film smuggled out of the country, and witness first hand how kangeroo courts operate, with court decisions often linked back to the top brass of the country, and evidence, accusations and the likes can be presented under bewildering circumstances.
Throughout all three arcs it goes beyond just the story about military oppression and involvement in just about every aspect of a Myanmar citizen's life, dictating what one can do or read through the national mass media, but having direct say and powers over the lives of everyone in country, regardless if you're a foreigner, and worst if you're a local. Through psychological gamesmanship, the irony here is a getting a mass media magnate kept powerless through the media he/she is part of, and one has to read between the lines to get the true meaning of what one's intent is, despite a very sunny exterior disposition.
The documentary provides a glimpse into seldom seen landscapes and interiors of a country unless one has travelled to it to be familiar with the surroundings, and also highlights the inherent fear permeating throughout the land, what with its lacklustre and toothless justice system, and network of spies. With the lack of freedom of the press, they serve only one master and the louder the rhetorics, a more hardline stance will be adopted, such as Dunkley himself would be fairly knowledgeable of in order to operate within such parameters.
Dancing with Dictators proves just how dangerous it is to be under the gunsights of whimsical dictators, where at the spur of the moment one can get into all sorts of trouble, with nary a finger lifted from any quarter genuinely there to help you unless there are distinct advantages to do so, or deals have been made. You can't help but to feel a little bit sorry and enraged at how things can proceed as they did, as films like this one serve like a spiritual companion piece to other Myanmar related movies like Luc Besson's The Lady, and Anders Østergaard's indie film Burma VJ, which is almost entirely, if not all, made up of clips from cameras secretly recording in country, and then smuggled out of, with filmmakers who do so often doing so underground.
If Myanmar is one of your subjects of interest, then this film should be essential as well under your watchlist.