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Doc of the Day: Deafening Silence

Doc of the Day: Deafening Silence

A trippy odyssey through the landscapes and people of Burma.

Dir. Holly Fisher, 2012, 118 min

We of the West have a fascination with Third World monsters that is fickle as it is morbid. Already Joseph Kony seems to be evaporating from our collective conscious (and conscience). Books, news articles, and, of course, documentaries all breathlessly report the extremes of ethnic violence, bitter poverty, and military tyrants, among other injustices. They come, rouse some of the golden “awareness,” and then go. What does it take to truly lodge these things in the mind? Lars von Trier said that movies should be like a stone in one’s shoe. This should fully apply to documentaries about impoverished countries. How do you make the right stone?

Holly Fisher has cracked this dilemma with Deafening Silence. She’s molded a stark testament to life in Burma, or “Myanmar.” In a first for this site, I might be giving this film its first review, as it had its world première tonight at the Environmental Film Festival. It’s a hard sell, but this doc deserves to go places. Big places. Using footage from two trips she took to Burma (one as a legitimate tourist and one covertly and illegally), news reports, YouTube videos, interviews, and more, she crafts a nonfiction tone poem that feels more like Apocalypse Now than any doc I can think of.

Burma is, to put it way too mildly, a mess. It’s a beautiful, resource-bountiful country with a rich cultural heritage. But its people have suffered long, first under British imperialism, and then a long civil war as well as a military dictatorship second only perhaps to North Korea in its stultifying brutality. As the regime stubbornly ignores and/or rebuffs foreign aid and attention, the citizens, especially the persecuted ethnic minorities, go voiceless. This film seeks to penetrate that namesake wall of silence.

The film takes us on a surreal travelogue of Burma, from the streets of Rangoon to the refugee camps of the fringe. Burmese expatriates, democratic resistance fighters, public figures, and ordinary citizens all get a chance to speak. Some of them are talking directly to the camera. Some of them merely act out their everyday lives for us. Some of them, like the heroic, long-imprisoned dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, appear only in newsreels and stock photos. They build a mosaic of all the walks of Burmese life playing out next to each other.

Fisher, an editor by trade, constructs the doc as a series of scenes that seem random and unconnected at face value. But close attention reveals that these snapshots of life, one minute children at a well, the next oxen in a river, all progress in an order that is thematically if not obviously logical. Conjuring a feeling and specific (foreign to us) frame of mind is more important than making the strictest sense here. The film heavily reminded me of Diary, which, if you’ll recall, was (and still is, incidentally) one of my favorite docs from last year. Like in that film, this fragmented narrative makes you feel as if you are dreaming. It’s the dream of a collective national experience.

This oneiric tone also acts as a buffer between the screen and the audience. The movie purposefully holds you at a remove intellectually as it stimulates you emotionally. This doc makes no judgments; you must draw all your own conclusions about Burma. It looks grim, frankly, but the country is not a mud pit of despair. There are frequent moments of joy and grace, both small and large, captured in Deafening Silence. It’s those small heartbeats, the candle in the wind of love against hate, right against might, that holds the truly unshakeable hope for the future, far more than any “call to action” or “to learn more” website.

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