It's tough to have to write a lukewarm review for a film like "They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain." The 86-minute documentary is a labor of love and sheer humanity from director Robert H. Lieberman. Filmed over the course of two-years, in extremely secret fashion in many instances (for reasons the documentary addresses almost immediately), the film provides a raw look at Burma, a country engaged in a decades long struggle with brutal dictators. Lieberman lets the camera tell the story whenever possible and relies on those brave enough to speak to him (many with their faces hidden, for fear of political reprisal) about life in general in the country. The result is initially fascinating, but quickly tedious experience.
At it's worst, "They Call It Myanmar" feels like a poorly edited, directionless cable news segment, but when it's on-point, it can be simultaneously somber and electric. The interview segments with Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi are a stark contrast to shocking scenes of unqualified doctors working in filthy conditions on sick children, but the contrast provides viewers with a sense of confusion and uncertainty that sums up the tense political situation facing the country at the time of filming. Lieberman deserves great credit for not making the film all about the obvious, political issues and the time spent exploring Buddhist practices in the country, while perhaps not as tightly compelling as his encounters on the street with the military, provide a rich portrait of what some people in the country are fighting to protect.
"They Call It Myanmar" may never be heralded as a top-tier documentary, but it's a must see film. Up until its release on DVD, the only comparable program I was aware of that was actually filmed in the country was "Burma VJ" which takes a more guerilla, clandestine approach to telling its story and itself, is not a true documentary. Shamefully, my first exposure to the political oppression of the people, was through Stallone's "Rambo" which some would label exploitative, despite Stallone's earnest intentions of exposing a largely unknown plight to the West. Director Lieberman deserves praise, even if the final product might disappoint some, solely due to the restrictions placed on him secretly filming in the first place. The story needed to be told and "They Call It Myanmar" does so more than adequately, without critical commentary.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is of varying image quality. Sequences in urban areas, look less than stellar as the cameraman is often shooting the ground in order to not attract the attention of military personnel upholding laws forbidding filming things as trivial as a fruit stand. The sequences filmed in the countryside, do well in conveying the colorful, green landscape of the country, while proper shots in urban areas often have a harsh, blown out color scheme. There's a fair amount of digital noise at times and detail is generally above average for what looks to be a very low-tech approach to filming.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 audio is what you'd expect from a no-frills documentary. Shockingly, no on-the-spot dialogue is muffled and when translators provide voice-over, it's not tremendously overpowering. It's a generally clean audio mix, but nothing remarkable as a whole; it captures things naturally and that's all one could ask for.
Although the packaging advertises the Nobel Prize speech from Aung San Suu Kyi, it's nowhere to be found on the disc. Instead, only a short collection of deleted scenes and the film's theatrical trailer are present.
"They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain" is a documentary you shouldn't miss, despite it's overall quality being questionable. The heart and soul of the subject at hand is powerful enough to get past issues with editing and general focus, but whether you'll ever revisit the program is another story altogether. Rent It.