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Happy world: The absurd dictatorship in Burma

There are several ways to denounce dictatorships. Gael Bordier and Tristan Mendes-France created a documentary showing the regime's absurd superstitions, and the consequences they have for the Burmese's daily lives.

by Ophelia Noor On June 20, 2011

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Photographe et journaliste, j'embarque à bord de la soucoupe en octobre 2010. Je copilote depuis la rentrée 2011 de la direction artistique d'Owni avec Loguy Batonboys et je suis chargée de l'édition photo.


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The documentary Happy World exposes the senselessness of the military dictatorship in Burma by focusing on how their policies affect the Burmese civilians. Directed in 2009 by Gael Bordier and Tristan Mendes-France, the film promises a fresh and original trip through Burma. To start, the movie criticizes one of the world’s worst dictatorship in a satirical way. Guy Delisle, the cartoonist for the film, has kept the same artistic spirit [FR] from his previous works on Burma. Though the story was filmed in a hostile environment, it’s beyond being a mere bold web documentary, but rather is an innovative experiment in “hypervideo”.

In 2008, blogger and journalist Tristan Mendes-France discovered a blog post concerning the Drug Museum in Burma, which seemed completely nonsensical. Things led to another, and he found more absurdities in the regime. When he found enough of the same type of information concerning the absurdities in the Burmese culture, he approached producer Pierre Cattan - who had a difficult time believing the government’s actions were real. Tristan was introduced to Gael Bordier, and the two excitedly started their project to make a 52 minute documentary for television.

A Creative Commons production

You might ask yourself: “What exactly is a hypervideo?” According to Pierre Cattan, it’s part of the web documentary family. The artistic device (launched by PopcornJs and developed by Mozilla) allows users to watch the video and simultaneously receive a feed of related information, such as newspaper articles, data, etc. Directed by Upian, viewers hear Alexandre Brachet speak on the subject on l’Atelier des médias [FR].

The hypervideo documentary Happy Word is disseminated online under a Creative Commons license. Why did such a small production company decide to make this strategic choice? “The documentary we had in mind was refused by France 5, Canal + and Arte. I didn’t want to give up. Chris Anderson’s book Free: The Future of a Radical Price convinced me to take the plunge. The 30-minute online version is under a Creative Commons noncommercial license, which will hopefully allow us to sell the long version to television stations around the world. We’ll leave the rest to chance.”

Happy World permits us to explore what we can generate in terms of production. We are going to try to create value from what is free.

Crowdfunding operations were implemented through Flattr and Paypal on the day the documentary was released. Cinquième étage production finally obtained 7,000 euros from the Planete TV channel, and financed the rest with 97,000 euros from investors. This sum was used to make the content along with editorial marketing, in other words independent content that directs users to the film. Pierre adds “We didn’t make this film with volunteers. We paid everyone who worked for us. This is a result of Cinquième étage’s long-term strategy which consolidated its independence through taking the time to build a real studio with special rooms for editing, recording, and animation.”

Distribution inspired by WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks was our inspiration when coming up with a method of dissemination,” continues Pierre Cattan, “We seriously considered our progressive online content and our partnerships with the media.” The next step was to solicit the film to the international media, including the New York Times. The production method chosen allows for total autonomy from a business model typical of American producers. The production financed the first version on its own, so the funds raised can (ideally) finance a second film. “If this model works, we’ll continue to produce a web documentary per year. What we’ll lose in terms of commercial success, we will gain in respect. This is all about business risks, which are measured,” commented Pierre Cattan.

We are a generation of content producers who can do effective things at a reasonable cost. We are in the process of doing something modest in comparison to our predecessors. We are really interested in the massive distribution of content to 2 billion Internet users.

Defying the risks

Journalists are not welcomed in Burma, so they had to pass for tourists. “We took precautions. We didn’t go into war zones or search for opponents in action,” recalls Tristan. ”So we were less exposed to the police’s radar.” Gael continues:

From our point of view, the absurdity of the dictatorship assured us coverage. They didn’t understand what we were doing there – we were just two tourists filming. Our second level of security was our guide, who had a better idea of the level of danger in relation to the situation.

Equipped with a small yet professional camera, they had to quickly and efficiently shoot the film. As Gael notes, “We filmed both in French and English. So we had to do four takes, a wide shot and a close-up  in each language making the risks high.”  They had to balance the investigation and playing tourist without getting caught. Tristan, who was always in front of the camera, noted “We had to move quickly. If we missed something on a take, we had to redo it immediately. I’m not used to being filmed, it was the first time for me. It was tense and sometime tedious. Everything was written on the spot.”

“This documentary is structured in a linear fashion.” says Gael. “On site we had a list of themes in my notebook. Take the Kyet Su example, we had a scene with Tristan in the fields, then a sequence at the Department of Agriculture. Finally, we had an interview scene with a local who talked about the Kyet Su. We constructed these small units over several days and in parallel with other themes. The film is like a necklace: we threaded beads onto it until we had a beginning, middle, and end.”

The driving force

The task of making a clandestine documentary in a dictatorship would have been impossible without a guide. “Without the driver, we could not have done half of what we accomplished.” admits Tristan.

It was crucial we had someone we could talk to without fear, and discuss topics that may be hostile to the junta’s policies. One contact leads to another, which kept us out of the dark.

It was the same driver that led them to the mysterious Kyet Su and took them to the Ministry of Agriculture.

Le Kyet Su: “magically” fighting the opposition

The Kyet Su is a plant cultivated for producing biodiesel in Burma. Yet farmers are forced to grow the plant for more than just economic reasons. There is the belief the “magic” plant will permit the Burmese junta to obliterate the oppositions. How is that possible? The line of  reasoning is absolutely absurd.

To discover this insanity, Tristan Mendes-France and Gael Bordier only had small bits of information. “We asked experts in Burma if they knew anything about a plant grown to fight the opposition. They would not respond to our questions on the Kyet Su. We had to talk in vague terms about sunflowers.” There isn’t much information that filters out of Burma, and the two filmmakers quickly discovered their luck to find a guide that would answer their questions and eagerly assist in the investigation.

I remember asking him for some paperwork on the Kyet Su plant. He took us away, exclaiming “I know where we can find it! I know where we can find it!” I saw the sign for the Ministry, and I said “But what’s he planning on doing with us?” It was too late – he had gone to ask someone, and we were thrown into the Ministry of Agriculture and had to improvise.” For his part, Tristan never dreamed of entering the Ministry:

The purpose was not to bring up human rights issues, but show how the system works since we had the opportunity to enter it.

A leaderless cult?

Who are the Burmese junta? It’s the military group lead by Than Shwe, who recently relinquished his power and dissolved the junta. There is no visible evidence of this cult leader in Burma, unlike what the statues of Kim Jong II in North Korea or Ben Ali in Tunisia. Tristan articulates this phenomenon, “It’s a system that is the subject of idolatry, not individuals. For the Khmer Rouge it was the Angker and for the Burmese it’s the junta. It’s a group of nameless soldiers.”

Interestingly, there were nine members on the Supreme Council, and this “lucky” number for the junta is the denomination for the country’s monetary system. It’s possible to find 9, 45, and 90 Kyat bills.

Superstitions and popular culture

With the military regularly consulting astrologers to make important decisions, it begs the question: Are the deep beliefs in superstitions found at all levels of society? At first, Gael wanted to focus the film on astrology. “We conceded that (astrology) is a popular belief which is not unique to the junta. The Burmese have a strong and widespread beliefs, which are a mixture of several influences: Buddhism, local beliefs, and astrology. The junta uses those beliefs to justify their actions and do ridiculous things.”

Naypyidaw: The dictatorship in the middle of nowhere

On November 6, 2005 at 6:37am the junta decided to move the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw based on astrologers’ advice. Naypyidaw is a vast and empty city, which is ten times the size of Manhattan and located 300 km north of Yangon. It was originally built as a military base for the junta, and now brings together all the powers of the government.

This city is only open to people doing business with the junta: tourist are not welcomed, and journalists are even less so. How did the population react to moving the capital? “They think it’s absurd! They suffer because of it,” exclaims Tristan. “For government workers it’s terrible. They were forced to move overnight to a town 300 km away from their homes, while their children stayed in Yangon for school. It’s very difficult financially,” adds Gael. Tristan continues:

Naypydaw is a pure creation of the mind. It’s not natural, ecological, or practical. We realised this because students, universities, and social movements were moved first.Also, it’s a more central location, far from the coast which is more strategic in preventing an American invasion. It’s the usual paranoia. All of this is at the taxpayers’ expense. There is only one highway – the devil’s highway – which the government built. The people paid for it, and yet they need permission to use it.

The Zoo loophole

The real bug in the administration’s machine is the zoo. How did the filmmakers convince the driver and the authorities to let them into the new capital?

Gael responds with a big smile, “We told them we wanted to see the zoo there. And how can you see the zoo if you can’t sleep in the city?”

Tristan chimes “Once at the checkpoint, we insisted and they let us pass without calling the Ministry of Tourism. The zoo alibi worked like a charm. I’m  not even sure if they checked that we were really going to the zoo. It’s an administrative machine with an empty body – people execute the orders.”

Gael: “Sometimes it’s a well-oiled machine, and other times it’s a mess. The rule of law is arbitrary. When we were at the pagoda in Naypydaw, a guy approached us and asked for our names and passports. He wanted to know what we were doing there. We were not good at being sly.”

Tristan: “He introduced himself as a student (laughs). We can not be students in Naypydaw, there is no university. It was absurd.”

A Burmese revolution?

Is change possible in Burma? Could something similar to the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia take place? Tristan is not convinced:

I’m not sure. The junta killed the education system, making the less educated people easier to manage and rendering it difficult to organize a social movement. There is no real Internet access, all they’ve got is “Valium TV” all day long. We can only hope for an “Asian Spring” in Burma, but as long as the Chinese continue to support the dictator the country will remain in winter.

Illustrations by Antoine Errasti for Happy World
Photo of Alexandre Brachet, Pierre Cattan, Tristan Mendes-France et Gael Bordier by Simon Decreuze for  l’Atelier des médias (cc)
Interview with Tristan and Gael occurred in February 2011
Translation: Stefanie Chernow

Find articles relating to this investigation on Owni.eu, and also in French on Owni.fr

The Burma connection: an Internet too civilized
[APP] Discovering the Burmese voices of dissent


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