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Myanmar—Burma—is unlike anyplace I have seen before, even in extensive travels on four continents. It’s a land of contradictions, breathtakingly beautiful and vibrant, yet poor and isolated. A former British colony, and under Japanese occupation during the second World War, the country has been run by a military dictatorship since 1962, and has been virtually closed to interaction with the outside world.
Myanmar’s people today are very poor, although there are massive golden Buddhas everywhere, and reputedly more gold in the Shwedegon Pagoda in Yangon (Rangoon) than in the Bank of England. The military dictatorship’s economic policy is capitalist. Around 89% of the country’s people are Buddhist. Myanmar is an exquisitely picturesque country, but one a very limited number of tourists will visit currently due to an international boycott. And because of its isolation, self-imposed and otherwise, it is somewhat frozen in time. Unlike our media-saturated culture, in Myanmar any bit of information, any message from the outside world is hungrily welcomed and relished by the gentle and brilliant people who receive it.
I was in Myanmar for a few weeks in the fall of 2009, as a documentary expert and delegate for the State Department-sponsored American Documentary Showcase and will represent them again in China in 2010. The Showcase sends delegations consisting of an Expert and one or two filmmakers to countries around the world, working with the American Embassies in each location. Because of my decade of work with Chinese documentary filmmakers and numerous trips to China, I was tapped by the Director of the Showcase for the astounding opportunity of screening American documentary films, selected by Showcase Director and Curator Betsy McLane, for live audiences in both Yangon and Mandalay. Each screening was followed by a discussion, where the Burmese audiences exhibited amazing insight, curiosity and recall in their questions and comments relating to the films and to life in the United States. The films selected were from a very broad range of filmmakers, and represented a vast array of subjects, from critical to exploratory to celebratory. The frank, open nature of the program selection and discussions both shocked and pleased the audiences.
As part of the Showcase work, I was asked to take multiple copies of American magazines on documentary film and the film industry, which now reside in American Embassy-run libraries in both Yangon and Mandalay. Along with these, I was able to provide copies of Kosmos Journal to both American Embassy staff and the libraries open to the Burmese public. I have no doubt that these magazines and the Journal are being read with the same intense focus and deep appreciation I saw in audiences for the films. It is a tiny action in a way, but one that may have untold ripples through time.
I have worked for quite a few years in a field I like to think of as documentary diplomacy. As an anthropologist with training in film production, I have worked with intercultural documentaries for the Smithsonian, several universities, film festivals and a Chicago PBS station, as well as other venues. This year, Living Earth Television (LETV), a nonprofit organization dedicated to sharing quality community television globally, will broadcast the first of a series of award winning Chinese documentaries on LinkTV and some PBS stations starting in September. And Myanmar State Television will broadcast American environmental documentaries LETV has secured for them, in response to their request following the Showcase visit.
Documentary, and the printed word, as exquisitely represented by Kosmos Journal, are simple, direct and amazingly powerful routes to intercultural understanding, which in itself is so critical to the vision of the global commons. At the grassroots level, a simple offer of a journal or screening of a documentary can touch minds and hearts forever.
Living Earth Television
Martha Foster’s article Kosmos Comes to Myanmar, as well as the accompanying photographs, can be found in the Fall|Winter 2010 issue of Kosmos Journal.
Martha Foster is a leading specialist in international documentary film and television. With graduate education in both anthropology and media, she has worked with universities, museums, festivals and broadcasters in the United States and Asia, created a highly prestigious juried international documentary festival