Thursday, October 20, 2011

DCIFF ’11: This Prison Where I Live

For comedians, Burma is a tough room to play. The hecklers can be torture. Just ask beloved Burmese comedian Maung Thura, popularly known as Zarganar, except you can’t. British documentarian Rex Bloomstein shot a considerable amount of footage of the multi-talented performer during his last period of relative liberty. Shortly thereafter, Zarganar was sentenced to fifty-nine years in prison (later reduced to a mere thirty-five). Appalled by the severity of the term, Bloomstein returned to Burma to try to capture a sense of what Zarganar means to his countrymen in This Prison Where I Live (trailer here), which screens during the inaugural Dialogue of Cultures Film Festival in New York.

Relatively funny and wildly charismatic, Zarganar’s humor falls squarely in the tradition of Yakov Smirnoff’s Soviet jokes, not surprisingly, given the similarity of their circumstances. Zarganar is not the only Burmese comedy act to run afoul of the powers-that-be, but he is arguably the most prominent (no disrespect to the Moustache Brothers). To mangle Thoreau’s words to Emerson, how can you be an engaged comedian in Burma and not be in jail or under house arrest these days?

Though he had a wealth of Zarganar material, Bloomstein lacked the resources to release it for public consumption in a meaningful way. Then an unlikely German Zarganar supporter entered the picture. As executive producer Michael Mittermeier explains, he felt an affinity with Zarganar, because nobody expects German or Burmese stand-ups to be funny. Based on the footage of Mittermeier’s act, there is good reason for this. Imagine Carrot Top without the props. He is also shockingly divisive, performing a bit that openly likens the American efforts to topple Saddam Hussein’s oppressive regime to the Holocaust early in the film. Not exactly the shrewdest way to broaden the Zarganar campaign.

At least Mittermeier opposes rape and torture in Burma (though evidently not in Iraq), yet as the bankroller, we are stuck with far too much of him rhapsodizing over Bloomstein’s footage of Zarganar. However, Bloomstein’s interview sequences with the film’s real subject are a different matter entirely. Clearly, the filmmaker established a genuine rapport with Zarganar, laughing and joking together like old friends, despite the gravely serious themes of their conversations.

Unfortunately, Bloomstein and Mittermeier were determined to have a present day third act, so we watch as they try to steal exterior shots of the provincial prison where Zarganar is being held. Why they placed so much importance on this is difficult to understand. After all, the video to get is from inside the prison. Not surprisingly, all they have to show for their efforts are some blurry shots, but in the process they got their local fixers into a major fix.

Let’s focus here people. The real story is the desperate situation Zarganar faces, not how sad it all makes Mittermeier feel. Reportedly, the Burmese comic’s health has deteriorated, with his captors providing little or no treatment. Admirably humble, he is also a heroic figure, worth spending time with in any film. Though it is hard to not recommend any film embracing his cause, one just wishes Prison was considerably better than it is. Recommended with reservations nonetheless as we await Michelle Yeoh as Aung San Suu Kyi in The Lady, it screens this Friday (10/21) in New York at the Quad Cinema as a selection of the 2011 DCIFF.