Saturday, November 09, 2019

DOC NYC ’19: On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship

Obama became first U.S. president to visit Myanmar (or Burma as most Burmese still call it), even returning a second time. Everything was sunshine and rainbows until things suddenly got awkward again. Aung San Suu Kyi’s stock has plummeted in recent years, but Karen Stokkendal Poulsen takes a necessary step back to put current controversies in a fuller historical context. Viewers get a sense of how Burma’s tragic past has shaped its frustrating present in On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship, which screens tonight during this year’s DOC NYC.

Aung San Suu Kyi might have fallen from grace, but we still love Michelle Yeoh’s portrayal in The Lady. Poulsen briefly covers her celebrated years of house arrest, but she dives deeply into the transitional period following her release. Burma was sort of democratizing, but the ruling generals had devised enough loopholes to ensure their continuing hold on power. The military was guaranteed 25% of seats in parliament and article 59 (f) expressly prohibited Aung San Suu Kyi from serving as the nation’s president.

However, she was elected to parliament, but that meant serving alongside former leaders of the not-so old regime. The guts of Poulsen’s doc really examine the implications of this situation, which are fascinating. Frankly, Aung San Suu Kyi’s reputation would be secure today if she just voted no on everything and told the general to stick it in their ears. Instead, she tried to reach out and form alliances to get things done. Of course, making the repeal of 59 (f) a priority doesn’t exactly burnish her image in retrospect.

Poulsen does not let Aung San Suu Kyi off the hook for her response (or lack of a response) to the systematic attacks on Rohingya Muslims, but she also makes it clear how precarious her current position is. Indeed, it is hard to overstate the chilling consequences of the assassination of her legal advisor, who also happened to be Muslim. Frankly, it could well be that the film stops just as Aung San Suu Kyi’s third act might start (as time will perhaps tell).

Poulsen scored lengthy sit-downs with just about all the major players involved, including the Lady herself and Burma’s first “civilian” president. Frankly, many of her rivals come across like arrogant opportunists, but why should that surprise us? Regardless, she has enough in-the-room-where-it-happens perspective to make On the Inside quite authoritative.

Hopefully, this wider story is still developing. In the meantime, Poulsen’s doc really helps viewers understand where Burma is and how it got there. Highly recommended, On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship screens tonight, as part of this year’s DOC NYC.