Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Review and An Interview: 'Aung San Suu Kyi: Lady of No Fear


To say that Aung San Suu Kyi, political prisoner and General Secretary for the Burmese National League of Democracy is one of the world’s most powerful and inspirational women would not be a stretch. Leaving the safety of England and the care of her family she endured 15 years of house arrest in her non-violent quest for removal of the military junta in power and the instating of democracy in Myanmar. Last week I was lucky enough to attend the 12th Annual Gwangju Film Festival here in South Korea and watch the 2010 documentary, Aung San Suu Kyi: Lady of No Fear. Even luckier was that the director, Anne Gyrithe Bonne, was in attendance and graciously agreed to an interview.

It’s entirely coincidental that my interview with Anne Gyrithe Bonne will be published during the same week that United States President, Barack Obama, will be in Myanmar. While Myanmar’s current leadership has released many of their political prisoners, Myanmar still struggles with human rights violations. The President of Myanmar, Thein Sein, has promised to review all of the current political prisoners and seek their release by the end of the year. Hopefully President Obama’s visit to Myanmar can spur more changes and continue to encourage their transition to a stable and safe country.

The admirable Aung San Suu Kyi, ever mindful of the hard road towards peace, has warned against too early an acceptance of the government’s words, cautioning against their possible motive of appeasement and fearful that the country could slip back into military control with, ‘the mirage of success’ in front of them. Aung San Suu Kyi’s great strength and personal sacrifice in her fight against the government is ongoing and complete, features that are simply displayed in Bonne’s film.

Aung San Suu Kyi: Lady of No Fear naturally covers Aung San Suu Kyi’s infamous periods of house arrest and the personal discipline and mental fortitude she possessed which allowed her to be such a powerful leader and democratic activist. However, the film focuses on Aung San Suu Kyi’s private life, which Bonne would argue is essential to understanding her involvement in the Burmese struggle for democracy. Bonne specifically chose to focus on the astounding relationship between Aung San Suu Kyi and her husband, Michael Aris, since Aris was a major support to Aung San Suu Kyi and similarly held her belief that Burma was everything: more than each other, more than their children. 

Aung San Suu Kyi
What the film does especially well at demonstrating is the incredible mythic power that Aung San Suu Kyi has over the Burmese people. Because of her background as the daughter of the great commander and soldier of independence, Aung San, as well as her renowned public speaking abilities, Aung San Suu Kyi was able to step into her father’s shoes; as one loyal Burmese supporter said of her, “She is not only a fighter, she is a commander.”

I asked Bonne what she felt that Aung San Suu Kyi had given to women of the world, particularly those involved with the issue of human rights and she suggested something very simple: “rebelliousness.” Without this rebelliousness, a rebelliousness founded in the exemplary cause of civil rights and human freedoms, hierarchies cannot fall and ongoing cycles of violence and abuse and repression cannot be removed. One of the most stunning moments of the film came during a clip of an interview Aung San Suu Kyi had given some years ago. In the interview she’s asked about the situation of her communications with the outside world. While she was given permission to write letters to her family, they were all censored by the government; so, incredibly, she refused to send any more letters because she didn’t want to, “communicate through the authorities.” Even completely isolated from her family she refused to give in to the demands of tyranny and authority.

There is a second side to her though; her graceful and poised nature set her apart from other would-be leaders, and even from her college friends. Aung San Suu Kyi was educated at Oxford during the sixties and while other women were exploring the sexual revolution, Aung San Suu Kyi protested that she wanted to be a virgin when she married and that for now she would, “just hug her pillow at night.” In many ways Aung San Suu Kyi never forgot that she was from Burma, even refusing British citizenship as a way to maintain her heritage, for, as she told Michael when they married, “If Burma needs me, I will go.”

This dual-nature she possesses highlights her relationship to Burma: Burma was always her home, but neither was she the government’s puppet, sporting a rebellious streak of her own. A rebellious streak that Bonne believes is demonstrated in her marriage to Michael Aris, who despite his cosmopolitan upbringing, was still an “enemy of Burma” as an Englishman. Aung San Suu Kyi directly went against her mothers wishes, her family’s wishes, and even the wishes of her country by marrying the man she loved: her mother refused to even attend the wedding.

For many years Aung San Suu Kyi stayed in Oxford with her family, giving birth to two children and supporting her husband’s rising career as a Buddhist scholar, a topic that surprisingly Michael actually taught Aung San Suu Kyi about and an interest that the two of them shared. Eventually, Aung San Suu Kyi began to start her own projects, beginning a biography about her father and even applying to graduate school. However, the sudden failing health of her mother in 1988 called her back to Burma, unknowing that she would become its most outspoken and inspiring democratic activist in just a few short months.

In reference to Aung San Suu Kyi’s sudden propulsion into Burmese politics Bonne felt that Aung San Suu Kyi had been seduced by Burma, stating that, “She had been a proper housewife for a long time, ‘ironing Michael’s socks.’ During that time period the world was more about the man; if you wanted to get a Ph.D you couldn’t because you had your children and your house and your husband. Then there was the 8-8-88 revolution and she went to Burma to visit her mother and she was finally elevated. She gave a lot of public speeches, speeches with some say 250,000 thousand people, some say even 500,000 people; she was an amazing public speaker and people loved her.”

But her success would lead to great personal sacrifice, a situation that Bonne outlines in her film. While many are aware that Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest for almost 15 years, some might not be aware that she was allowed to leave if she chose: she just wouldn’t be allowed to return. The conditions for her release were dependent upon her willingness to live in exile from Burma, however, despite her desire to see her family (Aris and her children were refused visa’s into Burma starting in 1995) she knew that she could only be effective if she stayed in Burma. And how could she leave Burma knowing that so many others could not? How could she leave knowing that Burmese people were suffering and political prisoners were being abused? She therefore chose separation from her family rather than abandon her people, a decision that led to criticism against Aung San Suu Kyi, some saying that she had ‘abandoned her children:’ A harsh accusation against any mother. 

Anne Gyrithe Bonne
Yet the interviews featured in the film point out this damaging double standard, a double standard that one of the greatest proponents of democracy and peace of our generation has had to endure. While male human rights activists have had to leave their families in the past, no one accuses them of child abandonment (Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years, but no one ever mentions his children). One of Aung San Suu Kyi's friend's from Oxford pointed out, that even the Buddha left his family in to go into the forest and meditate for a while, and yet a woman of self-sacrifice who gave everything for the family that was her country of Burma, still can't be free from the lazy and illogical and damaging double standards that still rule our society.
It was the necessity of exposing the information about Aung San Suu Kyi leaving her children in England to serve Burma that was Bonne’s greatest concern about producing this film; “I was afraid of destroying her cause. It was a balancing act to make her story and also be respectful because I was afraid that the general [leader of Burma] and others would see the film and think she’s a bad mother and end up damaging her cause.” However, Bonne continued to make the film, believing it was essential to uncover the story behind the icon, to realize what had nurtured such a strong and effective supporter of democracy and civil rights.

The documentary then walks a delicate line in respectfully baring Aung San Suu Kyi’s unique past, highlighting her political achievements, while also demonstrating Aung San Suu Kyi’s own humanity. In that light, the film focuses more on her personal relationships and features interviews from several of her close friends and family. Interviews that reveal just how much Aung San Suu Kyi sacrificed for the people of Burma after the Burmese government refused to allow Aris to visit his wife, even as he was dying of prostate cancer. Michael died in 1999 in England, unable to say goodbye to his beloved wife.

Despite the tragic circumstances surrounding Aris’s death and the Burmese governments unwillingness to allow him into the country, Bonne believes that Michael’s death served to increase Aung San Suu Kyi’s popularity and power among the Burmese people. When it became known that she had given up everything for them, she became even more beloved and her supporters ever more loyal.

While great attention should obviously be paid to Aung San Suu Kyi’s incredible political triumphs, when asked about what she wanted audiences to take away from the film, Bonne explained that she hopes people see, “That there’s always a story behind the person and then realize what price they had to pay to become that person and who they are.” A tie-in to a beautiful line in the film where Aung San Suu Kyi says, “Nothing is free: if you want something of value you must make payments accordingly.” According to Bonne, Aung San Suu Kyi, “paid a big price.”

The extended version of the film (which I was able to view on Monday night) actually starts at the end of her house arrest, the first few minutes of the film showing footage of Aung San Suu Kyi after her 2010 release. This is unique for many reasons: the documentary was originally released a mere two days before Kyi’s 2010 release. Bonne is humble about this astounding coincidence however, acknowledging that the film certainly, “brought people’s eyes to her.” Obviously the film created a fair amount of exposure about Aung San Suu Kyi’s situation and must have helped to place pressure on the Burmese government. In 2011 the film was selected for the exclusive Berlin ‘Cinema for Peace’ Festival, after which a journalist was finally allowed into Burma to photograph Aung San Suu Kyi.

Bonne’s film exposes Aung San Suu Kyi’s humanity and in so doing has shown the strength and desire for freedom that is possible in leaders and which is fundamentally necessary for the development of human rights in the future. As Aung San Suu Kyi has said, “we must nurture mental strength and support each other,” because it is then that we experience true freedom: “freedom from fear.”

Friday, November 16, 2012

Links of Note

First up, Jon Stewart breaks down the history of anti-immigration racism/ xenophobia that gradually accepts some groups - which groups then turn around and discriminate against new groups.

The Daily Show with Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Best of Times
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical Humor & Satire BlogThe Daily Show on Facebook

And, of course, there's been some post-election hubbub over whom to blame (or thank). While some conservatives have taken this moment to reassess their talking points, others have decided to blame single women for apparently having no moral compass? I'd like to know their take on how the moral compass's of comparable single men compare, seeing as how single women would only need birth control for purely sexual reasons if they're having sex with men. 

In brighter news, a new child's toy called Goldie Blocks is defying the myth that girls simply won't be interested in engineering, by combining story books and invention-building toys that solve problems posed by the book. The even greater news is that the toy also holds the potential to defy myths about boys not wanting to read, by providing an interactive book to help get resistant boys hooked.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Straight Men Opposed to Same-sex Marriage: Gay Men Will Marry Your Girlfriend

Because if our blogging frequency is any indication, we all need something to brighten our day:

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Fat Lip

One day after surgery, and I was trying to minimize how bad the swelling looked. I was unsuccessful.
In February this year I had to have minor surgery on the inside of my lip. It really wasn't a big deal- the whole procedure took about ten minutes- but at the end of it I was left with a lip that was so big I couldn't move it effectively. I felt like Goldie Hawn at the beginning of "The First Wives Club" and looked like a partial stroke survivor. There was no hiding it, either: I had an incredibly fat lip. It took about ten days for the swelling to go down and a few months for the nerve damage to be fully repaired, and during that time I had to function basically normally, all out in public with slurred speech and a bit of a drooling problem.
Why am I sharing this story with you? Because, throughout those ten days of no-hiding-it puffiness, no one said a word to me about it. No one commented on the fact that I looked like I'd taken a real clocking, offered me resources, or even stopped me to ask if I was okay. Remember: you couldn't tell from the outside that surgery, and not abuse, was the source of the swelling. Living in a town where people will repeatedly ask me if I've found Jesus if I'm wearing a rainbow bracelet, I find this particularly troublesome. It shouldn't be that hard to ascertain if someone is safe at home.
There are so many cultural barriers around intimate partner violence, no matter where in the world we are, that it's easy to understand why so many people ignored my fat lip entirely. It's a private matter. It'll make things worse if I say something. I'll offend you or your partner, or both, by asking. I'm not permitted to talk to you because of my sex, my class status, or my profession. I don't know anything about intimate partner violence, or prefer to pretend it doesn't exist. I don't want to embarrass you by drawing attention to that huge wobbling lip or black eye you're trying so desperately to hide.
It's always fair to take these things into consideration, especially if we're traveling in a culture that's not our own and are afraid of violating an enormous taboo we weren't aware of. Hell, sometimes it's hard to engage with these topics in our own cultures because we know we'll be violating an enormous taboo. Most of the barriers I listed above are in play in the United States and are beliefs or concerns I encounter on a daily basis in my job. However, given that approximately 25% of relationships are abusive in most Western countries, I'd rather err on the side of caution. What always pushes me into (hopefully) tactfully checking in with someone who looks a bit battered, though, is the answer to this question: is my potential embarrassment or fear worth more than the potential safety of that injured person? More often than not, the answer is no. I'd much rather have someone be upset for suggesting that their partner hurt them than miss the opportunity to connect with someone who's isolated and in danger. Remember: if someone is being physically injured by their partner or loved one, they've likely been emotionally and psychologically abused by that person far longer. Your check-in might be one of the only times anyone ever shows some concern.
How do we go about this, though? How do we respectfully and safely engage with someone about their injuries? Here are some options:
  • Always try to speak with the person alone. Checking in with the partner present, if their fat lip was caused by physical violence, escalates the level of danger to the person. You can get creative with ways to get the person alone; for example, using the washroom at the same time as them or pretending they dropped something on the way out.
  • Note the injury as your reason for checking in, and then ask if the person is okay. Try not to make assumptions about the person's circumstances. For example: "I don't mean to pry, but I noticed your lip seems swollen and I wanted to make sure you're okay. Are you?" It's a lot less threatening to hear that from a stranger than to hear, "Hey, I noticed you've got a fat lip. Take this crisis number. Better yet, let me call it for you." Remember, the goal is to check in, not to assume or fix.
  • Let the person tell you what their perspective is and believe it. The injury might be the result of a bar fight, a surgery, an allergy, an accident, or intimate partner violence, but it's that person's injury and not yours. They might not need or want your assistance, and that's fine.
  • If they get offended that you're asking, it's okay to explain. Saying something like "I'm sorry, I'd rather be safe than sorry" in a genuine (not angry!) tone and then walking away is appropriate. This is adaptable to whatever culture you're in at that point in time- Americans can get a bit personal at times, so fiddle around to find the most culturally effective way to diffuse the tension.
  • If the person does say that help is wanted, try to have the local domestic violence crisis number on hand. You can use this website to connect to resources around the world for human trafficking and domestic violence- many countries, the U.S. included, use the same central hotline for both.
  • Finally, do what you feel comfortable doing. If you aren't comfortable asking the person directly, but note they're with a friend, check in with the friend. If you have a friend with you, see if your friend would be comfortable doing the check-in instead. Mention it to the waitstaff, if you have to. Whatever you do, though, try to find some way- however indirect- of checking in.
At the end of the day, the other important reason for checking in is because abusers use silence as permission. When someone is visibly injured and no one speaks up, abusers see that as a free pass to do whatever they please. Silence is complicity. Wherever we are in the world, it's our job as bystanders to speak up to keep each other from being hurt. Even if everything's fine nine times out of ten, the world can only benefit from all of us making a collective gesture to stop tacitly permitting intimate partner violence to continue.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Disenfranchised in Georgia

I am a 26-year-old citizen of the US, born and raised in the country, residing in the state of Georgia. And tomorrow, for the first time since I turned 18 years old, I will not be voting in the presidential election.

Not in protest of the only two options, not out of apathy, and not for lack of trying to vote. Tomorrow I will not be voting because I moved to the state of Georgia a few months ago but only mailed in a voter registration form three weeks ago. Unbeknownst to me, I had missed the deadline by four days.

At the time, I was still registered to vote in Utah and could have requested an absentee ballot. In fact, I began filling out an online request form for an absentee ballot. But when the form asked for my permanent address, I didn't know what to put. I have no permanent address in Utah - I live in Georgia now. If anything, I have a permanent address in New Hampshire, where I grew up. But I gave up my New Hampshire residency last year, when I finished school and chose to stay in Utah for a year as a resident rather than a student. I became a real, true resident of Utah, down to the voter registration and Utah Driver's License.

So yes, as of last week I could have requested an absentee ballot from Utah. There's a chance I could have even requested one from New Hampshire, but I couldn't justify in my mind that I was a resident of either state. Wouldn't the more mature, responsible thing be to register in Georgia?

And the gov't website where I downloaded the form and followed instructions about mailing it in did not indicate that anyone mailing in the form after the ninth would be unable to vote. I only learned that fact today when I called to ask why my records didn't show up and was told it was too late. They had my application - they had it right there in their office, in a box of other applications marked "too late."

But because the post mark said October 13 and not October 9, I would not be able to vote.

"So, I have no options at this point?" I asked. My voice cracked a little, I'll admit.

The lady on the phone sounded worn out when she answered - I imagine she's received a number of similar phone calls, and it's not as if she legislated the policy. "Not unless you're registered in another county."

I am, but the cost of a last-minute plane ticket to Provo, Utah would be a lot more excessive than a poll tax.

So, there you have it, folks. I won't be able to vote tomorrow. Could I have prevented this mess? Absolutely - simply calling their office three weeks ago would have made it clear that a Utah absentee ballot was my only option. Or I could have registered as soon as I arrived in GA (in between moving and starting a PhD program).

But if I, an educated woman with ready access to the internet, wound up in this position, how many other citizens are there who lack the resources to learn about those restrictions?

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Unexpected Motherhood in Looper


Warning: Spoiler Alert
It seems an obvious sort of review to talk about the unexpectedly large presence of motherhood in Looper, but while I expected to have plenty to say on the movie’s women (or lack thereof) I was not expecting to see motherhood played out in such a diverse way. It’s just not something I expect in a Summer/Fall Hollywood science fiction blockbuster: shame on me for my lack of faith in Hollywood’s creativity.

The first part of Looper is a tangled, intriguing, sometimes gory, exploration of time travel: what happens to your future when we mess with your pass? How do you remember the past if your future doesn’t exist anymore (or vice versa for that matter)? A great question would be, if you chop off a person’s legs in the past, while their future self is in the past, wouldn’t that change their future, even if they’re in the past? Oddly enough, all those questions are answered in the first hour of the film.
But the film really took off for me during the second half, when a different film than the one the trailer promised me, emerged. Cityscapes were traded in for cornfields and discussions on the finer points of temporal displacement are exchanged for character development.

In the second half of the film, Looper did a really great job of showing a few different kinds of mothers starting with Summer Qing (Qing Xu), who plays Bruce Willis’ wife, wants a child, but never gets to have any (explicitly stated in the film). Sara, (Emily Blunt) may or may not have given birth to a seriously creepy, possibly homicidal destructor of the future, and Suzie (Piper Perablo) is a prostitute and exotic dancer who independently raises and supports her young child (and is proud to be able to do so).

Sara’s (Emily Blunt) storyline centers on her incredibly creepy kid, Cid (Pierce Gagnon) who is possibly one of the best child actors I’ve ever seen. Sara’s storyline is unique in that she is a late mother to her son, but despite her fear, and the fact that Cid doesn’t believe she’s really her mother, feels that she must and can save him from a possibly violent future. It’s sort of reminiscent of a Harry Potter plotline—a mother’s love is all that’s needed to make a child grow up “good” and “safe.” The audience is left with the hope that Sara’s belief in her own mothering skills will be enough to stabilize the troubled child and keep him from harming others.

It’s a really sweet sentiment, this “power of love” idea, and to its credit, the film doesn’t specify whether it does heal all ills, but I find this idea sort of problematic. So many parents believe that every mistake their child has made and every bad thing that they’ve done is their fault as a parent. Obviously, this is not always the case. I’m no sociologist and the argument for nature vs. nuture is still swirling around out there, but reinforcing the ideals of a perfect motherhood and it’s redemptive powers seems to be placing too much responsibility on the shoulders of women (without regard for temperament and personality). This is not to devalue motherhood and the great job of raising their children that so many women do, but rather to point out a possibly na├»ve and damaging ideology that we seem to be indirectly promoting, that if a person were to do something really, really awful (for instance, murder someone) that it would be based on some failure of the parents.

Pierce Gagnon and Emily Blunt in Looper

Looper does get credit though for the fact that it does portray a less-than traditional type of mother: Single mom, out on her own on a farm, raising a child she barely knows since her sister raised him first. She was just a woman, doing what she could to be a good mother (though she had some pretty high expectations for herself, and I can say I’d feel a bit of pressure to be the best mother ever if I knew my son would become an evil mob boss and the man I loved had killed himself so I could have a chance to raise him right and stop that from happening). Spoiler Alert by the way.

I bring this up because of an interesting article I read a while ago about children who display characteristics of psychopaths. I feel awful just typing that, but hey, the New York Times said it first. In the article they talk about children who seem to have a neurological condition in the brain centers that control empathy and shame, two essential traits that help to regulate our behavior and response to others. The part I find fascinating is the fact that some children have neurological disorders and that parenting, no matter how wonderful and loving, might not change that. The article quotes a psychologist who, in regard to the possibility of diagnosing the disorder in children, stated: “'This isn’t like autism, where the child and parents will find support,’ Edens observes. ‘Even if accurate, it’s a ruinous diagnosis. No one is sympathetic to the mother of a psychopath.’”

Poor Sara with her troubled, possibly evil, child. Nobody feels support for the mother of a psychopath except the psychopath who didn’t have a mother, Joe in this case. Joe mentions his own mother several times in the movie, asking his girlfriend (lover? prostitute?) to rub his hair as his mother did when he was a child (I’ll ignore that possibly Oedipal situation) and telling Cid that his own mother sold him to the gangs. Joe obviously sees himself in Cid, particularly the scenes where he projects into Cid’s future, riding the train alone, hurt and scared, resenting his mother and others for abandoning him and then eventually taking it out on everybody else by becoming homicidal (Jon does kill for a living, it’s not like he’s particularly well-adjusted himself).

The scene seemed a bit fallacious, in terms of it’s logical progression, as I said, loss of a mother should not indicate future murderer. However, I did appreciate the sub-idea that Cid, despite his known future, is not predetermined, perhaps he can change and learn to control himself, and therefore obviously deserves to live.

The movie’s dark beginnings really ended in a very hopeful, life-affirming place, even though it begins and ends with the loss of life. 

***Cross posted from Bitch Flicks