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.”

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