“I like Trainspotting, Pulp Fiction, Quentin Tarentino films [where] sort of anything goes: ‘we can edit this scene this way, this scene a different way, this scene a different way’ and as long as it’s interesting and people find it interesting, and you hang it together in a certain way, it can work as a film. I really like that,” says Australian writer, award-winning photographer and acclaimed filmmaker, Timothy Syrota, who has just released his debut documentary, Burmese Dreaming (which premiered at the inaugural Emerge Film Festival earlier this month).
“I like it, but it’s quite an artistic film and I think that seeing documentaries presented in an artistic way. For example it has a fully composed musical score which runs for the duration of the film, it’s a composed score. You don’t see that in documentaries in general, no matter what the subject is.”
His feature documentary, Burmese Dreaming, takes on similar artistic techniques to those applied in Danny Boyle and Quentin Tarentino classic films, depicting an “anything goes” mentality from the opening sequence to the closing credits. The film combines music, simple storytelling and imagery to portray the simple life of a Burmese refugee living on the Burma/Thai border. His respects are paid to such great directors as Tarentino and Boyle through Syrota’s alignment and arrangement of imagery, an original score and the often non-linear narrative.
Based mainly upon the life of Say Say La, a refugee girl, and a collection of other collated stories, the film drifts between the young woman’s reality, dreams, daydreams and nightmares. The film begins with the nightmare experienced by a young Burmese woman who experiences the slaughtering of her father by mountain village soldiers in Southern Burma. She wakes up to discover she is at a refugee camp on the Burma/Thai border. The film then takes on an artistic narrative, consisting of the perspective of the young woman who dreams to escape the life she now lives.
Despite the film’s dream-like sequences and original score, Syrota, a former Melbourne University law student, found the difficulties of filming quite a reality. “The hardest parts were [taking] an obviously professional camera kit into a country, which was dangerous.” Often comparing himself to other journalists in Burma, Syrota had difficulty coping with the potential risks of danger in recording footage. The media were not allowed in Burma at all during the time of the film’s production so extreme measures were met to distribute and create content for Burmese Dreaming. Much of the footage for Burmese Dreaming was shot in a number of restricted locations such as Central Burma (Rangoon, Mandalay and Pyay) and Shan and Karen State in Eastern Burma.
“If you were caught [filming or recording], the authorities would do everything to strip you of any material that you had, get you out of the country. So, I filmed about seven weeks in Burma and then ended up running in with the authorities, having some tapes confiscated”. Following the confiscation of the several tapes, Syrota (who was travelling on a British Passport) ended up in the British embassy and within hours, “on a flight to Bangkok, throughout confused”. Upon being questioned by the embassy, Syrota’s motives were addressed.
“They were like, ‘What do you think you’re doing? Do you know what you’re doing?’ You go, ‘Yep I’ve written and published a book on Burma, this is sort of my third or fourth trip into the country; I’m fully aware of what the situation is and it’s people like me who actually do this, that gets news to the rest of the world’”.
Despite Syrota’s run-ins with the police, Burmese Dreaming is made up of film that was removed from the country by fellow backpackers. “By doing that, I had 16 hours taken out of the country. Again, that was the sort of thing you had to do back then. You don’t have to do that now.” Formal filming of Burmese Dreaming took place in 2001, officially mastered and complete in June 2010.
Despite aiming to represent simple peoples lives in Burma, the footage collected by Timothy was deemed unacceptable by the Burmese military, leading to its confiscation and Syrota’s deportation from the country. “The film is about the simple lives of people in absolutely screwed country, which has a horrible dictatorship. But it really doesn’t focus on that, [it] probably focuses 20 per cent on the politics and how bad the politics were. But it’s more about just how people live within that framework and the imagery reflects that”. The Burmese military did not want any footage (of any kind) recorded and then taken out of the country. “I think they understood fully and how that reflected badly on how they handled the country by a military government.”
Mr. Syrota positively reflects on his filming in Burma, regarding the greatest part of it engaging with the Burmese people. “They’re a beautiful people in their terms of their dignity, their commitment to democracy despite being in a country, which is the absolute opposite of that or was the absolute opposite of that.”
BY BRIGITTE TROBBIANI
Burmese Dreaming screens as part of the Emerge Film Festival which takes place from Tuesday July 3 - Thursday July 5 at the Treasury Theatre. Check out multiculturalarts.com.au for information.