Parky At the Pictures (10/2/2023)
(Reviews of Blue Jean; Town of Strangers; Nothing Lasts Forever; and Myanmar Diaries)
It's surprising how few aspiring film-makers make their early shorts available for viewing online. As they are essentially calling cards, they surely exist to be seen rather than be squirreled away or hidden behind pay walls. Oxfordshire's Georgia Oakley has more sense than most, as the excellent Hush (2012), Frayed (2013), Callow & Sons (2014), and Little Bird (2017) can all be found on Vimeo, along with her documentary about India's transgender community, We Did Not Fall From the Sky (2018), and the pilot episode of Bored (2019).
While it's by no means necessary to have seen the aforementioned prior to watching Oakley's full-length bow, Blue Jean, they provide insights into her thematic concerns and stylistic evolution. More should follow the example or should include their shorts on DVD releases because the streaming focus on features means it's increasingly likely that such cine-stepping stones will be lost to view.
It's 1988 and Jean Newman (Rosy McEwen), a PE teacher on Tyneside, is dyeing her short hair blonde. Newly divorced, she is keeping quiet about coming out as a lesbian, although she meets with girlfriend Vivian Highton (Kerrie Hayes) at a backstreet bar. She resents the fact that Jean tells sister Sasha (Aoife Kennen) that Viv is a friend, as she is concerned that their romance may prove problematic at school, where the Conservative edict, Section 28, bans the promotion of `the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship'.
However, her secret seems set to be compromised when she bumps into a new student, 15 year-old Lois Jackson (Lucy Halliday), at the bar. But no mention is made of the incident at the next lesson, in which Lois is taught the rudiments of netball. She even scores a goal in a match after coming on for the injured Siobhan Murphy (Lydia Page), whose nose is put out of joint.
Viv wants to watch one of the matches, but has been asked to keep away from the school. as several of Jean's colleagues support Section 28. They also gossip about Lois, so Jean says nothing after she gets into a fight with Siobhan about sexuality. In her office, Jean warns Lois about making things difficult for herself. But she's more forthright when Lois comes to the bar and mixes with Jean's friends. However, Viv is dismayed by her attitude, as she is more concerned with Lois feeling marginalised than she is with Jean keeping her job.
Things start to spiral out of control, however, when someone leaves a note on Jean's desk accusing her of being a `dyke'. Siobhan then stages an assault by Siobhan in the changing-room shower and Lois feels betrayed when Jean doesn't speak up for her in a disciplinary hearing with line manager Paula (Lainey Shaw) and the headmaster.
She refuses to hear Jean's explanation and Viv similarly backs away when Jean tries to patch things up. However, having shown up a boorish bloke at Sasha's half-term party, Jean feels better about herself after laughing and crying to herself while watching some cantering horses. Taking a risk, she invites Lois to a birthday party thrown by Viv's support group. Pleased that Lois feels at home, Jean makes her peace with Viv and is pleased to see Lois back at school the following Monday. Perhaps life can finally get back to something approaching normal.
Avoiding many pitfalls, leaving lots of tantalising loose ends, and making deft comparisons between two Tory-dominated eras, Georgia Oakley gives viewers plenty to think about with this accomplished debut. Using the news coverage of the Section 28 affair as background noise cannily shows how the warped mentality behind it seeped into the national consciousness. The shot of the teachers crowding around a staffroom television set may be a bit cumbersome, as is the interview in the head's study. But Oakley's script eschews the speechified avowal of causes to show how prejudicial legislation impacts upon ordinary lives.
She's well served by a fine cast, with Rosy McEwen conveying the conflicted emotions of a woman whose desire to put a miscalculated marriage behind her and commit to her new partner is compromised by her need for social acceptance and her reluctance to risk losing a job she loves. The spark with Kerrie Hayes is palpable and it's a shame that Viv is such a sketchy character, whose uncompromising attitudes make her seem quick to take offence and unsympathetic to Jean's need to take things at her own pace as she learns how to negotiate two worlds.
It feels unlikely that Jean would have no friends to confide in beside her workmates and new queer cabal, while her sister's bourgeois lifestyle is a tad too conveniently cosy. The other teachers are also largely ciphers, while Lois and Siobhan are plunged directly into confrontation rather than circling each other in simmering antipathy. It's also far too convenient that Lois should happen to drift into the very bar that Jean frequents (and not have her age questioned). But these are quibbles with a drama that confirms the humanity that was so evident in Oakley's impressive shorts.
Given that she was only born in 1988, Oakley captures the mood of the times exceptionally well. More might perhaps have been made of the fact that the AIDS crisis had generated the wave of homophobia that the Thatcher government exploited. But she resists the need to fight old battles in focussing on how little bigotry has changed in 35 years. Moreover, production designer Soraya Gilanni and costumier Kirsty Halliday nail the late 80s look, while Victor Seguin's 16mm camera approximates Jean's watchfulness, as she strives to rediscover her true self and find her feet in situations that still feel dauntingly new.
TOWN OF STRANGERS.
As the daughter of an Irish naval officer, the young Treasa O'Brien learned about the loneliness of the outsider while her family was living in Malta. She has clearly not forgotten her experience, as she draws upon it in the documentary Town of Strangers.
But this is no ordinary actuality. Executive produced by Joshua Oppenheimer, this `exploration of longing and belonging' charts the response to a casting call made in September 2015 to the migrant population of the Galway town of Gort. Once associated with Lady Gregory and the Irish literary revival centred on Coole House, Gort is now home to Ireland's largest immigrant community and O'Brien enlists the help of `several people with hybrid identities' to learn about their lives and conduct an experiment into `documentary filmmaking as the production of reality rather than as observable truth'.
The quotes come from the 50,000-word thesis that O'Brien wrote in 2018 for the School of Arts within the University of Westminster. In the accompanying abstract, O'Brien mentions the project's bid `to make the lives of others less other'. But it also seeks to examine the role of the film-maker as a third-person character in the documentary process.
She calls the result a `performative making-of' film that utilises the `processes of scriptwriting, auditioning, storytelling, fabulation, ethnofiction and making-of methods' to achieve a form of `reflexive lucid dreaming'. This isn't, therefore, a mere record of the harrowing travails of strangers far from home hoping for a fresh start. It's `an encounter between filmmaker and subjects, filmmaker and the material, and between the filmmaker and herself'.
Having fixed a loudhailer to the roof of her red van to invite people to audition for a film, O'Brien conducted a series of interviews at Gort town hall on a kitchen set that was left by an amdram production. Between scene-setting clips capturing the sights and sounds of the agricultural show, we hear from the first speakers: a former meat factory worker from Brazil; a musician born on a Welsh farm; a Brazilian babysitter; a Londoner seeking pastures new; a refugee who doesn't know where he is from; a young Irish Traveller who has found home; an art college dropout; a Brazilian who misses the mother who infuriates her; and a Syrian wife who never expected to live anywhere but her hometown.
O'Brien visits the local radio station to discuss her film and how it is evolving in unexpected ways. She also asks if anyone has a room to rent, as she's currently living in her van. This rolls up outside Chloe Donovan's house and O'Brien interviews her in her bedroom mirror. Shy, but talkative when she relaxes, Chloe is proud to have completed her school certificate and is more interested in getting a job and widening her social circle than getting married. A fortuneteller warns her off the first man she meets before Chloe heads out for a night hanging with her mates at the local playground.
Back on the town hall set, Elham Teae recalls life with her parents in Syria. She describes the kind of character she'd like to play in a film and admits she'd be similar to herself. Considering the struggles she's endured to get to Gort, she seems content to have found somewhere safe, even though she misses home.
Londoner Diana Rogerson recalls arriving in Gort with her daughter, Ruby. She was bullied at school for being the child of hippies, but she was accepted as soon as she fought back. Now, they can't imagine being anywhere else other than the ramshackle property that has become home. In musing about her own peripatetic childhood, O'Brien comes to the same conclusion that home is where you allow yourself to feel settled.
Welshman Ralf Perkins plays the penny whistle on the porch of his cottage. He is disappointed that his teenage son won't be able to accompany him to a forthcoming music festival, as his mother is nervous that he'll turn into a drinker like his father. Ross admits he can get loud on whiskey, but wants a quiet life, so he can finish his book. Having mentioned a dream in which he flew over Gort, O'Brien positions him in front of a green screen and has him mime flying motions while an assistant aims a hair dryer at his face.
Speaking in a beguiling Hispanic/Galway accent, Rosa Silva shows O'Brien her tattoos and recalls having a daughter around 14 and being apart from her for a decade after she came to Ireland for work. During this period, she has a recurring dream that she was a soldier protecting a young girl. For a long time, she believed she was a bad mother. But they were reunited when Mary was 18 and now have a good relationship.
Born in Britain, but raised on the West Coast by her hippie parents, Rowan Francis explains how she dropped out of art college before having children. She had always felt grounded at her home of the last nine years, but some unwise romantic entanglements have left her feeling vulnerable. As none of her four children currently live with her, she gets emotional at the end of filming, despite being glad to have put her story on the record.
After footage of Chloe and Josie Caravalho venturing into what seems to be an abandoned house, we hear another extract from O'Brien's radio interview. The host sounds sceptical about her preparedness for the shoot, but she is content that she and her cast are going on a journey together to find home and she is happy to play the part of the stranger in town.
Ana Maria De Oliveira tells of her hopes of getting married to a man who likes to take care of her. She wonders if Ireland has cooled her Brazilian passion, but she is content and has ambitious plans for the future. Standing beneath a ruined tower in the moonlight, she describes a dream in which she meets her dead father and how he closed some gates against her to prevent her from following him.
Sombre images follow of a funeral procession passing a charity shop. We see people milling on the street before meeting Hamid Fakhri. He acknowledges that he was scared of people when he first arrived in Ireland clinging to the underside of a truck, as he had lived through a trauma and had endured much hardship in leaving his homeland. Now working at a takeaway pizza joint, he feels more at ease. But he remains concerned for the wife and daughter he had to leave behind and keeps hoping to bring to Gort.
Hamid mentions a dream confrontation with his father and O'Brien has him act it out with an Irish man brandishing a piece of wood. He finds it cathartic, although he seems to be close to breaking into a smile at the lack of palpable menace in the improvisation. Despite having found a niche in Gort, he still feels a stranger and misses Afghanistan. Fighting tears, he admits occasionally to feeling suicidally lonely, but he knows he has to stay strong.
As O'Brien pays a visit to the outdoor launderette, we see Elham and her husband telling their daughter about the sea voyage that took them out of Syria. She sits in a bathtub and they use a plastic tub for her toys to sit in, as they explain how they had to get away to give her a better life. Closing shots show Hamid dancing with a friend, while Chloe and Josie rehearse some moves. As Hamid jogs along a country road, the van pulls away from him and the screen falls dark.
There are no shattering disclosures or life-changing epiphanies in this record of a sojourn. But Treasa O'Brien lays bare the daily struggle of being human, while celebrating the resourcefulness and resilience that it sometimes takes. Indeed, she does it so astutely that it's puzzling it has taken five years for the film to be widely seen. Moreover, one is left to wonder about the fates of those she interviewed back in 2015 and how the process has impacted upon her since her red van hit the road for home.
The vehicle makes O'Brien feel rather like an alien visitor and one is reminded of the fact that Gort was the name of the robot who accompanied Michael Rennie's starman on his mission to warn of the perils of nuclear weapons in Robert Wise's The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Life hardly comes to a halt in this bustling Galway town, but O'Brien and her speakers certainly give us pause for thought, as they reminisce and reflect with humbling candour and without an ounce of self-pity.
NOTHING LASTS FOREVER.
Since assisting Errol Morris on The Fog of War (2003), Jason Kohn has explored kidnapping and corruption in Brazil in Manda Bala (2007) and the complex relationship between Andre Agassi and tennis coach Nick Bollettieri in Love Means Zero (2017). Now, he turns his attention to the murky world of diamond trading in Nothing Lasts Forever.
Following an opening montage of infomercial clips reinforcing the rarity, allure, and value of diamonds, Kohn seeks out Dusan Simic, a gemmologist who fled Yugoslavia and now resides on Roosevelt Island. He claims there is no physical difference between natural and synthetic diamonds and can't explain why people keep mining for what can be produced more efficiently and with less risk in a laboratory.
By contrast, Martin Rapaport claims that people feel differently if they are wearing something they know is valuable. He chairs the Rapaport Group, which reports on the pricing diamonds worldwide. In his estimation, women project value on to themselves from the diamond that their husband-to-be buys on their engagement. If he purchases a synthetic gem, she'll question the worth of his love and their marriage.
Jewellery designer and historian Aja Raden is less dazzled by the mythology. She declares that all diamonds are roughly the same and are worth very little. Diamond cartels like De Beers created the market and so successfully established the desirability of a diamond engagement ring that women felt devalued unless they had one and men felt emasculated if they couldn't afford one.
De Beers coined the phrase `a diamond is forever'. The company is based on Charterhouse Street in London and we see old telly footage explaining how the cartel controls the market by hoovering up uncut stones and controlling their release and price. Remaining out of the reach of US anti-trust laws, the firm was founded by Cecil Rhodes in 1888. But, from 1926, its driving force was German immigrant Ernest Oppenheimer., who remained at the helm until 1957, with his family holding sway until 2011, when Anglo American (which Oppenheimer had launched with J.P. Morgan) bought its stake.
The company still has family connections, however, as Stephen Lussier married Sophie Oppenheimer. In Botswana, he admits that De Beers would never have co-operated with Kohn in its heyday. But he feels the need to clarify that synthetic diamonds don't have the Earthy story that makes the mined gem (some of which are older than the stars) so unique. He insists he's not worried about lab stones flooding the market, as he knows they can be detected.
In Salt Lake City, John Janik reveals that diamonds will become so readily available that they'll become disposable. His Xtropy company grows `cultured' diamonds in a lab and he blithely shares that he's simply conducting controlled chemical reactions. But, while he has no qualms about putting the diamond trade on notice, Rapaport protests that such companies are committing a fundamental violation of industry ethics and kicking people who invest in the `real' thing in their emotional soft spot.
Rapaport tells a story about women feeling cheated on learning they had Yehuda diamonds, which had been mechanically doctored to remove their flaws. Unless there is full disclosure about cultured gems, the same furore will happen. However, Raden avers that some 20% of the current stock of diamonds are synthetic, which she finds hilarious because another lie has been built upon the core lie about diamond values that the cartels conspired to uphold.
Simic agrees that synthetics have infiltrated the trade in tiny melée diamonds and Kohn accompanies to China to see who is producing them. They visit an industrial diamond plant, whose manager reveals that they sell vast quantities of carats to a handful of customers in India. Rapaport accuses them of trying to steal the `diamond dream' connected to committed love and Lussier concurs by citing the gift of a diamond to his future wife, Mary, by the Duke of Burgundy in 1477. However, Raden debunks the tale by pointing out that he gave the stone to her father to swing a land deal because diamond cutting had just been perfected in Bruges and he wanted dominion over the city.
Raden also mocks origin stories about famously large rocks like the Queen of Kalahari or the Cullinan. Janik weighs in with a querying of the notion of romantic love, which he claims only came into fashion about 150 years ago (perhaps not). He's closer to the mark in dating the relationship between diamonds and devotion to the turn of the 20th century and merely shrugs when asked if he minds about manufacturing the stones that will decimate the diamond trade.
Kohn makes for Surat, the Indian city that is now the world's diamond capital. He meets investigative reporter Melvyn Thomas and Tehmasp Printer from the International Gemmalogical Institute to discover how natural and cultured stones come into Surat for polishing and how they are dispatched into the marketplace so that no one can tell them apart. Also on his visiting list is Chandu Bhai, who is known as `The Mixer'. He has no doubt that gems are mixed and Raden reckons that no one in the industry cared until the public found out.
Now, De Beers makes detection boxes that have put Simic out of business. But Raden dismisses this as `security theatre' and claims that diamonds will go the way of pearls. She even claims that many of the GIA certificates that are supposed to authenticate diamonds are also produced to order. Janik backs her by exposing the way in which diamonds are mined and withheld to give the impression of scarcity, when they are actually plentiful and nowhere near as precious or valuable as the cartels have persuaded the public they are.
By a curious coincidence, Lussier grew up close to the General Motors plant where Tracy Hall perfected the first synthetic diamonds. Indeed, he used to shovel snow off his path in Schenectady, New York. Now he's rhapsodising (with lush string accompaniment) about the benefits that a 2km hole in the ground have brought to Botswana and how customers should be proud of having been part of the transformation - which synthetic stones could never have wrought. Naturally, he mentions nothing about working conditions and wages, but Kohn concludes the eulogy with the image of a lion gorging on a dead elephant.
Rapaport believes that gender equality poses a greater threat to the diamond trade than synthetics because marriage rates are on the decline and women often earn more than their male partners. He suspects things might pick up when millennials decide it's time to settle down, but will women always want a gem to seal the deal? Janik confesses that he grew a diamond to propose to a girlfriend who felt the stone was insultingly small.
In Mumbai, Simic launches a patent to use pink fluorescence to identify cultured diamonds and Rapaport sidles over to offer his support at the end of a seminar in which many others are sceptical that synthetic labs will voluntarily treat their wares. But Raden tops them all, as she claims the cartels are crying crocodile tears about mixing because they are avid consumers of synthetics themselves.
Lussier defends the Lightbox range by claiming it's perfect for less momentous occasions in life and for travel jewellery. Once again, however, Janik and Raden challenge the thought process and accuse De Beers of trying to undercut the independent labs by building a large one of their own and then marketing their brand as the market leader. While they seek to change the rules, however, Simic is forced to drop out of the game, as Rapaport fails to make a proposal and he winds up driving an Uber after closing his lab.
In Las Vegas, Rapaport listens to reports of increased synthetic sales before attending a gem fair in a bid to fathom how to bring the cultured sector under his umbrella. Raden ponders the puzzle of the diamond myth when people are buying grown gems despite knowing that they're worth less than the natural diamonds whose prices have been artificially fixed. She applauds the chutzpah of De Beers for turning an illusion into a truth that the public is unwilling to abandon.
Meanwhile, Simic is working on a way to make synthetic diamonds natural (which Raden considers the way the lie can be turned into a truth). He returns to China to conduct an experiment with nitrogen bonds and is confident of its success. At the same time, Rapaport delivers his speech to his shareholders. A votes resists adding a synthetics index, but Rapaport urges the diamond trade to remember it is built on love and commitment and needs to base its recovery on giving couples what they have always wanted. After a prolonged wait, Simic inspects the results of his gambit, He claims it is beautiful, but doesn't show it to the camera.
This is par for the course in a business that seems at a crossroads now the smoke has blown away and the mirrors have cracked. Rapaport can talk a good game, while Lussier can soft pedal a sob story. But can Simic really create natural diamonds from synthetics? It's perhaps telling that Kohn didn't ask Janik or Raden about this part of his project.
Raden's straight talking is the undoubted highlight of an exposé that sometimes finds itself repeating the same points, as if fully to comprehend their import. Have generations of young lovers really been suckered by greedy opportunists or have they been willing accomplices in the transaction? We all bought into Christmas in much the same way and nobody seems to be complaining about the size of their credit card bills in January. Well, they are. But they spent willingly, as do most people when they purchase an engagement ring or jewellery for a loved one. And, when it comes down to it, is anything really worth what we are prepared to pay for it?
Despite ignoring conflict diamonds, Kohn conducts his inquiry into what are essentially carbon copies with journalistic rigour, but also with a mischievous glee that is reflected in his off-camera questioning and by the consistent brilliance of Logan Nelson's irreverently caperish score. Sometimes jazzily jaunty, at others mockingly lamentacious, this adds to the amusement, as those with the most to lose strive to justify past deeds and sound bullish about the future. So, Shirley Bassey's Bond song was wrong after all. Maybe the 1971 film should be re-released with Kohn's closing selection of The Kinks's `Nothing Lasts Forever'?
On 1 February 2021, having failed to claw back losses at the ballot box, the army under General Min Aung Hlaing staged a coup by imprisoning Myanmar's democratically elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi. As the Coronavirus pandemic was raging, the world's news agenda quickly moved on from events in Yangon, in spite of the loss of hundreds of lives and thousands of arrests. But 10 film-makers and citizen journalists, anonymously adopting the name the Myanmar Film Collective, have managed to make shorts exposing the brutality of the troops and its impact on despairing citizens. Produced in extreme circumstances, Myanmar Diaries is an anthological mixture of first-hand reportage and dramatic reconstruction that leaves an indelible impression.
The film opens with the viral shot of a female aerobics instructor working out to an Indonesian dance track as black military vehicles speed across the square behind her in the direction of the parliament building. A cut sets us aboard a motorbike, as phone footage shows hardware snaking through the streets as curfew announcements blare from a tannoy.
A canoodling couple touch toes in bed. The woman gets up to pick out classical favourites in the piano, as she dreams of getting a butterfly tattoo when she attains her goals. We see an animated caterpillar flourish, as she dons a mask and a hard hat to join the demonstration in the street. The butterfly is menaced from all sides by lizards and the birds fly up from the trees as the sound of confrontation is heard. Back in the quiet apartment, the man laments that his partner never got her tattoo, but a butterfly lands on his shoulder as he sits by the keyboard.
As army trucks line a quiet street, a 67 year-old woman in a Covid mask wanders up and down chiding the soldiers. She urges them to use their education to see that they are being used by a frightened dictator. Comparing them to her own children, she informs them that she is not afraid of them and lifts her waistcoat to show she's not wearing a bulletproof vest. Ripples of applause can be heard, as she vows to disobey the generals because she believes as fervently in democracy as she does in Buddha. Refusing to be intimidated, she keeps up her tirade, despite being filmed by a military cameraman.
A man in hiding with his cats is frustrated because he can't get in touch with his girlfriend. People are fleeing from gunfire in the streets and a woman is killed by the gates of a school. Desperate to find a safe haven, fleeing protesters try the doors of buildings and rush inside whenever they can. A white cat purrs, as it's petted on a window ledge, by someone ending a relationship by phone, as it's become too dangerous for them to see each other.
Police come to arrest a woman in view of a camphone witness. A child pleads with the officers not to take her and howls in distress, as the woman insists she's done nothing wrong and that people won't forget the crimes the cops are committing in the name of their masters. Eventually, they move in to grab her and someone is dispatched to stop the filming.
Caged birds sing in a neat apartment, as a man takes a phone call ordering him into work. His son is dismayed because his friends have shunned him because his father is defying a strike. He sends the boy to live with his sister, but has a change of heart and decides to join the Civil Disobedience Movement. He covers his head with a plastic bag and stands before anti-military slogans written in English on the wall.
In order to show solidarity, people bang pots and pans from windows and on the streets. A man calls on his neighbours to help him when the cops come to his apartment in the middle of the night. He live streams the incident, as stones and bullets rain in on him. Despite his pleas, no one bangs a pot for fear they will also be taken away.
Banging wakes a man who has dozed off in front of The Big Bang Theory and hasn't noticed that electrical devices in his apartment are fizzing. The ghost of a woman sits on his chest and he is roused by the commotion outside. As he joins his neighbours in banging a pan, the shadow of the spirit can be seen screaming in the stairwell over a montage depicting casualties of police and army savagery.
As soldiers march her father to a waiting car, a daughter asks them what he has done, as he is a good man with no enemies. Her questions are met with silence, so she changes tack and tells the troops that they don't have to do such cruel things. But she is ignored and her voice cracks, as she films her father stoically climbing into the backseat.
Bereft by the loss of his wife during the protests, a widower prays before her blood-spattered hard hat and red-stained scarf. He asks for her sins to be forgiven so that she can enjoy eternal life before inhaling the scent of her underwear and burning it. Taking a shower, he dresses smartly and seals the windows and doors in the garage. Having wrapped tape around the fingers of his left hand, he switches on the ignition and waits. Soldiers break into a building and drag a man away. Ants scurry across cracks in the floor, as they hasten to do their duty by the colony.
A woman takes a plane to Bangkok. The pandemic means the airport is deserted and she checks into a hotel. She writes home and feels guilt at leaving family and friends behind, but she knows she had to flee. Taking solace in the teddy bear she bought in happier times, she recalls the beauty of the lantern festival and the hope people had for the future. Now, she has no idea what will happen to her or her country.
Filming through a crack in the door, a man sees plain-clothes cops beating a protester with rods. He is outraged that thugs have been hired to mingle with the crowds and then mete out vicious punishments.
Scared at discovering she's pregnant, a 17 year-old calls her boyfriend and arranges to meet. He also has something important to tell her and she is dismayed that he has to go into hiding in the jungle because he's on an arrest list. She asks if she can come with him, but he insists being on the run is no fun. Counting beans from her iced coffee, she decides to tell him about the baby. But he gets a call advising him to go to a safe house immediately and he departs before she can break the news.
At a training camp in the jungle, recruits are put through fitness and combat drills. They chant slogans on route marches and applaud each other's efforts during target practice. The officer jokes about how cool guns are before discussing ambush strategies. We cut suddenly to a filmed mission and the volunteers whooping when they hit a target. One youth with a loudhailer calls on soldiers to swap sides and his pals giggle at the prospect of him being taken out by a sniper.
A female hand with red nails gently clasps her husband's hand. Their wedding rings glint in the sunlight. But their contentment is to prove short-lived, as he gets a knock on the door and she is unable to reach him by phone. Unable to face life without him, the wife places a razor blade on her wrist. However, she recalls the promise she made not to give up and uses her hand to make a shadow angel in the beam of his torch.
She joins the Civil Disobedience Movement in the jungle and treks along with the same dog we saw at the training camp. As she talks about the cause, her words shift from being a message to her beloved to a prayer and then an urgent entreaty to the world not to forget the plight of Myanmar.
The sheer courage involved in the making of this picture is beyond humbling. Indeed, the very fact that it exists at all is remarkable and one can entirely understand the decision of its makers to refuse credit. While the phonecam reportage is deeply harrowing, the dramatic vignettes aren't always as effective. But they have a quiet potency to match their commitment, with the suicide storyline being particularly trenchant, as the nudity and sexual allusions will outrage the moral conservatives at the head of the junta.
The cowardice of the regime in using excessive force is unflinchingly exposed, most notably by the sexagenarian who treats the troops like naughty boys, as they cower in their trucks. Her fury at the betrayal of the country's slow progress away from tyranny should shame those in power and rouse us to remember Myanmar and encourage everyone to see a denunciation of human rights abuses that also serves as a noble act of defiance.