Watch a Surprisingly Funny Documentary About Burma

Slate's Culture Blog
Aug. 5 2011 1:07 PM

Watch a Surprisingly Funny Documentary About Burma

If the Western world can conjure up images of Burma, it's thanks in large part to last year's Oscar-nominated documentary Burma VJ, which detailed the 2007 nonviolent uprising by thousands of Buddhist monks and ordinary Burmese citizens against the ruling military junta. Constructed from footage smuggled out of the country by leading dissidents, the film is a testament to the revolutionary spirit. But amidst the excitement of such a moment, it failed to show what life is really like for the average citizen when there aren't historical protests filling the streets.

With Burma still under the thumb of the military, the world could undoubtedly use a better understanding of what people in that country have been going through for nearly 50 years. The recently released web documentary Happy World: Burma, the Dictatorship of the Absurd takes up that challenge.

Advertisement

While posing as tourists—since that's the only way to legally enter Burma as a foreigner—the two French filmmakers behind Happy World uncovered a number of arbitrary and oftentimes laughable measures employed by a regime known more for its brutality than its silliness. For instance, traffic patterns are based on horoscope readings; currency was once divisible by the junta's lucky number, 9; and people are superstitiously forced to grow a shrub called kyet-suu, because its name is the inverse of democracy leader (Aung San) Suu Kyi’s.

Among the more bizarre moments of the 30-minute film is a visit to the Drug Elimination Museum, which the junta created to divert attention away from the fact that it is profiting from the country's opium trade. If the public is being fooled by this charade, then there must be some other reason no one goes to this giant three-story paean to prohibition: The filmmakers were its first visitors in ages.

While stories like these are unlikely to surprise the people of Burma, that's not the aim of Happy World. It's trying to educate a Western audience through a blend of satire and caricature that simultaneously deflates the regime's reputation. Aiding that effort is a slew of bonus features, which are billed as part of the film's experimental “hypervideo” experience. From informative newspaper articles and activist literature to an hours worth of state TV, audiences are able to take advantage of the Creative Commons learning experience. If they like it, they're advised to spread the word through a clever web app that pretends to censor their Twitter pages.

All of this may not add up to the real-life political thriller that is Burma VJ, but it gives a thoroughly entertaining starting point from which to understand how oppression can build to the point of absurdity, which is ultimately a very dangerous thing.

Bryan Farrell is an editor for Waging Nonviolence—a news and analysis blog that covers nonviolent action around the world.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 11:33 AM Planned Parenthood Is About to Make It a Lot Easier to Get Birth Control
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 5:03 PM White House Chief Information Officer Will Run U.S. Ebola Response
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.