Only in dreams can Say Say La return to the life she once had in Burma. She recollects life on her family’s farm and her favourite buffalo, a simple narrative until at the age of five when the Burmese authorities imprisoned her and killed her father.
“Burmese Dreaming” tells a story about Burma through the eyes of a small girl living in a refugee camp in Thailand and the tales of other refugees who return to their homeland—but only in their dreams.
The documentary is “creative nonfiction” conveying the true tales of Say Say La and the troubles many Burmese people face—whether Burmans or ethnic people—when they find themselves in trouble with the Burmese authorities.
Say Say La managed to flee to Thailand but five years on she is unable to return home.
“Burmese Dreaming” follows the girl who was taken from her family and imprisoned, alone, by the Burmese military. It depicts the happiness and the hardship of her life, told through her dreams and reflections.
“I wake up,” she says. “I am in a refugee camp on Thailand-Burma border. I have been here for five years but still my mind is not here. It is in a life of dreams and daydreams and thoughts about my country.”
The film alternates between scenes from the refugee camps and scenes filmed throughout Burma, a country in which independent media reporting is normally prohibited.
Australian photographer and filmmaker Timothy Syrota said he was inspired to make a documentary after his first trip to Burma in 1997 during “Visit Myanmar” year.
Burma at that stage hardly looked capable of hosting tourists.
“I have travelled extensively in Asia since I was a child but had never expected to see a country as backward, in terms of development, infrastructure, corruption, oppression as Burma,” said Syrota. “So I decided then to return to shoot a documentary. When I returned to Australia after the first two trips work took unexpected turns with the publication of my first book “Welcome to Burma and Enjoy the Totalitarian Experience” (Orchid Press 2001) and also a series of photographic exhibitions of my work from Burma, so it took a while to get back —but it was always on the agenda.”
Syrota felt he had to make a film due to the dearth of information about Burma, and what he said was a “personal and quite deep-seated sympathy for the plight of so many decent people.”
Making the film was nerve-wracking at the time partly because he took the decision to film openly, using a professional camera, despite the attention that drew. Foreign journalists find it hard to report in the country and if caught are typically thrown out.
“There were two choices, film covertly as much as possible and try not to be found or film so openly as to try to allay suspicion simply because of this openness,” he said. “I went for the latter. I always suspected I would end up with problems with the authorities. I had had minor run-ins on previous trips to Burma and so had tapes taken out of the country by willing backpackers.”
Syrota said there was always the worry of getting into big trouble. “I would set what I wanted to shoot in a day but would rarely shoot more, just relieved to have got away with filming my planned shots,” he said.
“When problems did hit they were unexpectedly rapid and efficient and I had the tapes I had on me confiscated. I left the country the following day courtesy of the British embassy,” he added.
Ostrow & Company, a leading US production company based in Beverly Hills, California, that represents filmmaker Michael Moore and Meryl Streep, is supporting the film. They only take on a handful of films a year.
Syrota said he was a little concerned at first that the dream-like quality of his film might not work. “In early conferences, I expressed my concerns that this approach might be an impediment to Ostrow & Company being able to successfully market the film but executives at the company said that it was these elements that had made the company interested in the film in the first place.”