Asia-Pacific, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

The Screen Speaks for Suu Kyi

A poster of "The Lady". Credit: IPS.

A poster of "The Lady". Credit: IPS.

PARIS, Nov 24 2011 (IPS) - Twenty years after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and a year after being released from house arrest, Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi is the subject of a sweeping film that may increase international pressure on Burma’s ruling regime to speed up tentative reforms.

A poster of "The Lady". Credit: IPS.

A poster of "The Lady". Credit: IPS.

“The Lady”, by renowned French director Luc Besson, has gained the support of Amnesty International France and will be in cinemas at the end of this month. Special screenings here have already sparked debate and spurred viewers to sign petitions calling for the release of prisoners of conscience.

“The film is a powerful portrait of what a human rights defender has to give up in the fight for freedom,” says Mireille Boisson, spokesperson for Amnesty International France and an expert on Burma.

“Suu Kyi had to leave her life as a wife, as a mother. She sacrificed a lot of things with the approval of her family and that’s typical of what human rights defenders have to go through,” Boisson told IPS after a press screening of the film this week.

“The Lady”, with Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh in the lead, focuses as much on this huge personal cost as on the facts of Suu Kyi’s battle for democracy in Burma. The film shows the impact on her husband and her two sons, and it is meant to be a love story as well as a true political account.

Suu Kyi’s husband Michael Aris, played by English actor David Thewlis, was a professor at Oxford, and he supported her tirelessly in her fight against the Burmese junta. But he died of cancer without having seen her for three years because he was repeatedly refused a visa to visit her in Burma.

Her sons were stripped of their Burmese nationality and also not allowed to visit for several years, as the authorities sought to break Suu Kyi’s will and force her to leave the country without any guarantee of being allowed back in.

The film sticks to historical facts, without seeming too much like a docudrama. A prologue shows the assassination of Suu Kyi’s father, Gen. Aung San, in 1947, as he worked to form a new government following independence from Britain. Suu Kyi was two years old at the time.

The more recent story begins with her life in England alongside her husband and sons, and describes her return to Burma in 1988 to care for her sick mother. Without the intention of being involved in politics, she is confronted by the brutal crackdown against young people demonstrating for change in the August 1988 movement and is a witness to the bloodshed.

The film shows her being asked by students and university lecturers to continue the work her father began, and it documents the beginnings of her fight for democracy. It also portrays the violence and human rights abuses carried out by the regime against her supporters after her party won 392 of the 485 seats in parliament in the 1990 general election.

Yeoh, an actress who gained international fame with “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”, manages to capture the dignity and calm determination of the “steel orchid”, as Suu Kyi has been called. But she also expresses the vulnerability and isolation when Suu Kyi is first sentenced to house arrest in 1989.

The Burmese pro-democracy leader would spend 15 of the next 21 years in detention, becoming an international icon of the fight against oppression, much like Nelson Mandela of South Africa earlier.

Besson told journalists that he became involved in the project after Yeoh approached him with the script. He was busy with other projects at the time, but he said that the screenplay moved him enormously, and he subsequently told Yeoh that if she could not find another director, he would do the film.

He says he sought to verify major events through Amnesty International reports and by reading all the books available on his subject. He added that he made a conscious decision not to involve Suu Kyi in the production so that she would not be blamed for the contents of the film.

The result is a work far removed from Besson’s usual high-energy fare, such as “The Fifth Element” or “Yamakasi”. Instead, “The Lady” moves at a stately pace and mostly avoids gratuitous images, even if the human rights abuses and military atrocities are vividly revealed.

In some places, the film might be criticised for romanticising Suu Kyi’s personal life as well as the landscape and ethnic groups of Burma (some of the costumes seem a tad too perfect). And the dialogue in parts may seem stilted and predictable. But Besson said he had to make certain artistic choices.

“It’s always frustrating to tell the story of a living person that you cannot meet,” he has said. “You are afraid of betraying the truth or, conversely, accentuating it too much.”

The film has already had one predictable effect: Yeoh was refused entry to Burma earlier this year, with the authorities putting her on the next plane out after she landed at the airport. “The Lady” is not expected to see public release in Burmese cinemas any time soon, although the French Cultural Centre in Yangon will screen it.

Suu Kyi herself will run as a candidate in a coming by-election, after her party called off its boycott of Burma’s political system.

The regime also released 250 prisoners in October and may free more in the coming weeks, Amnesty International says. Another change is that officials have now said that there are 600 prisoners of conscience, after previously denying that there was any such category of detainees, Boisson told IPS.

With the film, their story and that of Suu Kyi will become more known, and international activism on their behalf is already increasing. At a special screening in the town of Amiens last week, Amnesty ran out of petition forms because so many people lined up to sign them.

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