What’s life like inside a closed authoritarian country like Burma? A few years ago, it may have been hard to answer that question. Then Burma VJ, the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentary, gave us a glimpse—but mainly from the perspective of dissidents trying to depose the ruling military junta. Now, a brilliant new French documentary called Happy World shows what life is like for the ordinary every-day Burmese citizen. The film’s subtitle says it all: “the dictatorship of the absurd.”
Rather than highlight the brutality already documented in Burma VJ, the filmmakers behind Happy World seem to have set out to make the point that every regime, no matter how seemingly evil, has weaknesses—many of which reside in the arbitrary and oftentimes laughable measures it takes to uphold a thin veil of power. For the Burmese junta it’s basing traffic patterns on horoscope readings, printing currency that’s divisible by the regime’s lucky number nine, and superstitiously forcing people to grow a shrub because its name (kyet-suu) is the inverse of democracy leader Suu Kyi.
All of these ridiculous actions could easily become the target of savvy activists, who by poking fun at the junta, weaken its credibility and grow a movement of resistance. It wouldn’t be surprising if campaigns like this were already underway. As John Jackson and Steve Crawshaw noted in their book Small Acts of Resistance, a clever currency designer working for the government in 1990 subtly and subversively planted an image of Aung Sang Suu Kyi onto new banknotes, as well as several other references to the pro-democracy uprising of 1988. Such acts of defiance and inspiring mischief have seemingly grown less and less isolated.
For their own part, the filmmakers managed to pull one over on the junta, no doubt embarrassing them in the process. By posing as dopey tourists—the only kind of foreigners allowed to visit the country—they captured amazing never-before-seen footage and broadcast it to the world for free.
The full 30-minute documentary, as well as a short making-of video, can be viewed here.