We speak to director Timothy Syrota about ‘Burmese Dreaming’, a doco sharing the stories of Burmese refugees, which is set to play at the upcoming Emerge Film Festival.
Running as part of the Emerge Festival, the inaugural Emerge Film Festival will be taking place over three nights from July 3-5 at Melbourne's Treasury Theatre. The festival aims to showcase films from filmmakers in Melbourne's diverse refugee and CALD communities, while also highlighting the important role of mentoring programs in allowing people from refugee backgrounds to share their stories through film.
Making its Victorian premiere at the festival will be Burmese Dreaming, a documentary by filmmaker and acclaimed photographer, Timothy Syrota. The film tells the story of Burmese refugee Say Say La, now living in a refugee camp on the Thai/Burma border, who dreams about Burma, her old life and the reality of life inside the camp. Making a documentary inside Burma presented a monumental challenge for Syrota. "If you wanted to film in Burma you did it secretly," he tells us on the line from Thailand. "If they got wind of the fact that you were media, you wouldn't be given a visa and that's dating up until even two years ago. For decades before that, there was just no media allowed in Burma and if you did go in with a camera and were caught, then you faced imprisonment, deportation, confiscation of footage and harassment."
Rather than taking a more covert approach when making the film, Syrota instead employed a different tactic - shooting with a large, professional camera out in the open. "I just went with a very happy and open approach and just hoped to disarm the authorities," the director recalls. "That helped me a lot with the people that I filmed because I think if you're open and friendly and you're happy to sit with them for a couple of hours, then you ultimately get much better footage. As soon as you start doing things secretly, then people start to get scared."
However, this approach also resulted in some of Syrota's tapes being confiscated and the director having to leave Burma six weeks earlier than planned, ultimately curtailing the project. Although this presented a big roadblock, Syrota suggests that such adversity "forces you to take a more lateral, more creative approach and that was something I was very happy to do anyway. I got some really nice footage and you go, ‘Well, I don't really know how to hang it all together' so you just play with it until you work it out.
"This idea came about that it should really be based on dreams and that was the only way to make it work as some sort of cohesive thing," Syrota continues. This dreamlike structure of the film gives it a poetic, almost experimental quality, reminiscent of films like Baraka or Koyaanisqatsi, both of which Syrota cites as inspiration. "I think sound and image can work marvellously together and can stir emotion more effectively than giving people fact after fact."
Following this decision, a chance meeting on the Thai/Burma border with composer David Lazaro, a musician of sixteen years and the son of a Burmese concert pianist, proved fortuitous for Syrota. "David saw the film and really liked it and ultimately he and his musical partner Graham Pointer did all the music for it for free which was amazing."
Similarly fortuitous was Syrota being invited to conduct a three day professional writing workshop in one of the refugee camps on the Thai/Burma border. The experience with the students there proved inspirational for Syrota, who decided to conduct a second workshop, specifically targeting scenes from the film. "The idea was to see what the refugees themselves would come up with either in the context of personal stories which related to similar subjects or fictional stories, but which they could write on the basis of having been in those environments," he explains. "That was guided over a three day period and then I had all of the stories and some of them were quite amazing." The film's narrative structure therefore became based upon an amalgam of the refugees' stories and experiences. Syrota explains: "All of the stories are true but it's not the story of one person as it presents in the film." This leads Syrota to describe the film as a work of "creative non-fiction."
With Burmese Dreaming screening at the Emerge Film Festival in Syrota's home city of Melbourne, the director hopes that the audience will respond to the film's universal themes, describing it as a film not just "specifically about the plight of Burmese people, but the plight of people in general. When you try to connect with an audience through emotion, what you try to achieve is not even so much sympathy as empathy, where you can see the human condition, and can relate it to yourself."
For more information about the Emerge Festival, and to check out the full program of events and films, head here.