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.
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 hour’s 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.