Over the past two years, director Robert H. Lieberman has been secretly filming scenes of everyday life in Myanmar, the long-suffering country formerly known as Burma. Lieberman is a physics professor at Cornell University—as well as a novelist and documentary filmmaker—and initially traveled there to work with young filmmakers. But he was so surprised by what he saw, he began filming. Or so he says. Unfortunately, after the Kony 2012 and Mike Daisey debacles, audiences are justifiably wary of first-world do-gooders selling tickets to hear about the marvels and horrors of far-off lands.
At any rate, Myanmar is an undeniably isolated and poorly understood country, and the film is a richly textured look behind its borders. Lieberman shows us a devoutly Buddhist culture that is more or less untouched by corporate influence but lives in severe poverty under a military dictatorship that isn't based on any personality—no Mao, no Stalin—but rather a revolving door of barely educated military officers. The state surveillance network is extensive—as one of the film's many unnamed sources says, "Somebody is always watching, somebody is always listening, somebody is always reporting back"—but the country's leaders don't give speeches or interviews. They're strenuously aloof.
Meanwhile, their citizens scrape by, pawning off mosquito netting and cookware for bus fare to work, where they earn wages to buy their stuff back at the end of the day. Child labor is everywhere and public education barely exists. But the tropical landscape is gorgeous and dotted with ruins, as well as temples and statues that pilgrims have been wrapping in gold leaf for hundreds of years. Aside from some cursory history lessons, Myanmar doesn't delve too deeply into how the country came to be like it is. But it's a postcard-pretty crash course on a place that most of us know very little about.