As of February 2021, Myanmar has been embroiled in a military coup followed by months of civilian uprisings and strikes across the country as well as hundreds of civilian deaths. As this article goes to print, Aung San Suu Kyi is currently detained by the military, and there are no details as to her potential release nor the potential release of thousands of recent political prisoners. The claims made herein with respect to Aung San Suu Kyi’s previous 2010 release from house arrest and Myanmar’s “postauthoritarian” government, preceding the most recent coup, attest to the uncertainties of Myanmar’s future political transitions. They also point to the entrenchment of carceral legacies of both authoritarian and “postauthoritarian rule” alongside continued diasporic dispersals of dissident communities.
The short film Nobel Nok Dah (2015) employs feminist oral history, cinematic avant-garde, and what filmmakers Emily Hong, Miasarah Lai, and Mariangela Mihai describe as the “ethno-fictive” to amplify the storytelling of three Karen refugee women resettled in upstate New York.1 Rather than follow a linear trajectory, it traces their multiple displacements since leaving Burma, including family separations, time spent in transit, and refugee encampment.2 The collective is dedicated to experimental storytelling and collaborative approach to movement building as they “work alongside communities to co-construct impact goals through media for political organizing, mobiliz[e] new allies, or challeng[e] harmful social, political or economic structures.”3 In this way, the collective’s stated approach to collaboration, decoloniality, and intersectional feminist pedagogy primes Nobel Nok Dah to offer an alternative perspective of what transnational feminist solidarity in the ethnographic film genre might look like.
As they reject the familiar teleological trope of refugee women being in perpetual need of humanitarian uplift and rescue, the filmmakers create time and space for these women to narrate the unfinished process of resettlement oriented around their community’s losses and reconstitutions throughout military upheavals and migrations. This work contrasts with the liberal representations of Burmese femininity presented in The Lady (2011), a feature-length biopic of Burmese political icon Aung San Suu Kyi, spanning the first ten years of her previous house arrest. The latter film’s premiere also preceded the real-life release of Aung San Suu Kyi from political imprisonment by a matter of months, followed by her rise to Burmese Parliament and her subsequent “fall from grace” as an icon of human rights to a complicit head of a civilian Burmese government accused of Islamophobic violence. By putting these two films in conversation, this article analyzes divergent representations and extratextual circulations of Burmese femininity that track human rights interlocutors’ anxieties about the postauthoritarian transformations of Burma and shape liberal human rights activism.
Since 2017, news reports have documented the displacement of almost 750,000 Rohingya Muslim refugees from Burma’s Rakhine state into Bangladesh and other parts of South and Southeast Asia.4 The Myanmar government, under the de facto leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi, has downplayed the widespread extrajudicial sexual and physical violence against Rohingya peoples, businesses, and homes. Aung San Suu Kyi’s consistent comments to international news outlets and the Hague refute ethnic cleansing going on in Myanmar by claiming that ethnic cleansing “is too strong an expression to use for what is happening.”5 Unsurprisingly, by design, Aung San Suu Kyi’s previously celebrated liberal feminist and humanist adages and her staunch insistence on Burmese “rule of law” would not be wholly irreconcilable with state-sanctioned militarized policing even at the cost of ethnic cleansing. Concurrent with global resurgences of fascism and xenophobia, some recent reports from Burma have minimized the effects of these campaigns as individual “incidents” with local military as opposed to widespread structural violence.6 International humanitarian organizations including the UNHRC have labeled these “incidents” as possible crimes against humanity and acts of genocide.7
The transformative property of Aung San Suu Kyi’s persona, from human rights icon to fallen heroine, in the wake of ongoing Islamophobic massacres reveals as much about the fraught optics that surround the global accounting of human rights violation in the twenty-first century as it does about possible critiques of these processes.
Nobel Nok Dah was produced by Ethnocine, a transnational feminist ethnographic film collective. Ethnocine’s films shed light onto the microcosmic ways in which cataclysmic world and regional events have displaced indigenous Southeast Asian ethnic groups, forced refugee migrations, and produced new diasporic dispersals.8 The collective’s films have primarily circulated within international film festivals and universities throughout Southeast Asia and the United States. In circulating their work this way, the filmmakers of Ethnocine situate themselves in solidarity and conversation with Burmese filmmakers who are not often able to reach as wide of an audience without substantial international financial and political support. Beyond the scope of ethnographic film, their work intervenes in representations of Southeast Asia within US and global cinema that are dominated by warscapes and perceptions of Cold War communist threats. Instead, Ethnocine centers feminine and feminist subjectivities to explore complex geographies of diaspora, displacement, separation, and kinship. This collective was started by Emily Hong, Miasarah Lai, and Mariangela Mihai in the early 2010s while they were anthropology graduate and undergraduate scholars at Cornell University. They have now grown in numbers and work with granters and other media-making collectives to sustain workshops, collaborative projects, and training in decolonial feminist ethnographic work.9
The two films I focus on in this article are situated within a contemporary milieu of documentary films about Burma that are produced by non-Burmese filmmakers and shape the global imagination of Burmese culture as constituted through gendered human rights abuses. This growing genre of documentary films circulates in international film festivals and university spaces where the films have the potential to encourage patrons to engage with public forms of human rights discourse. Two recent examples of these English-language documentaries are They Call It Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain (2012) and Kayan Beauties (2012). Clandestinely filmed to evade authorities, They Call It Myanmar documents daily life under Burma’s military regime prior to the country’s transition to civilian governance, but largely excludes women from its narrative. Kayan Beauties examines human trafficking of ethnic minority Kayan women across the Burma-Thai border. These films present a myopic perspective on human rights violations through the spectacular and traumatic violences of the repressive military regime. They depict Burmese women through the broad structures of patriarchal state violence, censorship, and illicit informal economies while ignoring the ways that they experience and confront these structures in their daily lives. These patterns also entrench themselves within mainstream film representations around Burma that often gloss over feminine-identified subjects who name and challenge the conditions of their own constraint. Thus these divergent ideological representations of “Burmese femininity” corroborate popular rationales for Western humanitarian intervention that, on the one hand, further entrench non-Bamar, ethnic minority, and refugee women as the objects of humanitarian concern. On the other hand, these representational regimes further discipline hegemonic Burmese femininity, as in the case of Aung San Suu Kyi, who is deemed to have lapsed in her maternal affect toward the nation; especially in her transformation from former dissident to now head of state and enabler of human rights abuse.
The two films I focus on also contend with historical Hollywood representations of Burma that erase Burmese people through abstract landscapes of warfare and military infrastructure. Transnational Southeast Asian and Burmese American feminist scholar Tamara Ho gestures to journalist Edith Mirante’s helpful catalog of Burma’s Hollywood representation, in which she notes that the “earliest Hollywood imaginings of Burma were romantic melodramas about white women in jeopardy, using Southeast Asian landscape as an exotic backdrop” and “relegated Burmese characters to the sidelines.” These tropes can be found in films such as The Road to Mandalay (1926), Mandalay (1934), and The Girl from Mandalay (1936).10 Burma’s further fictionalization exists in interstitial battles over the Asia-Pacific region throughout World War II. Midcentury European and American films such as Bombs over Burma (1945), The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), and Objective, Burma! (1945) take notable liberties in their historical representations of the country that suit the political narrative of the Allied war efforts. These films depict Burma as a colonial battleground between the British, Chinese, US, and Japanese forces. Most recently, Ho notes Sylvester Stallone’s final installation of the Rambo series (2008), in which the titular protagonist bloodily defends Karen Christians from the military arm of the then junta.11 Especially given the paucity of available media from the country during times of heightened media censorship and surveillance in subsequent decades, these Hollywood landscapes stood in for global viewers’ sense of reality about the country. In some instances, both fictional and documentary films have inspired humanitarian projects meant to support Burmese communities that also reinforce feminine-identified subjects as perpetually caught in the cross fire of human trafficking, economic disenfranchisement, and/or intraethnic and state military violence.
By placing Ethnocine’s short film Nobel Nok Dah in conversation with the feature-length biopic The Lady, I argue that these contemporary works have updated the terms of what makes “rescuability” a viable trope in representations of Burma and its diasporic communities. How do the contradictions of what makes a human rights subject “rescuable” animate the impulses of and intersections between international arts and humanitarian industries? As human rights activists help secure futures for those who have survived militarization, what does the circulation of these films reveal about the value of images of racialized and gendered precarity in spaces of human rights advocacy? How do scenarios of rescue in the films about Burma also produce global economic and cultural infrastructures that cohere and even demand transformation of refugees, asylum seekers, and interlocutors into liberal human rights subjects within the humanitarian industry itself?
The broader filmic and humanitarian landscapes around Burma in the 2000s and 2010s are in part bolstered by media representations of Aung San Suu Kyi. In the interest of brevity, I delimit my analysis to the period from 1988 to the early aughts as it appears in the overall timeline of The Lady (2011), which is based loosely on Aung San Suu Kyi’s own essays and published letters to her husband while she was under house arrest.12 Mainstream film representations of Burma often produce (post)authoritarian nations as landscapes burdened by violence. Within this oeuvre, biopics about Aung San Suu Kyi’s life represent her as at once a heroic martyr and a victim of a toxic relationship with the state. In these scenarios, where Aung San Suu Kyi is in constant mortal danger, I argue that filmmakers achieve this sense of danger, especially in the time leading up to her release from house arrest, by framing her as worthy of rescue. As a result, Aung San Suu Kyi’s heroism and vulnerability to harm are framed in terms of fragile heteronormative kinship in need of preservation, and the masculinist landscapes from which dissidents are fleeing are framed as ruinous.13
After an analysis of Aung San Suu Kyi’s representation in biopics, I briefly consider Ethnocine’s short film Nobel Nok Dah to establish how these filmmakers enact an alternative politics of spectatorship and feminist human rights witnessing within broader venues for social justice. This aspect of their work shines through in the way that the filmmakers focus on often eclipsed narratives and memories held by the three women for whom the film is named: Nobel, Nok, and Dah. Each fled military violence in the years prior and some dealt with various periods of family separation that also preceded the uprooting of refugee encampment and resettlement. Stylistically, Ethnocine invites audiences to ruminate on the work of performativity, not necessarily visibility and speech, as a barometer of how audiences might apprehend human rights. As they direct their audiences’ focus toward how their interviewees choose to narrate their own stories of migration, arrival, and community, these filmmakers provide further nuance to racialized femininities produced by exilic initiatives of the Burmese state and global human rights projects.14
When considered together, these films necessitate an attunement to sense—refusing to “speak for” or “make women visible” as the pinnacle of liberation. As the internal dynamics of rescue within the films’ production extend to the films’ circulation, human rights interlocutors engage in performative debates about who is “rescuable” based on their visions of Burma’s ethnic harmony and heteronormative domesticity. These popular media and human rights activist initiatives often contend with liberal feminist rubrics of being seen and heard (or visible/audible), as they both resist and comply with immersive attempts to transform the newly postauthoritarian nation. In some cases, this means producing sensate knowledge of Burma’s domestic spaces as those of indefinite imprisonment, and in others, this means illuminating alternative scripts of racialization, gendering, and rescue to center how dissident and refugee populations cope with Burma’s political transition and migration amid global upticks in xenophobia and state fascism.
Before going further, I build on the key term rescuability in work from Third World feminist, women of color feminist, and postcolonial feminist theory. In Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s famous 2003 revisitation of her original “Under Western Eyes” essay, the provisional concept of “Third World womanhood” assembles a diverse set of troubling human rights imaginaries of “oppressed women of the Global South,” in which overlapping tropes of poverty, victimization, lack of education, tradition, and domesticity reify rationales for liberal and Western feminist intervention.15 To this end, Mohanty argues that First and Third World women are agents in their daily experiences and ultimately undermine these categorizations, which do not encompass all the social, political, and economic makeup of women’s lives. Gayatri Spivak’s now canonical theorization in Can the Subaltern Speak? elaborates on racialized renderings of sati, suttee, or ritual widow self-immolation. She critiques how these rituals are commonly read as either instances of “white men saving brown women from brown men” or, alternately, religious Hindu widows “wanting to die.” Ultimately, these limited interpretations render the self-immolating widow’s subjectivity unlocatable.16 In this vein, contemporary projects of rescue within human rights advocacy media and art have capitalized upon archival absences and presences of feminine subjects, racialized as rescuable, in ways that catalyze “live” humanitarian projects off-screen—especially in efforts to make these subjects “seen” and “heard” and thus legible as human rights subjects.
This essay builds on Yến Lê Espiritu and Lan Duong’s articulation of “feminist refugee epistemology” to broaden what is politically possible when decentralizing the visual encounter of (refugee) women as naturalized victims of military atrocities.17 Espiritu and Duong also raise questions that productively illustrate the political possibilities of “what off-screen violent acts remain unmarked” with regard to naturalized representations of military atrocity against women: “If these spectacular acts of military atrocity are the markers of violence, then what off-screen violent acts remain unmarked? . . . How do we approach the question of gendered displacement from the knowledge point of the forcibly displaced, which takes seriously the hidden and overt injuries but also the joy and survival practices that play out in the domain of the everyday?”18 From Espiritu and Duong’s intervention, I emphasize the potential role of “unmarked” allied work off-screen, in art production and circulation, that brings livening aspects to rescue scenarios otherwise deemed fictional. The following analyses contextualize how human rights advocates can, at times, further capitalize upon the global imagination around dissident and subsequently refugee and asylum-seeking populations from Burma as necessitating performative rescue. With these visions come the potential to both comply with and resist other racializing and gendering discourses that constantly recuperate dissidents and refugees as victims of nationalist violence trapped by geographic circumstance and the military state.19
Exiled at Home: Reviving the Incarcerated Heroine in Landscapes of Rescue
Upon her release from house arrest in 2011, in an interview for an arts and culture publication, Dazed, Aung San Suu Kyi spoke of the consistent freedom of spirit and psyche she maintained while under house arrest: “After I was released, people used to keep asking me, ‘What is it like to be free?’ . . . And it was very difficult for me to answer—I always felt free. As far as my state of mind was concerned, I didn’t feel any different. . . . People ask me about what sacrifices I’ve made and I always answer that I’ve made no sacrifices—I’ve made choices.” The journalist then describes Aung San Suu Kyi’s disposition as in excess of what most people would be capable of: “To most people, this might seem like inhuman stoicism. Aung San Suu Kyi, plainly, is not most people.” In the span of this short interview, the author also focuses on her physicality; she is described as “small and delicate as a sparrow,” such that “she is still, at 66, arrestingly beautiful.”20 The significance of these descriptions of her physical fragility and beauty alternated with her political prowess and transformative strength to “overcome” house arrest attests to how liberal audiences are invited to rely on the historically racialized and feminized exceptionality of Aung San Suu Kyi.
In a critical essay about Burmese media in the wake of authoritarian rule, feminist media theorist Lisa Brooten has argued that this representation of Aung San Suu Kyi during her incarceration as both diminutive and beautiful fortified her “symbolic role as the most powerful feminine personification of besieged democracy alive.”21 Furthermore, Brooten suggests that these hegemonic representations help rationalize orientalist “protection scenarios” leveled toward Burma, which preserve the United States as a “comparatively mature, masculine form of democracy run by highly competent yet compassionate leaders working to promote freedom and democracy worldwide.”22 Extending the work of other Burmese feminist scholars such as Tinzar Lwyn, transnational Burmese feminist scholar Tamara Ho also taps into the peculiar singularity wherein Aung San Suu Kyi becomes the conduit through which global audiences engage a “romance” with Burmese human rights issues in the global sphere. As she explains, “Aung San Suu Kyi’s unique intersectionality and singular ability to translate the Burmese situation to a global audience during her house arrest has become overdetermined and the primary avenue and harbinger of change.”23
Aung San Suu Kyi’s story is often narrated in a linear fashion that segues from growing up into a destiny-borne family to fulfilling her father’s legacy upon her return from worldly education and diplomatic experiences abroad. Her father was Bogyoke Aung San, or General Aung San, a military general and Burma’s “father of independence” against British and Japanese colonization. After his assassination when she was two years old, Aung San Suu Kyi attended school abroad in England, India, and Japan, eventually taking a postundergraduate internship at the United Nations and subsequently living in New York for three years. She completed her undergraduate degree at Oxford University and stayed on in London, where she met her husband, Michael Aris, a scholar of Tibet, and they had two sons.
In 1988, the same year that she began her doctoral studies in Burmese literature at the SOAS University of London, she was called home to Rangoon, now called Yangon, the then-capital city, due to her mother Daw Khin Kyi’s deteriorating health. This year was also significant within Burma’s political history and is often defined as a watershed moment for student-, sangha-, and civilian-led, mostly nonviolent, mass protest. At this time, Aung San Suu Kyi became enmeshed again in local Burmese politics, cohering in her work with these democratic movements, and forming a political party called the National League for Democracy (NLD), which spoke out against increased militarization of police against peaceful protests, surveillance, and economic inflation. Aung San Suu Kyi’s return to Burma was framed by international media as a destined political move on the part of this “prodigal daughter” to take up a political legacy of a “free Burma,” as her father had attempted to do at a different historical moment.
After less than a year back in Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi was put under house arrest and given the option of incarceration in Burma or permanent exile. During these events, while the government agreed to allow Aung San Suu Kyi to leave the country, it was understood that if she were to leave, she would not be allowed to return. After this ultimatum, popular media construed Aung San Suu Kyi as sacrificing the possibility of being with her English husband and children, who were periodically allowed to see her while she was under house arrest. Before her release from house arrest, Aung San Suu Kyi had been widely celebrated as “the Lady,” “Amay Suu,” or “Mother Suu” of the Burmese nation.24 She was released from house arrest in 2010 and in 2016 was subsequently elected to state counsellor and de facto leader; at the time, a position newly created by the legislature and signed into law. She had become an official of the government apparatus rather than leading as its most infamous opponent.25
The Lady (2011) stays true to the biopic form in its use of flashbacks to parse out Aung San Suu Kyi’s major life events. Yet while this film has the potential to “rescript” more interior moments that could potentially reject liberal feminist rescue of Aung San Suu Kyi, the film recenters Aung San Suu Kyi’s suffering under the panoptic state as that from which she perpetually needs rescue. The film opens with a scene of generals debating on how to move forward with the plan to detain Aung San Suu Kyi and arrest her conspirators, who also face the threat of imprisonment. Minutes later, there are military police deployed over her estate, shouting in Burmese, and securing the compound with barbed wire and wooden blockades. The lead actress playing Aung San Suu Kyi, Chinese Malaysian martial arts, action, and dramatic film star Michelle Yeoh, watches mostly silently as this happens, calmly and tersely whispering to her children before and after the invasion to warn them about what to expect when guards in military vehicles pull up to the compound.26 There is a moment when the camera fixates on a guard’s hands prying the house number “54” off the front door of 54 University Avenue Road, to complete the transformation of the home of a beloved heroine into an official space of state detainment.
Here, violations of the Burmese domestic space, beginning with the militarization of the intergenerational family home, mark state violence within the nation as foundational to the protagonist’s family history. Based on satellite images and over two hundred family photographs, Paris-based action filmmaker and producer Luc Besson, this film’s director, and his team went to great lengths to re-create her family compound in a 1:1 scale ratio model.27 Attempting to apply this scalar reality onto scenes of intrusion by military police also extends to how the filmmakers attempted to stage the whole city of Yangon as a site of detainment and state terrorism of Burmese homes. In this spirit, the first ten minutes of the film, following the scene of Aung San Suu Kyi’s arrest, feature re-creations of the arrests of various allies of Aung San Suu Kyi (writers, comedians, and satirists), each while sitting in their homes. Combined with suspenseful violins in the musical score, we follow the stories of an unnamed few, and one famous satirical poet and cartoonist, Zarganar, as they are sent to Insein Prison, bloodied by villainized guards, and kept in cages with wild dogs. The film sequences various home-to-prison scenes to focus on those who come under suspicion of antigovernment political activity and have been subjected to political prison torture including beatings, caging, and stress positions. In effect, the protagonist’s extended family history becomes a stand-in for the treatment of dissidents’ families’ homes and the city of Yangon writ large.28
However, the trope of rampant military intrusion into public and private space borders on role-play, as the filmmakers subjected themselves to overt state surveillance during filming; they did so in contrast to the sustained and daily realities of many of Burma’s political prisoner communities. In order to convey the experience of state threat for audiences, at times the off-stage work to re-create Yangon brought Besson and his team momentary grief from both Burmese and Thai authorities. Besson, who has over fifty film credits to his name, notes his “commitment or stupidity” in interviews, recalling how he filmed some footage in Burma secretly and pretended to be an aloof tourist. His own desire to share his seventeen-hour affair with short-term censorship and state surveillance in order to create intimacy with Aung San Suu Kyi’s place of residence was meant to add another layer of “reality” to the facsimile of 1988 Yangon he later staged in Thailand.29 Still, in order to create media buzz, Time was the only publication allowed on the set during the principal photography due to the filmmakers’ attempts to simultaneously protect themselves from the scrutiny of the Thai government, as the latter was forging closer relationships to Burma’s generals at the time.30
Confronted with the violence of military personnel persecuting civilians on-screen, the film’s plot attempts to provide respite in the constantly deferred reunions between Aung San Suu Kyi and her husband, Michael Aris. Yet their long-distance relationship takes shape through frustrated letters read aloud and phone calls, all of which are intercepted or interrupted by the mundane violence of the state in the home. Burmese femininity, underwritten by motherly duty to the family and nation, is under perpetual threat, as the film calls for looming guards to abruptly march into formation outside the home or, when inside, to stand closely behind Aung San Suu Kyi. Foreclosing her audibility and visibility, or the possibility of being seen and heard in human rights terms, the filmmakers focus on the phone line being repeatedly cut off by strategic electric shortages as she is in midconversation with her husband and children.
The sets also provide a sharp physical contrast between the shadows of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Yangon compound, framed by curtains fluttering but never fully pulled back, and the stark lightness of the Aris residence, or her deferred life, in London. This play on her domestic space as shadow animates her isolation as a singular hope for Burma’s future at the time. In contrast, every time the phone rings, the sound pairs on-screen with the brightness of the open space of the Aris residence in London, as rain patters on glossy, reflective windowpanes. Reinforcing the polarity between the “safe” life Aung San Suu Kyi could have had if she had just “chosen” exile and a life under house arrest, this play between light and dark contributes to the global exaltation of Aung San Suu Kyi as a steadfast Buddhist martyr with an unshakeable meditative presence. At the same time, in this environment, she is all but engulfed in shadows if not for a partially lit window—symbolically just out of reach of a promised visibility in Burma’s potentially human rights–laden future.
Feminist theorists such as Ellen Gorsevski have noted the “timeless” Burmese femininity that Aung San Suu Kyi strategically embodies as part of her public political persona, the latter of which relies on her posturing as a pious Buddhist mother destined for nonviolent protest. In particular, Gorsevski analyzes Aung San Suu Kyi’s “visual rhetoric” that is signified through what the author sees as celebrated qualities of femininity, “subtle demeanor,” and “petite” frame signifiers of “essentialized womanhood” that can sometimes present a problematic paradigm through which Aung San Suu Kyi is examined.31 Yet, at the same time, Gorsevski invokes Elizabeth Minnich to recuperate the notion of strategic essentialism, which “characterizes humans not by mortality but rather by natality, [and] can be effective in enabling nonviolent activists to convey messages and achieve political goals through uplifting and transformative persuasion in the public sphere.”32 In biofilmic representations of Aung San Suu Kyi’s sacrifices for the nation, this definition of an essentialized and universal femininity potentially obscures race and heterosexuality as central to these definitions of “natality”; it glosses over how “strategic essentialism” can, at times, rely heavily on colonial/imperial renderings of racialized femininity to be successful.33
To characterize women leaders as superhuman emblems of “natality” despite necropolitical circumstances defines these communities by a proclivity to give life ad infinitum. This familiar trope presupposes the burden of bearing not just children or biological life but the social reproduction of dissident and familial kinship in perpetuity. The expectation of Aung San Suu Kyi’s timeless capacity to “give life” to her supporters and the nation even while incarcerated situates liberal feminists’ underscoring of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Burmese-ness as exceptionally underwritten for these tasks. Reflecting on this recent past in the contemporary moment, this fixation on Aung San Suu Kyi’s “Burmese femininity” as tied to her capacity to mother the Burmese nation through its growing pains of political transition might partly explain why she is deemed by her human rights contemporaries to have failed at this task. However, at the time that preceded her release, the film’s continual focus on her being caught in the time and space of house arrest, not quite with comrades in prison and not part of the public sphere, ties her racialized femininity to a capacity to both perpetually rescue Burma (with the Global North’s help) and perpetually be rescued. The film’s on-screen projection of Aung San Suu Kyi’s Burmese femininity, racialized as both heroic and in need of rescue, has been critical for broader humanitarian discourses about Burma off-screen.
As The Lady provides a sense of unfettered access to Aung San Suu Kyi, the projection of her racialized and feminized capacity to foster the familiar and family pervades the performative aspects of the film’s international circulation and subsequent humanitarian projects. Even the film’s international reception was made possible by the producers’ and filmmakers’ connections to global diplomatic cultural institutions, from France to Thailand, but not in Burma itself. The film’s 2011 release coincided with the then relatively recent release of Aung San Suu Kyi from her house arrest. As one NPR reviewer, Ella Taylor, said of the film, “The Aung San Suu Kyi we see in The Lady is pretty much torn from the headlines—a vision of smiling Gandhian equanimity, unfazed by threats or the gun-waving thugs sent by the generals to keep her from galvanizing the opposition.”34 Her timely freedom made the film’s portrayal of a vulnerable love-torn patriot and wife, now returned to public life, even more salient as journalists, filmmakers, and cast also narrated her political career, incarceration, and subsequent long-awaited release in mainly familial terms.
On December 4, 2011, the international screening tour of The Lady stopped at the historically renowned New York satellite of the Asia Society, a global nonprofit organization, cultural foundation, and exhibition space for the dissemination of Asian arts and cultures. The film screening was funded with the support of Human Rights Watch, an international NGO that documents human rights abuses, and the Open Society Foundations, an international grant-making initiative intended to shape public policy and support for the building of “democratic” societies worldwide. Dylan Rodríguez has argued that the tenor of organizations like the Open Society, under its founder, George Soros, co-opts notions of dissent back into “bourgeois liberal democracy.” He includes the Open Society in a broader critique of stunted liberal progressivism within the nonprofit industrial complex writ large: “The imperative to protect—and, in Soros’s case, to selectively enable with funding—dissenting political projects emerges from the presumption that existing social, cultural, political, and economic institutions are in some way perfectible, and that such dissenting projects must not deviate from the unnamed ‘values’ which serve as the ideological glue of civil society.”35
The film’s premiere at the Asia Society, within this milieu of nonprofit organizations and courting funders, speaks to how dissent and human rights championing can conversely fall prey to what Rodríguez calls “perfectibility.” In these “live” supranational spaces in which filmmakers and producers performatively invoke Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom, these fictionalized renderings brush elbows with funders’ contemporaneous witnessing and very real grant-making initiatives to build out their visions for postauthoritarian democracies. The Asia Society already had a donor base that would make sense for this event since the film premiere came on the heels of other similarly ticketed events over the years, such as Burmese and Southeast Asian musical demonstrations and book events. The excitement around the recent news of Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from real-time house arrest also meant the lobby was packed and several mini red carpets inside were lined with journalists hoping to get a snapshot of Michelle Yeoh next to her own face on the promotional poster for The Lady. The sold-out film screening and Q&A for patrons, artists, and staff was a transnational affair. The Q&A was facilitated by world-renowned Taiwanese director Ang Lee, who moderated the conversation between Michelle Yeoh and Luc Besson.36
At the Asia Society premiere, as the cast and crew continued to extend the language of “family” and familiarity in the film’s dissemination to live audiences, they also intensified the audience’s ability to identify Aung San Suu Kyi’s figure across time—as maternal, filial, and familial. The Asia Society featured a report on the events on their website, in which they describe Besson’s investment in The Lady: “[Besson] is, however, mostly interested in what is deep inside this slightly-built woman who possesses the strength to fight the Burmese military. ‘Her weapon is basically love because she loves her country, loves her husband, loves her children. That’s the only weapon of mass construction that she has,’ said the director.”37
By calling “love” her only “weapon of mass construction,” Besson relies the discourse of “weapons of mass destruction,” often used to rationalize US and European involvement in the global “war on terror” as a war against enemy combatants of democracy. With regard to the specificity of Burma, Besson invokes the global political stakes of “weapons of mass construction” to precisely describe the tools he believes Aung San Suu Kyi has armed herself with against Burmese military scare tactics. This polarization of Aung San Suu Kyi’s expression of both Burmese femininity and patriotism as either “for” or “against” the military sidelines a more entrenched history of her insistence on the “rule of law,” which, in her party’s political platform, includes both the fallibility yet the necessity of its enforcement.38 However, Besson and others’ rendering of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career depicts her motherly duty (i.e., her racialized and gendered love and devotion to the nation and her family) as her most revelatory contribution to today’s humanitarian and democracy movements—a contribution that the director and film invite the international community, as an extended family, to in turn proliferate and defend as needed. In other words, this “familial” intimacy not only transforms Aung San Suu Kyi’s figure in the audiences’ eyes on screen but also allows filmmakers, actors, cast, crew, and, by extension, global audiences to transform themselves into members within this family structure.
In the Q&A portion after The Lady screening at the Asia Society, Michelle Yeoh was asked about the significant weight loss she underwent to achieve Aung San Suu Kyi’s “delicate” frame and her learning Burmese to affect Aung San Suu Kyi’s voice. These questions track with Lisa Brooten’s argument that the use of Aung San Suu Kyi’s face and “frail figure” in popular media reinforces the notion of female leaders as inherently soft, mothering, and nonviolent.39 Questions about weight loss, diet, and exercise regimes are normalized sexist questions directed toward actresses in the Hollywood film industry. However, in this scenario, Michelle Yeoh deflected the fixation on Aung San Suu Kyi’s frame by giving answers that foregrounded her own familiarity with Aung San Suu Kyi’s family. To prepare for the role, Yeoh solicited the help of Aung San Suu Kyi’s son, Kim Aris, to gain character insight. Upon meeting the real Aung San Suu Kyi for the first time over the phone, before filming began, Yeoh said that the encounter made her feel as if she were “catching up with a family member,” making Aung San Suu Kyi that much closer in reach. During a break in filming during December 2010, Yeoh even flew to Yangon to meet Aung San Suu Kyi in person and reiterated the sentiment of familiarity at the film’s various world premieres: “It was like visiting a family friend. . . . She held my hand. I was mesmerized.”40 The Guardian reported that during their visit, Yeoh and Aung San Suu Kyi were “spending the afternoon and evening at the lakeside mansion in Rangoon where [she] was held under house arrest for most of the previous 21 years until last month. The pair were also seen chatting yesterday at Rangoon airport, where the actor and Aung San Suu Kyi’s younger son were waiting to board planes to leave the country.”41 Yeoh’s trip coincided with the first time that Aung San Suu Kyi’s son, Kim Aris, had seen his mother in over a decade while she had been under house arrest.
Michelle Yeoh’s incorporation into an off-screen family reunion in order to establish a deeper sense of on-screen familial intimacy for the audience highlights the ease with which filmmakers have attempted to blur the line between reality and fiction. As Time reported at the time of filming in 2010: “Take Malaysian-born actress Michelle Yeoh, the former Bond girl who plays Suu Kyi. Yeoh not only strongly resembles the lissome Nobel laureate, but also occupies the part so convincingly that Besson calls it ‘perfect for her.’ ‘From the moment I saw this actress,’ says Thein Win, a Burmese actor playing a member of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD), ‘I thought, “She is Daw [Aunt] Suu.”’” Time also reports that Thein Win (now in exile) attended political party meetings with Aung San Suu Kyi before fleeing Burma in 1991. His eyewitness account of Aung San Suu Kyi being played by an unlikely “Bond girl” tips Yeoh’s portrayal ever more to the side of reality as he vouches for the authenticity of Yeoh’s performance in his capacity as Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD contemporary. Making affective and bodily intimacy with Aung San Suu Kyi’s story even more tangible to readers, the Time journalist continues, “he wept real tears during the scene in which Yeoh as Suu Kyi bids farewell to her sons before her incarceration. It was heartbreaking to watch.”42
In this spirit, Burma is not just a speculative landscape onto which audiences observe the politics of rescue or make family connections through the film’s publicity. Rather, the circulation of the film extends these politics of family and rescue to satellite spaces in which participants are invited to invest in ventures of global philanthropy and nonprofits’ arts funding. When these proliferations of humanitarian space give further scaffolding to Western feminist and humanist projects of rescue, sometimes they do so in excess of what formal nation-states can achieve. In 2014, Aung San Suu Kyi and Michelle Yeoh, connected through the biopic, not only had several occasions to meet but also founded the Suu Foundation together, “a humanitarian organization dedicated to health and education reform in Myanmar.”43 Registered in the United States and governed by a board whose strategic vision was developed in consultation with Aung San Suu Kyi in her formal capacity as state counsellor of Burma, the foundation’s current projects include infrastructural efforts focused on road safety, emergency medicine, vocational training, and job creation throughout Burma.
Aung San Suu Kyi and Michelle Yeoh reunited in March 2014 to formally unveil their foundation to a group of 350 international and local journalists for a freedom of the press conference at the historical East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawai‘i.44 Given Burma’s history of media censorship as a critical function of military rule, this particular event about freedom of the press not only was for those in attendance but also reflected the goals of the country’s political transition at a strategic time and place. At the unveiling, Aung San Suu Kyi described the foundation as a “simple, but necessary cause” to help rebuild Myanmar’s health care and education system, starting with Yangon University and the Yangon General Hospital: “Just as Daw Suu has made a difference, you and I can bring hope to help and bring dignity to the people of Myanmar.”45 These interlocutors mapped Burma’s embrace of transnational and pan-Southeast Asian sisterhood outside the country’s formal borders and were deeply enmeshed in the advancement of broader Asia-Pacific dialogues. Subsequently, this performative arena illuminates the discursive way in which Burma’s “fictional landscapes” have had a role to play in sculpting some of the current realities of humanitarian industry surrounding Burma—a fictional landscape built on the implicit and explicit rescue of familial subjects therein.
The selection of the East-West Center for such a foundational proclamation, for both global journalists and Burma’s diasporic communities in Hawai‘i, afforded additional regional political significance to the event itself. This event also further builds on the reputation of the already independent, public, nonprofit organization that is partially funded by the US government and has been synonymous with debates around foreign policy in the Asia-Pacific region since its inception in the midst of the Cold War in 1960.46 Then US secretary of state and former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and former First Lady Laura Bush were both present via videoconference to deliver messages of support as honorary co-chairs of the foundation.47 The year before this event, Clinton had infamously stated her hopes to “pivot” US foreign policy to the Pacific as part of ongoing American militarization of the region under the Obama administration.48 The convergence of these various global players, enabled by the film, assembled a prescient stage on which more global players might lay a stake in Burma’s future. As the East-West Center notes its dual branches in Honolulu and Washington, DC, the strategic location of the unveiling establishes a timely bond between spaces of official and unofficial human rights policy that connect Burma and the United States and solidifies “familial dialogue” as key to perception of the former’s human rights record. When architects of the event chose Hawai‘i to stage Burma-in-transition for the world, they further cemented Hawai‘i as a contested site of US colonial settlement in the Asia-Pacific and imbued Burma with the potential to join a “familial” settler-colonial dialogue of liberal human rights engagement vis-à-vis violent inclusion.49
The film’s legacies stand to accomplish a distilled version of contemporary Burmese politics threaded to popular representations of Aung San Suu Kyi’s and, increasingly, other dissidents’ perceived struggles with domesticity, diasporic movement, and international fame. As I have shown, critical to producing rescuable landscapes lies in how the film cultivates Burma as an inherently hostile territory. For filmmakers, vulnerable characters’ legibility as human rights subjects relies on their capacity to overcome struggles without succumbing to the Burma-centric, Buddhist-centric, and patriarchal demands of the nation, not necessarily the pressures of humanitarian knowability. In what follows, Ethnocine’s departure from these well-worn tropes and their approach to circulating women’s stories at a diasporic site frontloads the aftermath of authoritarian state legacies rather than initial state violence. In doing so, they provide an alternative trajectory for what transnational feminist solidarity might look like; specifically, they divest from the assumed linearity and spaces of “rescue” and track the multiple resettlements that expatriation from the nation can take.
Ethnocine is a feminist ethnographic film collective that was originally based out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, USA. Their founding members included Emily Hong, Miasarah Li, and Mariangela Mihai, who were graduate and undergraduate students at Cornell. I first encountered their work in fall 2014 at a conference organized by graduate students of anthropology and Asian studies about the stakes of Burma’s political transition from a military to a recently civilian government. In 1950, during the Cold War, Cornell University built a Southeast Asia program and in 2014, mostly graduate scholars organized this conference in the spirit of interdisciplinary routes that international research on Burma has taken. Their goal was to disrupt the origins of this program as a think tank for foreign policy and training US civil servants for work abroad to contain global communism.50 During the weekend’s events, Ethnocine played their film in progress, For My Art (2016), at Cornell’s Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art as part of a series of performances and video installations staged after daily scholarly and policy-oriented panels and conversations.
In this spirit, Nobel Nok Dah, their second film, also brings to bear human rights-oriented visual practices on the long and far-reaching legacies of military rule. Specifically, the film elaborates on the lives of Karen women refugees as part of Burma’s diaspora in New York. During the initial years of the government’s most recent political transition, international aid for refugees and displaced ethnic minority communities on the Thai-Myanmar border was surreptitiously cut with the rationale that it would be safe for refugees to return home. However, as noted in the Asia Times in April 2019, many ethnic minority Karen refugees and internationally displaced people who returned in postelection years have struggled to reestablish livelihoods amid continued land grabs.51 In 2019, armed conflict in southeastern Burma has also increased, forcing thousands of those recently returned to flee their homes once more.
In both films’ circulation, not unlike that of The Lady, the global reach of the work has been important. However, the filmmakers’ sense of localized effects (in both filming and circulation) has meant that women-focused media-making practices are deeply informed by those they interview and those with whom they organize. In a conversation with the Myanmar Times, available to audiences in Burma, the collective speaks to the process of deciding to make each film attuned to a feminist-led practice that centers women’s networks and camaraderie that can be overlooked by other artist peers:
EH: From the get-go we had planned to make a film about the work of women performance artists. We had just finished shooting for another short film, Nobel Nok Dah, where we had worked with women from Myanmar [refugees resettled in the US], and it was such an incredible experience. There is the freedom to develop friendships and intimacy with the camera that is surprisingly difficult with men. We were very lucky because, shortly after we arrived in Yangon to start shooting, we found out that there was to be the first-ever show of women performance artists at the now-closed TS1 art gallery. The curator, Nathalie Johnston, now of Myanm/art, had already introduced us to some of these women, but this night of performances was incredibly memorable. It was there that we first saw Emily Phyo’s work, the same piece that she performs in For My Art. I remember we asked one famous male artist there who his favorite female performance artist was, and he couldn’t come up with one. He knew many of them, but it seemed they didn’t quite meet the bar for him.52
In the Myanmar Times coverage, Emily Hong of Ethnocine specifically notes the connection between their two projects. The choice to focus on women’s stories behind the public perception of some of the United States’ newest Southeast Asian refugee groups in Nobel Nok Dah seems to have also informed their choice of foci for both their films. In a related vein, in For My Art, Ethnocine tracks how Burmese women’s performance art in Yangon is at times ignored in predominantly masculine spaces. As Hong remarks about trying to find women performance artists in Yangon, she was first foreclosed from meeting these artists as these women were “not being thought of” within a community of predominantly male artists.
The Lady and other popular depictions of Burmese human rights subjects are often premised on an unrestricted voyeuristic gaze in an attempt to fulfill one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s own famous adages, to “use [your] liberty to promote ours.”53 While the filmmakers of The Lady posit Western intervention as key to this freedom, they shirked the accountability of checking back with consultants, cast, and crew who were, in some cases, asked to relive the traumas of their own exile on screen. In contrast, Hong of Ethnocine uses the word intimacy to describe the development of friendships with the camera. This interpretation of “freedom to develop friendships and intimacy with the camera” could be understood as freedom(s) and friendships that inform both filmmakers’ and interviewees’ relationships with the camera, not just a unidirectional energy that solely affirms transnational or Western feminist-led exposition on gendered disciplining in public art space. This multidirectional relationship foregrounds an alternative ethics and accountability between filmmaker and interviewees.
In the same interview, Ethnocine situates their work in regional Southeast Asian and international film festival circuits dealing with human rights. They cite educational film institutions such as the Yangon Film School, which is doing urgent work that also merits more play with international audiences. While this may seem to be a passing reference to a local film school in Yangon, Hong’s layered citational practice foregrounds, instead of sequestering away, the presence of other local and transnational feminist and art collectives whose work simultaneously makes their possible. Namely, Nathalie Johnston, a curator and arts organizer in Yangon, Emily Phyo, a Yangon-based performance artist, and Chaw Ei Thein, a formerly exiled Burmese performance artist now living in the United States (whom the filmmakers cite as critical to their networking), are all credited in this interview with influencing the collective’s own approach to filming. By this mean, they hold local and diasporic feminist investments in documenting both macrocosmic events of displacement and their microcosmic effects and the levels of dissident artist and refugee world-making. In For My Art, this includes but is not limited to the effects of East Asian and European investment and urban renewal projects on city landscapes in Yangon, while some Burmese women performance artists work at the outskirts of public parks and ports. Alternatively, in Nobel Nok Dah, this approach focuses on the large-scale exodus of Karen refugee communities from Burma to Thailand, which catalyzes the diasporic circuitry of Karen resettlement in New York, where it is women refugees who are featured facilitating community gatherings.
Nobel Nok Dah begins with a rustling and an intentionally unfocused lens, giving way to a baby’s voice gurgling in between excited breaths. As the camera pulls away, audiences can identify the close-up of a baby’s neck dressed in pink layered clothes as rust-hued leaves flutter in the background. A child and mother in the woods follow each other and explore at leisure. We later learn that we have just met one of the main interviewees of the film, playing with her child in the United States after resettlement in upstate New York in a community with other Karen refugees. Following this scene are snippets of dialogue in women’s voices enmeshed over each other in English and at times subtitled: “I didn’t ask you to marry my mom. . . . It’s a rough neighborhood. People kill each other every night. . . . He got so mad because. . . . It’s a special occasion because at Christmas we have to write a letter to our sponsor. So, we wrote in Thai.”
These sentences that beg for further context give way to the title “Nobel Nok Dah” as it appears on-screen, beginning the film with an intentioned inscrutability of voices midstory. Throughout the film, the audience is privy to Nobel, Nok, and Dah’s reflections in medias res, beginning with a part of a face, an eye, a lip, or hands in which the person’s full visage is partly blurred at first. The audience is slowly drawn into fuller focus over time as they get to know the interviewees’ stories better. Yet instead of “breaking up” the body in a scopophilic way, which may risk potential intrusion on women’s bodies on film, this type of cinematography demands an attuned deep listening and ethical witnessing on the part of audiences. These alternative approaches to intimacy, which do not reveal whole home spaces or even whole faces, allow Ethnocine to reflect on how queer socialities and women-oriented friendships, not necessarily governed by heteronormative arrangements of domestic space and work, challenge the precedents in film culture about women from Burma as inherently inflicted with violent homes.54
Critical refugee studies theorists Yến Lê Espiritu and Lan Duong link the work of Vietnamese and Syrian refugee women artists in a comparative analysis that situates artists’ resistances to how military and state structures have produced refugees. By disaggregating monolithic understandings of gendered and racialized precarity to imperial and nationalist violence, these theorists deftly parse out US-centric notions of who constitutes and what forces cohere the existence of contemporary refugee populations. They forward the concept of feminist refugee epistemology (FRE) not only to transform notions of women refugee’s agency with respect to war-based displacement but also to foreground creativity in the realms of social reproduction as radical acts of social struggle and freedom: “Our focus is not on women’s lives per se but on the intersection between private grief and public trauma—on the hidden political forces within the site of intimate domestic interaction and queer sociality. Invoking the intimate politics of the everyday, FRE does more than critique Western media representation of refugees: it underlines refugees’ rich and complicated lives, the ways in which they enact their hopes, beliefs, and politics, even when their lives are militarized.”55
While Ethnocine’s members are not refugees, they attend to performativity, beyond vectors of being seen and heard, and lead with their interviewees’ sense of “private grief and public trauma.” This approach necessarily brings their transnational feminist solidarity into view in terms of aesthetic, structural, and political approaches to filming, interviewing, and circulation. In doing so, they engage in comparative work between Burma and the United States and attend to ethical means of amplifying experiences of what Espiritu and Duong define as women refugees’ critical life-making.
In refusing to invite a passive glance, Ethnocine’s approach to the lens considers the iterative bearing of the past on the present and enquires about Nobel, Nok, and Dah’s resettled lives, including their reflections on their experiences both before and after initial migrations. In the story of Nok, there is the slow reveal of her life circumstances and the filmmakers’ refusal to tell a linear story of resettlement that begins with Burma and ends with the United States. For example, the film features a scene of an airplane about to take off on a runway and then flying in the sky. Nok notes, “So, it was my first time ever to be on the plane. Sometimes the plane jumps down. I was so scared. That second, I grabbed a monk’s hand. In our culture a woman [is] not supposed to be near a monk, so when I was sitting next to him and when I grab[bed] his hand I sa[id], ‘I’m so sorry!’ because I know I’m not supposed to touch him.”
The filmmakers add background to the story as it’s being told as the images move away from her face to an airborne plane floating over a nameless cityscape with touches of green land. Nok continues, “By the time we got to Texas, [a] case worker pick[s] us up, speaks in Burmese. We do not speak Burmese. We have a suitcase that [is] in the airplane. ‘Do we have anything with us?’ We don’t speak Burmese, so we say no. So, we leave without [the] suitcase. We drive and we have no apartment, not any clothes. Our clothes in [the] bag we don’t have.” As the anecdote closes, the scene playing in the background as Nok ends the story is of a plane landing. Ethnocine films Delta planes circling and air traffic controllers on the ground. As the narrator tells the story of having no bags, there is footage of airport staff driving trams that carry luggage away on the tarmac in the opposite direction. The audience is left to ask where this baggage will “settle,” and left to wonder if translation for the narrator ever happened, even as the film itself is sometimes subtitled for the audience.
Ethnocine elaborates on the uncertainty that punctuates Nok’s journey to the United States, relaying the various interruptions, trepidations, and challenges along this journey rather than its seamlessness. While the footage of the plane is not necessarily of the interviewees’ original trip, Ethnocine’s reconstruction of the flight included gathering airport footage and rearranging it to convey Nok’s sense of both physical turbulence in flight and the disruptions of translation. While The Lady celebrates the freedom of London in contrast to the violence of Yangon through its use of light and dark space as clearly marked, Ethnocine’s approach to the notion of “freedom” is not necessarily attainable through visibility and testimony alone. In these seemingly minor moments, the film amplifies much more about their interviewees’ continual experiences of in-transit displacement in resettlement.
In another piece of media coverage, the filmmakers link their work to regional and national flows of culture in the context of screening space alongside other communities of color and workshopping within broader film movements for social justice. Critical media studies scholar Jasmine Nadua Trice writes about the event at which Ethnocine screened Nobel Nok Dah in Los Angeles, an event where Hong also conducted a workshop on social justice music videos: “The idea behind the program was to consider the current political moment more broadly and to bring in filmmakers from around the country, contextualizing the question of politics and film through the local, questioning the role of the Film Center in Echo Park and in Los Angeles, examining the role of films, especially activist or community films in this particular political moment, and considering cinema as a process, a tool, and a space.”56
Nadua Trice’s broader article specifically addresses the Echo Park Film Center as it fits into broader movements to combat the gentrification of Asian, Black, and Latinx communities (which make up 17, 5, and 57 percent of the neighborhood, respectively), some of whom may have survived militarized policing regimes in other times and places but who now reside in the broader Los Angeles area.57 While Nadua Trice’s work focuses on the Echo Park Film Center’s role in moviegoing as well as transnational and urban landscapes, I emphasize the screening of Nobel Nok Dah in a community film center setting that refuses to be erased in the face of racialized urban renewal projects. Putting Nobel Nok Dah’s circulation in this environment also speaks to the work of recognizing disparate scales of uprooting and transnational flows of people, and creating spaces to examine parallel movements for social justice.58 I consider these outer limits of the film’s circulation part of the necessarily comparative and nonessentialist invocations of refugee subjectivity in critical refugee studies that also attend to horizontal projects of racial justice and decolonial feminist epistemologies that structure the field.
Critical refugee studies scholars such as Cathy Schlund-Vials, Ma Vang, Eric Tang, Mimi Thi Nguyen, Yến Lê Espiritu, and others have argued that global contemporary refugee-making processes figure “the refugee” as someone necessarily ingratiated by the debt of citizenship upon their arrival to various sites of resettlement.59 Locating the work of Ethnocine in spaces of resettlement speaks to interviewees’ refusal of this indebtedness in what Tang might call “unsettling” ways, which consider juxtaposed scales and histories of displacement as essential to making sense of the film’s circulation and impact. The historical US race-making processes around who counts as a “good refugee,” as both Eric Tang and Yến Lê Espiritu have put it, often exceptionalize those who are considered the most easily assimilable subjects into US projects of liberalism in the latter half of the twentieth century. At the same time, this paradigm reveals the assumption that a “bad refugee” makes a nonideal subject for US citizenship, further racializing some refugees and simultaneously, other communities of color and other categories of (im)migrants as perpetually unfit for this task. In bringing up the way these ethnic, refugee, and diasporic geographies of displacement also inform each other, Ethnocine and similar collectives potentially invite unexpected audiences to further potential moments of coalition while also recognizing necessary discontinuities between their disparate nonlinear histories of migration.
As the film ends, the audience is brought into Nobel’s reflection on her present life and not necessarily her past. It becomes obvious that the filmmakers and interviewees met each other at Cornell, as Nobel is a staff member there, and at the time they met, the filmmakers were students there. Nobel notes, “I started working at Cornell. I started working in food . . . in [the] cafeteria and bakery.” The filmmakers are inside the sink area of a bathroom as Nobel gets ready to go to work. The mirror is obscured. “One day, I thought to myself, ‘I can do more. I can do better. My English is getting better.’” With the camera focused on her face, Nobel is lit overhead by big lights as if in a makeup mirror. “I don’t want to work in bakery or cafeteria for [the] rest of my life. So, I decided to go back to school and work part time.” She is applying blush to her face and taking out a lip pencil. “After I graduate TC3, I’ll apply to [a] teaching program. Now, I am a full-time student. I am [sic] 12 credits and I also work and support my family—I take care of my children and pay for rent. Even though life here is not that smooth, everything isn’t perfect. Because of my children. I’m not just doing [it for] myself. I’m doing it for them.”60
The camera pans away, drawing partial focus away from her face while she is getting ready. In showing half her profile as she pulls her hair into a barrette, the audience is made aware of the fuzzy shapes of three young girls laughing and running in the background, the oldest in glasses and peering into a toy chest. Instead of tightly focused shots, the final scenes of the film reveal Nobel, Nok, and Dah together in the same room at a Karen community center during a cultural celebration day in central New York. This footage is interspersed with text that reveals that eighty thousand refugees from Karen state alone fled Burma between 2001 and 2014. The film ends on the note that these survivors are dispersed in the diaspora, and in many cases are finding alternative means of community despite displacement.
Ethnocine offers a counterdiscourse to rampant xenophobia and overt state fascism, refusing to locate the Global North as a refuge from militarized state violence. In contrast to The Lady, Nobel Nok Dah refuses to reinscribe “rescue” as a matter of being “seen and heard” by Western human rights interlocutors; it instead situates the sole act of being “seen and heard” as a central limitation of liberal human rights agendas. This short film ushers in new arenas in transnationally sited ethnographies of refugee resettlement and embraces often overshadowed diasporic accounts from Southeast Asia and recent arrivals within Asian American histories. At the same time, this work challenges the narrative of the unmitigated triumph of the United States in navigating its fraught history of immigration, while advocating for those who continue to face the long-lasting legacies of multiple border crossings, militarization, and displacement.
As the guest editors of this special issue editors incisively pose in their introduction, “What forms of diasporic politics emerge at the limits of citizenship—ones that can activate new forms of transnational solidarity that subvert, rather than work within, the discursive and material boundaries of national citizenship?” In heeding the call to consider the ethical possibilities of transnational feminist solidarity, Ethnocine’s work traces potential modes of political education and media circulation that remain necessary to cohere these ethical possibilities.
This is not to analogously compare or collapse distinct periods of state violence, border crossings, different feminine-identified subjects from Burma, or the global efforts to resettle the disparate communities that followed them. However, the global conversation around Burma’s human rights record reemerges at a critical moment in its political transition. With this transition comes the possibility of sustained human rights engagements with “postauthoritarian nations” that must contend with the broad aftermath of humanitarian and state optics to recuperate dispossessed subjects. By challenging assumptions of monolithic and linear experiences from displacement within Burma to refugee camps and the United States, Nobel Nok Dah creates performative space for multiple, nonlinear “unsettlings” in the unfinished process of resettlement.
Attending to these simultaneous tropes of transition reveals how human rights advocates within the humanitarian and global arts industries cohere the afterlife of “rescue” for vulnerable populations. What terms do these scenarios set up for other refugees, exilic communities, and asylees who seek the good graces of dominant humanitarian discourse for the purpose of agency and movement? As these films become enmeshed in the web of humanitarian and arts benefaction, they reveal the stakes in making art for human rights causes, especially as these films have the potential to further serve or underserve the communities for whom they intend to advocate. Namely, these cultural productions are a caution against how some advocates codify patterns of transformation as solutions for human rights subjects’ economic and physical precarity. As contemporary refugee communities deal with the ongoing legacies of militarized, postauthoritarian, and humanitarian violence, these forms of advocacy implore ethical interlocutors to unmoor the hierarchical landscape of rescuability that exiled dissident, refugee, and asylum seeker subjects must traverse.
Emily Hue is currently an assistant professor of ethnic studies at UC Riverside, where she specializes in studies of humanitarianism, visual art, performance, feminist/queer studies, and Southeast Asia. Her book manuscript, tentatively titled Economies of Vulnerability: Humanitarian Imperialism and Performance in the Burmese Diaspora, explores how diasporic artists and activists from Burma and other postcolonial nations use self-injury to express their vulnerability to challenges of military rule, arts and humanitarian funding, and resettlement. Her most recent work appears in Lit: Literature Interpretation Theory and Women’s Studies Quarterly. She hails from Brooklyn, New York.
The Karen people are a heterogeneous ethnic minority group spread across Myanmar, while many reside in Kayin state in southeastern Myanmar. Some of the Karen, led primarily by the Karen National Union (KNU), have been in conflict with the Burmese government since early 1949 after World War II during debates around postcolonial independence from British and Japanese empires.
The Republic of the Union of Myanmar, or Myanmar, is the official designation of the country also known as Burma. While the name Myanmar recognizes the region’s precolonial history, its use is contested because of its association with the authoritarian military junta that instituted it. Many people, including myself, continue to use the name Burma colloquially. I use the term Burmese as an umbrella term for the many ethnic groups that compose the people of Burma, even though the term derives from the majority Burman ethnic group. For further reference, see Tamara C. Ho, Romancing Human Rights: Gender, Intimacy, and Power between Burma and the West (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2015), ix.
“Vision,” Ethnocine, accessed December 30, 2020, https://www.ethnocine.com/new-page-2.
This is in addition to being refused Burmese and Bangladeshi citizenship for over two hundred years. Today, Rohingya Muslim communities in Burma occupy the western part of the Rakhine state, a northern territory of Burma that borders Bangladesh. See “Burma/Bangladesh: Burmese Refugees in Bangladesh: Discrimination in Arakan,” Human Rights Watch, accessed August 1, 2015, http://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/burma/burm005-02.htm.
She has firmly defended her point that the Burmese government has been observing the “rule of law” with regard to the state’s management of civil unrest in most recent responses to citizenship policies around Muslim Rohingya communities. Some celebrities and pundits have called for the revocation of her Nobel Peace Prize. “Aung San Suu Kyi Denies Ethnic Cleansing of Rohingya,” Al Jazeera, April 6, 2017, accessed September 3, 2019, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/4/6/aung-san-suu-kyi-denies-ethnic-cleansing-of-rohingya.
“Myanmar Army Admits Rohingya Killings,” BBC News, January 10, 2018, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-42639418.
“Rohingya Emergency,” UNHCR, July 31, 2019, https://www.unhcr.org/rohingya-emergency.html.
Some descriptions of the film appeared previously in a visual and new media review for the Society of Cultural Anthropology. See Emily Hue, “Feminist Praxis in Ethno-fiction,” Society for Cultural Anthropology, August 13, 2020, https://culanth.org/fieldsights/feminist-praxis-in-ethno-fiction.
Among other projects, Hong is the cofounder of Ethnocine and Rhiza Collectives, cohost and producer of the Bad Feminists Making Films podcast, and a core member of the Asian American Documentary Network (A-DOC). Her broader research on labor and political activism in Thailand and Myanmar and films have been supported by the National Science Foundation, Wenner-Gren Foundation, Center for Asian American Media, Bertha Foundation, and the Tribeca Film Institute. Mariangela Mihai Jordan is an anthropology and film PhD candidate at Cornell University. Her current research looks at overlapping nationalisms, identity, and ethnicity in Mizoram (a northeast Indian state bordering Burma). Jordan is collaborating with the Mizo Film Development Society and the Central Young Mizo Association to produce an in-depth ethnographic film that follows YMA’s sociopolitical activities across Mizoram. Miasarah Lai is a documentary producer, camera operator, editor, and emerging director, who has since worked internationally in Honduras, Ghana, Myanmar, China, Nicaragua, Romania, and the United States. She has received grants from the Academy of Arts and Sciences, Camden International Film Festival, Double Exposure Film Festival, the Propeller Fund, and a DVID fellowship from Kartemquin Films. Lai is a member with Brown Girls Doc Mafia as well as the Asian American Documentary Network. See Ethnocine Collective, https://www.ethnocine.com.
Edith Mirante, “Escapist Entertainment: Hollywood Movies of Burma,” Irrawaddy, March 2004, https://www2.irrawaddy.com/article.php?art_id=932.
Ho, Romancing Human Rights, 22.
Beyond Rangoon (1994) is a film about the same time period as the 1988 Burmese student and civilian uprisings.
In the wake of human rights crises surrounding Rohingya communities, previously longtime supporters of Aung San Suu Kyi have rescinded their support. For example, songwriter, musician, and activist Bob Geldof spoke out on what he called the “assent” of Aung San Suu Kyi in 2017 escalations of Rohingya displacement. He refused to be a recipient of the same “Freedom” Award that recognized activists for their work on human rights by noting, “I would be a hypocrite now were I to share honors with one who has become at best an accomplice to murder, complicit in ethnic cleansing and a handmaiden to genocide.” By the end of 2018, Amnesty International followed suit and revoked the world-renowned Ambassador of Conscience Award ceremoniously offered to Aung San Suu Kyi almost a decade earlier. See Tom Sykes, “Bono, Bob Geldof Call Out ‘Handmaiden to Genocide’ Aung San Suu Kyi Over Rohingya Silence,” Daily Beast, November 13, 2017, https://www.thedailybeast.com/bob-geldof-bono-attack-aung-saan-suu-kyi-over-ethnic-cleansing.
Here I draw on Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s notion of queer performativity, in conversation with Judith Butler, as it relates to discursive gestures of power or performative acts that can cohere authority in the disciplining of gendered bodies. See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003).
Chandra Talpade Mohanty, “‘Under Western Eyes’ Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 28, no. 2 (January 2003): 499–535.
Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Can the Subaltern Speak? (Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1988).
Yến Lê Espiritu and Lan Duong, “Feminist Refugee Epistemology: Reading Displacement in Vietnamese and Syrian Refugee Art,” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 43, no. 3 (March 1, 2018): 588, https://doi.org/10.1086/695300.
Espiritu and Duong, 589.
For a select sample of ongoing research, teaching, scholarship, public initiatives, and cultural production in the field of critical refugee studies, see the Critical Refugee Studies Collective, https://criticalrefugeestudies.com/.
Ed Caesar, “First Lady: Aung San Suu Kyi,” Dazed, October 12, 2011, http://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/11715/1/first-lady-aung-san-suu-kyi.
Lisa Brooten, “The Feminization of Democracy under Siege: The Media, ‘the Lady’ of Burma, and U.S. Foreign Policy,” NWSA Journal 17, no. 3 (Fall 2005): 134–56, https://doi.org/10.1353/nwsa.2005.0057.
Lisa Brooten engages analysis of select Newsweek articles from the 1990s and 2000s to arrive at this point. See Brooten, “Feminization of Democracy,” 134.
Ho also engages one of the most salient analyses on Aung San Suu Kyi’s political career as she notes that Aung San Suu Kyi and other Burmese women writers employ a tactic of displacement, which includes how Aung San Suu Kyi “consciously negotiate(s) her performative power and her cultural and linguistic fluency to deploy persuasive discourse of political ethics, critical agency, local culture, national sovereignty and community loyalty.” Ho, Romancing Human Rights, 68.
Rena Pederson, The Burma Spring: Aung San Suu Kyi and the New Struggle for the Soul of a Nation (New York: Pegasus Books, 2015).
Aung San Suu Kyi’s title is state counsellor, and she presides over the president’s office, the foreign ministry, the energy ministry, and ministry of education.
Michelle Yeoh is a Malaysian actress whose previous credits include blockbuster martial arts and dramatic hits of Chinese, and more broadly Asian and now American, cinema including Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Crazy Rich Asians (2018).
This staging was not just for the scene of house arrest but to even re-create sunrises and light filtration the way they would have appeared within the home. “The Lady Is a Champ in Burma,” Page Six (blog), December 15, 2011, https://pagesix.com/2011/12/15/the-lady-is-a-champ-in-burma/.
“Torture in Prison,” AAPP, accessed June 15, 2020, https://aappb.org/?p=6431.
“Lady Is a Champ.”
At the time of the filming, the project was titled Dans la lumière (In the light), and both cast and crew signed confidentiality agreements, as “to avoid offending the authorities, who would possibly order the shoot shut down, scripts carry a deliberately insipid working title that gives no clue to their content.” Andre Marshall, “The Lady: Aung San Suu Kyi’s Fight for Freedom,” Time, December 27, 2010, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2037417,00.html.
Ellen W. Gorsevski, Peaceful Persuasion: The Geopolitics of Nonviolent Rhetoric (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2004), 104.
The term strategic essentialism is not to be confused with Gayatri Spivak’s concept of the same name, nor Lisa Lowe’s extension of it as it applies to Asian American studies—both references are absent from Gorsevki’s text.
Ella Taylor, “‘The Lady’: Self-Sacrifice, for Her Country’s Sake,” NPR, April 12, 2012, http://www.npr.org/2012/04/12/150297416/the-lady-self-sacrifice-for-her-countrys-sake.
Dylan Rodríguez, “The Political Logic of the Non-profit Industrial Complex,” S&F Online 13, no. 2 (Spring 2016), https://sfonline.barnard.edu/navigating-neoliberalism-in-the-academy-nonprofits-and-beyond/dylan-rodriguez-the-political-logic-of-the-non-profit-industrial-complex/.
Luc Besson has previously been involved in both the award-winning films The Fifth Element (1997) and La Femme Nikita (1990). As of 2019, he has been accused of sexual assault by various women encountered throughout his career in the film industry.
“Love Is Aung San Suu Kyi’s Weapon of Mass Construction,” Asia Society, accessed January 16, 2021, https://asiasociety.org/new-york/love-aung-san-suu-kyis-weapon-mass-construction.
Htet Naing Zaw, “Daw Aung San Suu Kyi Says Rule of Law Must Come First,” Irrawaddy, March 8, 2018, https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/daw-aung-san-suu-kyi-says-rule-law-must-come-first.html.
Brooten, “Feminization of Democracy.”
Marshall, “The Lady.”
Ben Child, “Michelle Yeoh and Luc Besson Linked with Aung San Suu Kyi Biopic,” Guardian, December 8, 2010, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2010/dec/08/michelle-yeoh-aung-san-suu-kyi.
Marshall, “The Lady.”
“Suu Foundation,” Suu Foundation, accessed July 15, 2019, https://suufoundation.org/ (now defunct).
The idea for the Suu Foundation’s partnering with US institutions came out of Suu Kyi’s previous visit to Honolulu in 2013. Craig Gima, “Suu Foundation in Hawaii Will Help Myanmar,” Honolulu Star-Advertiser, March 9, 2014, https://www.staradvertiser.com/2014/03/08/breaking-news/suu-foundation-in-hawaii-will-help-myanmar/.
Gima, “Suu Foundation.”
“Mission and Organization,” East-West Center, August 28, 2008, https://www.eastwestcenter.org/about-ewc/mission-and-organization.
In 2012, upon the heels of Burma’s political transition and democratic reforms following Aung San Suu Kyi’s release, Hillary Clinton, as then US Secretary of State, made a historic visit to Burma to greet her. Laura Bush also still currently serves in a capacity as honorary chair of the board of the Suu Foundation.
Rong Chen, “A Critical Analysis of the U.S. ‘Pivot’ toward the Asia-Pacific: How Realistic Is Neo-realism?,” Connections 12, no. 3 (2013): 41.
For more on histories of racialized and gendered inclusion and exclusion in the context of settler colonialism in Hawai‘i, see Maile Arvin, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill, “Decolonizing Feminism: Challenging Connections between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy,” Feminist Formations 25, no. 1 (2013): 8–34; Maile Renee Arvin, Possessing Polynesians: The Science of Settler Colonial Whiteness in Hawai‘i and Oceania (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019); Candace Fujikane and Jonathan Y. Okamura, Asian Settler Colonialism: From Local Governance to the Habits of Everyday Life in Hawai‘i (Honolulu: University of Hawai‘i Press, 2008); Dean Itsuji Saranillio, “Why Asian Settler Colonialism Matters: A Thought Piece on Critiques, Debates, and Indigenous Difference,” Settler Colonial Studies 3, nos. 3–4 (November 2013): 280–94, https://doi.org/10.1080/2201473X.2013.810697; and Aimee Carrillo Rowe and Eve Tuck, “Settler Colonialism and Cultural Studies: Ongoing Settlement, Cultural Production, and Resistance,” Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies 17, no. 1 (February 2017): 3–13, https://doi.org/10.1177/1532708616653693.
This is perhaps in alignment with the formation of the field of critical Asian studies in the late 1960s to create alternative viewpoints to Cold War expansionist ideologies of the time. See also Critical Asian Studies, https://criticalasianstudies.org/.
Thomas Wilkie-Black, “Myanmar’s Karen Displaced in a Quagmire,” Asia Times, accessed October 15, 2019, https://www.asiatimes.com/2019/04/article/myanmars-karen-displaced-in-a-quagmire/.
Sam Cartmell, “The Women Taking Art to the Streets of Yangon,” Myanmar Times, September 9, 2016, https://www.mmtimes.com/lifestyle/22402-the-women-taking-art-to-the-streets-of-yangon.html (emphasis mine).
Daw Aung san Suu Kyi, International Herald Tribune, “‘Please Use Your Liberty to Promote Ours,’” New York Times, February 4, 1997, https://www.nytimes.com/1997/02/04/opinion/IHT-please-use-your-liberty-to-promote-ours.html.
For more on ethnographic refusal in feminist of color, Indigenous feminist, and decolonial approaches, see Audra Simpson, “On Ethnographic Refusal: Indigeneity, ‘Voice’ and Colonial Citizenship,” Junctures 9 (December 2007): 14; Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London: Zed Books, 1999); Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “R-Words: Refusing Research,” in Humanizing Research: Decolonizing Qualitative Inquiry with Youth and Communities, ed. Django Paris and Maisha T. Winn (London: SAGE, 2014), 223–24; Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Unbecoming Claims: Pedagogies of Refusal in Qualitative Research,” Qualitative Inquiry 20, no. 6 (2014): 811–18, https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800414530265; and Kamala Visweswaran, Fictions of Feminist Ethnography (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994).
Espiritu and Duong, “Feminist Refugee Epistemology,” 588.
Jasmine Nadua Trice, “The Echo Park Film Center: Microcinemas, Production Subcultures, and the Politics of Urban Space,” The Projector, accessed June 3, 2020, https://www.theprojectorjournal.com/jasmine-nadua-trice.
“Census Profile: Los Angeles County–LA City (East Central/Silver Lake, Echo Park & Westlake) PUMA, CA,” Census Reporter, accessed June 15, 2020, http://censusreporter.org/profiles/79500US0603734-los-angeles-county-la-city-east-centralsilver-lake-echo-park-westlake-puma-ca/.
After meeting Ethnocine at Cornell in 2014, in 2017, I nominated For My Art to be part of the Human Rights Film Festival at UC Merced, a public university campus in Northern California. UC Merced’s student body comprises in part Latinx and resettled Southeast Asian communities. The campus hosted filmmaker Miasarah Lai, who presented their film For My Art at the festival as well as myself, in the capacity of my research.
Yến Lê Espiritu, Body Counts: The Vietnam War and Militarized Refugees (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014); Mimi Thi Nguyen, The Gift of Freedom: War, Debt, and Other Refugee Passages (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012); Eric Tang, Unsettled: Cambodian Refugees in the New York City Hyperghetto (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015); Cathy J. Schlund-Vials, War, Genocide, and Justice: Cambodian American Memory Work (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012); Ma Vang, “Writing on the Run: Hmong American Literary Formations and the Deterritorialized Subject,” MELUS: Multi-ethnic Literature of the United States 41, no. 3 (June 2016): 89–111, https://doi.org/10.1093/melus/mlw031.
Though this is not clear from the film, TC3, or Tompkins Cortland Community College, is a local community college that has an extension school in Ithaca, New York, a short distance from Cornell University, where Nobel works.
Thanks to the guest editors of this special issue, Camilla Hawthorne and Jennifer Lynn Kelly, for their care with our words. Thanks also to the Ethnocine Collective, and Nobel, Nok, and Dah for their generously shared stories.