J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Kew Gardens ’17: Voices from Kaw Thoo Lei (short)

Burma’s Mainland China-aligned military junta loved to rename things, starting with the nation itself. Similarly, the region known as Kaw Thoo Lei by its ethnic Karen population became the Karen state. In this case, you might credit the government with some degree of honesty, since Kaw Thoo Lei means “peaceful land.” Tragically, state-sponsored terrorism and ethnic cleansing have made the region anything but peaceful. Survivors of the genocidal crimes tell their stories in Martha Gorzycki’s experimental short documentary, Voices from Kaw Thoo Lei (trailer here), which screens during the first ever Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema.

Gorzycki insists we focus on their testimony, so she strips away distractions that come from talking head interviews. We will only hear audio of the speakers, superimposed over eerie animated images generated from over ten thousand black-and-white photos. They are mostly impressionistic rather than representational, but they express a deeper truth about the state of human rights in Burma.

As you would expect, the stories are chilling and heartbreaking. At regular intervals, the Burmese military would descend on Kaw Thaw Lei like locusts, burning all the huts and food stores in sight. Women were raped and orphaned children were left to fend for themselves in the rain forest.

You cannot accuse Gorzycki of using cheap tactics to gin up sympathy. There are no manipulative images of bloody corpses or crying children. Yet, we understand in no uncertain terms such suffering frequently resulted from the government-sponsored rampages.

Voices is one of several recent avant-garde-ish short documentaries that use unconventional means to chronicle crimes against humanity. Some enterprising festival ought to program it together with Alexandre Liebert’s Scars of Cambodia and Alisi Telengut’s Nutag – Homeland. They are all challenging films, not because they are hard to watch, but rather because they are hard to face. Very highly recommended, Vocies from Kaw Thoo Lei screens this afternoon (8/10) at the Queens Museum, as part of the inaugural Kew Gardens Festival of Cinema.

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