Documentary Inspires Effort to Free Zarganar, Burma’s Most Famous Comedian
On May 18, Burma released a few dozen of its estimated 2,200 political prisoners. But Zarganar, the Southeast Asian nation’s most famous comedian and one of the most active government critics, remains behind bars.
Zarganar’s political humor has long been scrutinized by Burma’s military government. His films have been censored and banned. In 2006, he was barred from participating in the entertainment industry all together.
In November 2008, Zarganar was sentenced to 59 years in prison (later reduced to 35 years) for speaking out against the Burmese government in foreign media outlets.
Prompted by his imprisonment, British filmmaker Rex Bloomstein decided to look back at the footage he had taken of the comedian in 2007. Working with the Cinema For Peace Foundation (CFPF), Bloomstein and German comedian Michael Mittermeier turned Zarganar’s struggle against human rights abuses in Burma into a full-length documentary.
Bloomstein and Mittermeier’s journey to “reveal how important Zarganar is [to Burma]” was not without its difficulties. Notorious for its appalling human rights record, Burma holds a tight grip on the media and bars a number of international news organizations from reporting in the country. During their secret trip to Burma, the filmmakers:
Encounter the fear and oppression of living under a dictatorship with constant surveillance by government informants. Friends and colleagues of Zarganar with whom they arranged to interview will no longer speak – even passersby flinch from the camera – all due to government intimidation. Despite this they film the prison where Zarganar is held and eventually manage to smuggle this footage out of the country.
But despite their difficulties, the filmmakers and the CFPF did not relent on their mission to bring Zarganar’s story to the world. They were determined to produce a film that would:
Share [Zarganar's] thoughts and feelings, his stories of arrest and torture, that would tell how he survived five years of solitary confinement. A film that would reveal to the world his humility, his identification with the ordinary people of Burma and his fearless opposition to the Generals. But, above all, a film that could form the heart of a campaign to alert the world to the terrible injustice of Zarganar’s imprisonment.
In the past few months, Burma has made nominal efforts to address its political prisoners. They’ve reduced the sentences of some prisoners by one year and taken the death penalty off the table for others. But as Elaine Pearson, the Deputy Asia Director at Human Rights Watch commented, Burma’s efforts “[are] a pathetic response to international calls for the immediate release of all political prisoners.”
Take Action: Zarganar has more than 30 years left of his prison term. Show your support for Zarganar, and all political prisoners in Burma, by signing the Cinema for Peace Foundation’s petition.
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