Published on November 7, 2007
While the film is probably more suitably confined to refugee-camp workshops and organising meetings, the people depicted in the Karen docu-drama, "The Songs of Eh Doh Shi", are yearning to be free.
Just before its first public screening in Thailand last Thursday afternoon as part of the World Film Festival of Bangkok, members of the 100-strong, mostly foreign audience were demanding that the film they hadn't yet watched be released on DVD. The filmmakers asked the audience to first watch the film, hoping it would explain things a bit better. But the pleas for a DVD returned during a question-and-answer session with the filmmakers, who were at great pains to explain who the film was made for, and why. Even after the Q&A session spilled out into the theatre lobby, the director and producer were still patiently trying to explain.
"The Songs of Eh Doh Shi" was made initially for relief workers and residents of the Karen refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border as a way of recording their common experiences and hardships. It was shown in the Karen villages and refugees camps, in workshops and meetings. It was made by Karen people for Karen people, and serves as a tool for Karen on both sides of the border to find some common ground.
The film covers most of the major issues faced by the Karen population. One boy wants desperately to go to school so he can learn to read and write and assist his father in navigating the Thai legal system to get his family's land back. But even though he was born in Thailand, because he is Karen he is denied Thai citizenship and the right to schooling. He can attend a Karen school, but the schoolwork won't be accepted by the Thai system.
The boy's father, a Thai-Karen landholder, has been frustrated in his efforts to have his land returned. The government donates rice as a way of compensation, but the man doesn't want handouts - he wants land, and then he can grow his own rice.
One woman wants to be a medic to help people, but has no hope of ever getting any training.
Tying these threads together is Eh Doh Shi, a 15-year-old boy who sings heartfelt revolutionary ballads and plays a beat-up, out-of-tune guitar. Orphaned by the war in Burma, he wants to go back and join one of the Karen armies fighting the Burmese junta. Eh Do Shi is a classmate of the boy student, and stays with the woman.
The all-Karen cast was backed up by a crew of Karen and Thai non-governmental organisation workers. While putting it out on DVD or opening the film for a wider release would spread the crucial word about the Karen crisis, the filmmakers say they feel that such a move would hamper the progress they are making.
The film was directed by Hta Haw Koh and produced by Th'blay Paw, who are both Thai but prefer to go by their Karen names. While many of the actors in the film have since been settled in third countries, the filmmakers and others are continuing to live and work in Thailand, and there might be trouble for them if this film is seen in certain quarters.
The reasons for their fear have to do with the paranoid governments that oppose their efforts, that (on the Thai side) seek to maintain the status quo or - in Burma and the Karen states - need something they can call a victory.
Caught between the fighting are the Karen people. On the one hand there are the Burmese-Karen refugees, fleeing the fighting between their various rebel armies and the junta's forces. On the other, there's the Thai-Karen, who have populated the region since before there were things called borders or the need for paper to prove land ownership. Both are marginalised - the Thai Karen not recognised as Thai citizens and therefore unable to make any advances. With the Burmese-Karen refugees being settled in refugee camps on former Thai-Karen land, the two groups are pitted against one another. This film helps explain both sides and shows that there is some common ground for both to stand on.
The stories are all true. Some portrayals are dramatisations while others are actual events caught on film, among them a protest by Karen people who were denied medical treatment. Another episode deals with a group of Karen women trying to obtain better treatment for an elderly "black" Karen man - one of the Karen Muslims, a marginalised people within a marginalised people. How the court official can remain implacable in the face of these finger-pointing aunties is a mystery. Other dramatic footage comes in the form of a far-away, telephoto shot of an actual refugee camp. To call the stark landscape a camp is an overstatement, for it doesn't appear there is much in the way of shelter.
One of the most moving scenes in the film shows a young Karen schoolgirl giving a report, and she ties together the whole film - from her yearning to visit the tribal home of her classmate, to her noting the absence of Eh Doh Shi, since he left to join one of the Karen armies. Her monologue is performed with such sincerity, it's hard not to get tearful.
The desire of the audience to have this story spread far and wide is understandable, and it has particular resonance, with Burma again making the news, and word of atrocities there slowly starting to gain traction.
Aside from the World Film Festival of Bangkok screening, and the showings in camps, the film has been shown at two other film fests - the Refugee Film Festival last year in Phnom Penh and Seoul's Human Rights Film Festival in May.
The filmmakers have no other plans at the moment to screen "The Songs of Eh Doh Shi" anywhere else.
A day will come when "The Songs of Eh Doh Shi" are sung far and wide, but only when Karen people are finally free and regarded as part of the human race. By then, the film will have become a historical drama, rather than the current-events documentary it is now.