Nobel Women’s Initiative hosts the Ottawa premiere of locally produced This is my Witness
by Holly Gordon
The schoolyard is where most things start: friendships; grudges; alliances playing Red Rover. But just over a year ago, something bigger was borne of an Ottawa playground— a documentary on the women of Burma.
Local documentary filmmaker Jane Gurr was chatting in her children’s schoolyard when another of the moms started talking about a project that would bring women from Burma to New York City to testify about injustices they’d suffered at the hands of the Burmese regime.
“I said to her, ‘Gee, it’s an amazing initiative, you really should record it somehow,’” recalls Gurr. “And one thing led to another and I got involved in making a film about the women’s tribunal.”
The mom to whom Gurr’s referring is Rachel Vincent, the manager of media and communications for Nobel Women’s Initiative. Nobel Peace Laureates Jody Williams, Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai, Rigoberta Menchu Tum, Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan Maguire formed the initiative five years ago in an effort to put their brains together to bring justice and equality to all women. The all-female Nobel Peace Laureate group represents half of the 12 women who’ve won the Nobel Peace Prize, out of the total 121 Nobel Peace Laureates in the prize’s history.
On March 2, 2010, the Nobel Women’s Initiative and the Women’s League of Burma co-hosted the International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women of Burma, inviting 12 Burmese women to tell their stories in a public forum. Gurr, along with fellow Ottawan producer/director Ed Kucerak and editor Jith Paul, documented the journey of two women participating in the tribunal — Saw Myat Mar and Saw Ma Pu Sein.
This is my Witness briefly follows the lives of Myat Mar and Ma Pu Sein as they prepare for the tribunal, developing a fast friendship during their short time together. Myat Mar is a supporter and friend of Burmese pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and was arrested and held as a political prisoner in Burma for three years; she now lives in San Jose, California. Ma Pu Sein is currently living as a refugee in Bangladesh, after running from the Burmese military that forced her — and her 10-year-old daughter — to build roads by hand.
The film is short, clocking at only 25 minutes, but Gurr says this was specifically for the Nobel Women’s Initiative to use the film at talks such as tonight’s panel discussion. The film meets up with Myat Mar and Ma Pu Sein before and after they travel to the tribunal, juxtaposing Myat Mar’s middle-class, San Jose life with Ma Pu Sein’s uncertain future as a refugee in Bangladesh.
Scenes of both women at home are the quietest — Myat Mar wearing a dress that’s more traditionally Burmese than her American clothing, straightening a pin showing Aung San Suu Kyi’s face on her jacket in a closet mirror; Ma Pu Sein looking through photos of the tribunal with friends once she’s back in Bangladesh.
Gurr hired a film crew in New York City and in San Jose, the former to capture the tribunal and the latter to meet up with Myat Mar before she left for NYC (Gurr also sent someone to Bangladesh to meet Ma Pu Sein). While the film can’t go too deeply given its time limit, it does the job — scenes of both women breaking down at the tribunal podium while telling of their imprisonment and rape are difficult to witness.
“What we hope people will take from the film is the sense of outrage about what’s going on in Burma, and a desire to see countries like Canada push the international community to do more to bring about change in that country,” says Gurr.
Tonight’s panel discussion, with Nobel Peace Laureate Williams, the Ottawa Citizen’s Kate Heartfield, tribunal participant Sheila Htoo and Nisha Toomey from Canadian Friends of Burma will lead a discussion after the film screens, focusing on what women in Burma face, and what Canadians can do.
For Gurr, the most affecting part of filmmaking has been following Myat Mar and Ma Pu Sein through the lens.
“For the two women who are in the film, having participated in the project and having gone to New York and told their stories I think was hugely validating for them,” she says. “That somebody wanted to hear what had happened to them, and somebody wanted to record that information in a formal setting.”
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