The Lady Behind the Icon

Making a documentary on a person who is essentially one of the most well-know modern female icons is not an easy task. There isn’t much that the world doesn’t already know about Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy leader who was detained under house arrest by the country’s military regime for almost two decades. 

But icons often take on a larger-than-life status, and when we look past her oft-quoted 1991 Nobel Peace Prize or phase as Burma’s dissident leader, what do we really know about her?

Phnom Penh-based filmmaker Marc Eberle and his co-director Angus McQueen attempted to get to the person behind the one so often idolized by reporters, human rights activists and the millions of Burmese who call her “Mother Suu” in their documentary “The Choice,” which was broadcast in September on the BBC and will be screened in the U.S. later this month.
The title refers to the pivotal decision that Ms. Suu Kyi made to remain under house arrest for 15 of her 21 years in Burma, choosing to forgo taking part in the lives of her husband and two sons in England.

After refusing to talk about her personal life for years to foreign journalists, Mr. Eberle said they were lucky to catch her during the opportune period after she was released from house arrest in November 2010 and before her entry into Burma’s politics. Filming lasted four months, until the April by-elections, and editing the hour-long piece took about three months.

“The idea was just to show the strength of this woman everyone knows and have her in a personal conversation. No one has managed to interview her on her private life—she would not talk about anything,” Mr. Eberle said. “We told her what we wanted her to do—told her that we are not interested in politics, in news, and in all the other things the other media people were interested in. We are only interested in a feature-length documentary portraying her.”

“I don’t know why she agreed to it, but for some reason, she did,” he said.

In the interview portion filmed in January 2012, Ms. Suu Kyi is dressed in a yellow top with the usual jasmine flowers adorning her hair. She appears relaxed and congenial, and spoke about her late husband Michael Aris, who died in 1999. Calling him “persistent,” Ms. Suu Kyi said, “He didn’t catch me quite so easily.”

And “of course” she regretted being unable to watch her sons grow up, but which mother wouldn’t?

The more revelatory parts came from her housekeeper, Khin Khin Win, who was with her during her years of house arrest. Speaking about Michael Aris’ cancer and eventual death, Ms. Khin Khin Win said it was clear that his death affected Ms. Suu Kyi greatly.

“I couldn’t tell what she was thinking but from what I could see, she was suffering,” Ms. Khin Khin Win said. “She told me that she had lost the most valuable person in her life.”

Her personal life aside, what was explicit throughout the hour-long documentary was the opinions of others about her.
Southeast Asian scholars, former government officials and family friends all expounded on her quiet strength and her nerves of steel, as well as on her political prowess and her bravery.

But the most revealing look at her came from her son, Kim Aris, while he was talking about his father.
“Obviously, being married to my mother, you have to be pretty flexible,” Kim said. “He’s not acknowledged as much as he should be in the role he played.”

“Getting support from my mother from people overseas and promoting her to be a Nobel Peace Prize laureate and what not. And always being there to support her and saying, ‘You go for it.’ Looking after us,” Kim said, as he walks off the frame to light up a cigarette.

Later, Moe Thu, a Burmese dissident artist, said that Ms. Suu Kyi had confided in him that she was not a good mother because her son had started smoking.

If the filmmakers are unsuccessful in showing Ms. Suu Kyi as a real person, it is through no fault of theirs as her persona has already been so carefully calculated and prepared for the world to see. The documentary is interspersed between the interviews with archival clips that show Ms. Suu Kyi’s entrance into the political foray before she was thrown under house arrest, as well as the many problems she encounters while campaigning during the periods when she was briefly released.

Mr. Eberle said their decision to end the documentary after she is sworn into Parliament in May 2012 was a conscious one. Thus ends one persona of Aung San Suu Kyi, the human rights campaigner and dissident leader, and begins Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League of Democracy, Burma’s opposition party.

Today, this new epithet has cemented how political her endeavors ultimately were. For Mr. Eberle, having so much access does not always end up being a good thing, as an icon’s image starts to fray around the edges when it’s closely examined.
For an activist who has campaigned under the platform of freedom and democracy, Ms. Suu Kyi’s entrance into politics flew afoul of the other leaders of the her party, making it essentially a unilateral decision to be in the driving seat, he said.

“The NLD circle—they didn’t have a say. They didn’t want to take part in elections and she wanted to. They thought it was a mistake to do so, they said it was too early and that you can’t trust this government,” Mr. Eberle said.

His disenchantment only deepened when Ms. Suu Kyi kept silent during the riots last year between Burma’s ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims.

“When asked about whether the Rohingya are Burmese or not, she said ‘I don’t know,’ which is an impossible answer to give from a political standpoint and a moral standpoint,” he said. “You can’t—after 20 years of campaigning for human rights—you can’t say it doesn’t count for them because they are Muslim or whatever.”

“That’s a side of her you don’t get to see normally.”

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