Review: ‘On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship’

Hot Docs 2019

4 mins read

On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship
(Denmark/France, 93 min.)
Dir. Karen Stokkendal Poulsen
Programme: International Spectrum (International Premiere)

Aung San Suu Kyi, once an icon for freedom and democracy, has fallen from grace. The political prisoner turned Myanmar’s civil leader has been stripped of her honorary Canadian citizenship and her Freedom of Paris Award for role in, and failure to act on, gross human rights violations that include the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya people. However, despite receiving a failing grade from most of the international community, Suu Kyi comes off fairly well in On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship.

The doc, directed by Karen Stokkendal Poulsen, demonstrates the depth that sometimes gets traded for access. Poulsen lands interviews with all the key players in the Myanmar military dictatorship (or “government”), including Suu Kyi, former President Thein Sein, and Cabinet Speaker Shwe Mann, who could easily be sinister villains of some outlandish spy movie. The doc gets a few plum quotes from guys who gladly formed the military dictatorship, but there’s no piss and vinegar as the film lays out the facts. The doc lets Suu Kyi off the hook. While the film is critical of Suu Kyi’s complicity, she deserves a much sharper interrogation, if not condemnation, for failing to do more for the people of the country she vowed to protect.

On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship nevertheless offers an accessible and informative history on the complex political backdrop of Myanmar’s history—if an exhaustingly comprehensive one. Thanks to the incredible range of access that Poulsen enjoys, the doc transcends the symptoms of “Wikipediitis,” namely that it would be better served as an annotated article, as the personal embellishments of the players offer juicy bits of character. One really gets a sense of the machinery as interviewees boast about their actions and give an insider’s glimpse into the nation’s downfall, but the excellent attention to detail in building the context for the present-day situation means that the doc is almost over by the time Poulsen introduces the Rohingya genocide. What to make of it? It’s clear that Suu Kyi isn’t living up to the ideals she promised, but because there is so much development and detail to the backstory, the thinness of the Rohingya chapter demands more consideration.

Perhaps the immediacy of the film is its downfall. Poulsen doesn’t quite seem to know what to make of Suu Kyi just yet by the time she closes the picture. It’s hard to accept the analysis, thoughtful as it is, when the film’s conclusion is that one of contemporary history’s greatest peacemakers is simply a tragic victim of bureaucracy who is bound by a rotten political system. Mildly expressing disappointment is not enough.

On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship screens:
-Sun, Apr. 28 at 8:15 PM at TIFF Lightbox
-Thurs, May 2 at 12:15 PM at Scotiabank

Visit the POV Hot Docs Hub for more coverage from this year’s festival!

Pat Mullen is the publisher of POV Magazine. He holds a Master’s in Film Studies from Carleton University where his research focused on adaptation and Canadian cinema. Pat has also contributed to outlets including The Canadian Encyclopedia, Paste, That Shelf, Sharp, Xtra, and Complex. He is the vice president of the Toronto Film Critics Association and an international voter for the Golden Globe Awards.

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