A documentary covering the trials of running the Myanmar Times under Burma's censorious government.

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BRISBANE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: 'I’m in bed with the concept of engagement," is how Ross Dunkley sums up his unique position in 2010 at the beginning of this busy documentary. The expatriate Australian journalist is the sole foreign publisher inside Myanmar (formerly Burma), where a xenophobic and often brutal military dictatorship has been in place for two decades. His Myanmar Times, a weekly newspaper that publishes Burmese and English editions under blunt and routine censorship, is a profitable but risky enterprise, both morally and physically; his former local business partner is currently 7 years into a 14 year gaol sentence.

The team of Hugh Piper (Mr. Sin: The Abe Saffron Story) and Helen Darrow were only able to get into Myanmar to watch Dunkley walk his constant tightrope by posing as consultants for the paper, which has a number of Australian in senior positions helping a predominantly young Burmese staff. They arrived just as the already high stakes were raised, in the lead-up to last November’s military sanctioned general election. With the winner of the 1990 election, Aung San Suu Kyi, still under house arrest and boycotting the poll, and his current state-sanctioned business partner Dr. Tin Tun Oo standing as a candidate for a party endorsed by the army, Dunkley is plainly on dangerous ground.

He, however, appears to be enjoying it. Whether writing headlines or pondering political machinations, the burly publisher hurtles along, having already built up and sold a Vietnamese newspaper with a Cambodian operation also underway. He has the kind of cavalier disregard that’s long characterised press barons, but the filmmakers can’t quite get past that façade. You learn, obliquely, that Dunkley’s marriage has ended, and you get a hint of the compromise that underscores so many decisions when he decides to put Dr. Oo on the front page to pre-empt any criticism from his co-owner. 'He has got absolutely no room to criticise us," observes Dunkley, who in heading off a possible issue also perpetuates the ruling elite’s control.

The absence of a sit-down interview with Dunkley isn’t noticeable at first, as the operations of the paper and street-level look inside an often sealed-off country are intriguing. Staff, especially veteran newspaperman Geoffrey Goddard, supply a running commentary as they go through the weekly ritual of awaiting the censor’s instructions every Saturday night before printing (page proofs come back with ugly red slashes to indicate deletions). But disappointment over the discredited election gives way to visa issues for various foreign staff members, deportation for the Piper and Darrow and, finally, Dunkley’s arrest over allegations of sexual assault earlier this year.

Smuggled out footage shows Dunkley arriving from gaol for various court appearances, still garrulous, but even as the allegations are discredited and observers agree that this is an extreme kind of business negotiation, the central figure remains undefined. Dancing With Dictators begins with Dunkley as the focus, switches to Burma’s election and the paper’s involvement, and then becomes a covert legal thriller. It’s interesting, but you want to know much more about this smiling man in handcuffs who still appears to playing a game he’s confident of winning despite the considerable odds. Dunkley now has bail, although his case has been adjourned half a dozen times, but like the generals his paper covers he remains inscrutable and opaque. The movie can’t engage him.

Details

MA15+
1 hour 20 min
In Cinemas 08 December 2011,

Genres