By MARISA CARUSO
Special to the Observer
Audience members will have a chance to delve beneath the surface of a country rich with Buddhist spirituality and unique festivals when Rockefeller Arts Center at SUNY Fredonia presents "Burma: Reflections on a Hidden Land."
A young boy tests his balance on the deck of a boat in a scenes from “Burma: Reflections on a Hidden Land,” which will be presented on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in King Concert Hall at SUNY Fredonia.
Swedagon Temple reaches skyward in scenes from “Burma: Reflections on a Hidden Land,” which will be presented on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in King Concert Hall at SUNY Fredonia.
Filmmaker Sean Cassidy
This World Travel Series film will be screened on Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in King Concert Hall. Filmmaker Sean Cassidy will personally present the work he created with Patricia Keith.
In addition to highlighting the culture and the people of Burma (also known as Myanmar), the film also helps viewers better understand a sometimes troubling truth that reside beneath the surface of a tourist-ready veneer promoted by the country's military regime.
The film takes on several challenges; one being the immersion into a world of standards, belief systems and traditions vastly different from those of the United States.
On a boat ride between cities, viewers see a dance created to attract gnats for a safe journey - for they are a symbol of fortune in Burma (also known as Myanmar) rather than the symbol of annoyance they represent in America. Monkeys flank the roads and buildings appearing to be cute and harmless while actually proving to be a nuisance by stealing food and being unafraid in everyday interactions with humans.
The film shows countless temples and common Burmese destinations, including the largest reclining Buddha statue in Southeast Asia (measuring 297 feet) and the Sanda Muni Paya, which houses Buddhist scriptures recorded on 1,774 marble tablets, making the entire temple a walk-through book.
Audiences and the filmmakers discover other surprising Burmese customs on the same adventure. The friendly people spontaneously invite Cassidy to ceremonies from a wedding to a haircutting festival for boys entering the monkhood to a water festival during which anyone is free game in a perpetual "water balloon" fight.
The serene shots of women washing clothes in the rivers and men cooking street food on large hot grills show a people living with purpose and without excess.
However, even as Cassidy asks "is life here as peaceful as it seems," his film answers the question by presenting a deeper story of Burmese life beyond the standard tourist experience.
The film shows glimpses of the political dissonance that Burma has endured under a troubled military regime since the 1980s.
Like many former colony territories, the 100-plus years spent under English rule left the country struggling to reclaim its identity and unity.
Unrest that is hidden from the outside eye is evident in the footage of deforestation from teak farming, the invisible but distinct divide between social classes as they stand on opposite sides of the street during a parade and during a revolutionary puppetry show delivering comic critiques of the government. Burma: Reflections on a Hidden Land delves into the heart of Burmese life from an outsider's point of view, attempting to shed light on this unique culture.
"You must look with a deeper eye, how much are we actually seeing?" Cassidy asks in one scene in the film.
Cassidy has visited Burma six times since making this film and finds the climate rapidly changing in some of the big cities like Yangon and Mandalay. Housing projects in popular areas and expanded tourism drive visitors into the cities and hotels, making booking a room before visiting Burma necessary for the first time. The oppressive government kept the country isolated for decades, freezing its economy and preserving its culture.
What has changed the most, however, Cassidy says, is the attitude of the people. Since the introduction of their new president, people are much freer to express political opinions that had to be whispered behind closed doors only a few years ago.
"People are also making plans for the future, which was not something I heard much of in the past," Cassidy said.
Cassidy currently teaches video production at Lewis & Clark University. The production company he leads with Keith, Buffalo Eddy Productions, sponsors their camera-in-hand adventures. Keith appeared at Rockefeller Arts Center in 2010 with Tibet: A Light in the Darkness.
Sponsored by Fredonia Place as part of the Lake Shore Savings Season, this is a general admission event. One child 12 or under is admitted free with each paid adult. Tickets are also available through the SUNY Fredonia Ticket Office by calling 673-3501 or online at fredonia.edu/tickets.