Total Denial is a gripping documentary of the victory of 15 indigenous people from the jungle of Burma over a leading corporation in a U.S. court.
The film begins with scene setting clips of Burma, the legendary Aung San Sui Kyi and legitimate leader of Burma, who figureheaded led the struggle against the vicious military dictatorship even from prison.
Amid the visually stunning temples, the colourful Burmese countryside and jungle, we focus in on an area near the Thai border, where hundreds of thousands of an ethnic minority, the Karen, hide.
In 1992 TOTAL and UNOCAL do a deal with the military dictatorship to run a gas pipeline from the Andaman Sea through Burma to Thailand. The dictatorship provide 'security' by massacres of the villagers, using rape and torture and forcing them to work on construction as slaves (at gunpoint).
Kaneva's award-winning film is remarkable in many ways, but chiefly as it tells the story of one man, Ka Hsaw Wa, an activist whose life was changed as young man when he came across the dead body of a young woman, her nipple cut off and a tree trunk rammed in her vagina.
Ka Hsaw Wa dedicated his life to human rights activism, speaking fluent English and Burmese, dodging back and forth as he plays cat-and-mouse with the border guards, marrying another right worker and even raising a family. All the while he is fighting to live and protect his homeland. At one point he describes how he was himself tortured. When he goes into difficult areas of the jungle, he takes a gun with a single bullet - to commit suicide if captured (to avoid torture).
Total Denial is no dry courtroom drama (although there is plenty of courtroom tension later on). We see the colour and bustling life of people on both sides of the Thai-Burmese border. Their optimism and love of life, the children singing, even after they have been burnt out of their homes and forced to flee five times.
The interviewers speak to eye-witnesses of brutal crimes and also see first hand the scars and wounds of people forced to work as slavery. (At one point the interviewer almost breaks down, speaking to a defector-soldier who corroborates the atrocities of colleagues but also confesses how he was forced to join the army.) Several NGO workers are interviewed, also giving eye-witness accounts of murder. One teacher describes the sight of a pregnant woman, shot and then burnt to death.
The film includes no-nonsense accounts of how to film quickly and covertly when the opportunity as well as how to survive in the jungle with only a hammock. Ka Hsaw Wa listens in to military communications on a short wave radio to avoid detection.
But Total Denial is more than vividly illustrated polemic. Spokespersons for the companies are given uninterrupted opportunity to put their side of things. This works very well for the film, as the Unocal and TOTAL lawyers are experts with words and convincingly rubbish as fabrications the events we have seen and recounted from a wide variety of reputable sources.
Heart-warming are the penetrating questions of some of the US judges, who show themselves to be nobody's fool. There is a law in the US that allows people from other countries, who have been wronged in their countries by US corporations with decisions made in the US, to be sue in the US. Attempts have been made under the Bush administration to lean on decisions in regard to this law -oil companies with connections to GWB stand to lose heavily.
It is a privilege to watch this film. It is expertly made and shows humanity at its worst, but more importantly, at its best. It is a remarkable story of love and hope. One that brings tears to your eyes and restores your faith in justice. Highly recommended.
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