After The Agreement that screened at many international festivals, Karen Stokkendal Poulsen continues with producer Vibeke Vogel her exploration of political tactics and games at the highest levels of power with On the Inside of a Military Dictatorship, running for the DOX:Award in Copenhagen.

The film explores the complex relationship between the military junta in Myanmar and the Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who became leader of the country after 20 years in house arrest. The film was produced by Denmark’s Bullitt Film, in co-production with France’s Little Big Story, Arte France, co-financing from DR, VPRO, SVT, RTS, NRK, support from the Danish Film Institute, Nordisk Film & TV Fond and the CNC. First Hand Films handles world sales.

This is your third film about political games and people in power after the documentaries Ville Søvndal and The Agreement. Where does your fascination for this topic come from?
Karen Stokkendal Poulsen:
I have a background in international relations. I’m educated in political science and worked briefly at the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I’m interested in change and people trying to improve society in a fundamental level. In this case, it turned out much more complex than I had anticipated.

Why did you decide to focus on Myanmar?
KSP: Robert Cooper, the British diplomat featured in my previous film The Agreement was a close friend of Aung San Suu Kyi. Because of his personal connection to her, Catherine Ashton from the EU hired him to be a special adviser on Myanmar. He negotiated the release of political prisoners and started a dialogue with the country’s military rulers to lift international sanctions.

At the time [2014], the country was slowly opening up. I was fascinated, and keen to investigate the situation there, to meet the people who were sincerely willing to introduce democracy, not only Aung San Suu Kyi but also some military generals. This became possible when my film The Agreement was invited to the Yangon Human Rights Film Festival in Myanmar. I was then able to have my first meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi. I told her about my film project and she agreed to participate. I started filming in 2015.

How long did it take you to gain the confidence of the former military generals? How did you explain to them the kind of film you wanted to make?
There hadn’t been any film from the point of view of the military people about Myanmar’s gradual shift towards democracy, and many of them were on the verge of becoming civilians. I said I wanted to hear their story. As the international community had praised their wish to bring change, they were willing to talk.

Regarding access to the military generals, I was fortunate to have good diplomatic introductions. I was allowed to follow Aung San Suu Kyi in Parliament and interviewed her twice. Still, it was very hard to get to people in the chambers of power, within the military junta. It was all very unpredictable whom I would have access to and for how long, which made the filming process quite challenging.

I was naïve at the beginning about the transition to democracy of a country that had lived for 50 years under a military dictatorship; it took me a while to understand what it means to live and work under a military regime for so long. Aung San Suu Kyi had warned me and right from the beginning she had mentioned that you could not trust anyone. Fortunately, I had an amazing crew in Myanmar, associate producers Moe Thway and Aye Lae from the NGO Generation Wave who did their utmost to smoothen the filming process and set up the meetings for me.

After symbolising for years opposition to the military junta, we see Aung San Suu Kyi working close to them - not with them. In your film Win Htein (former political prisoner and high-ranking politician in Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy ruling party) explains her strategy of trying to play a motherly role, to bring gradual change from the inside. Do you feel she might ever be able to achieve this?
I don’t think so. On the contrary. What people tell me is that she is an authoritarian as well; after all, she is the daughter of a military herself, so I fear she will never step out of that role. However, the younger generation could bring positive change as well as some of those I call ‘the leaders in white’ in the film, who could bring change from within the system. They are respected by the military and reform-friendly.

The Rohingya Muslim conflict and genocide damaged Aung San Suu Kyi’s international reputation. But then at the end of your film you say: “perhaps she was never who the world thought she was?” Why did you choose to take such a stand?
KSP: I wanted to step in as a narrator for two reasons. Firstly, everything in this country is coded. It’s very difficult to get people to say too much, too loudly. It can be dangerous. Therefore I decided to step in and say loud what I hear everywhere, what I’ve checked and researched. 

Secondly, what I meant with my comment is that Aung San Suu Kyi was never a saint. She has always been an excellent strategist and politician. She tried hard to change the country’s constitution, but her manoeuvring is limited. In any case, the film is not a character portrait of her. It’s about the struggle between her and the military regime. In that sense I believe she’s not the primary person to be blamed for the Rohingya humanitarian crisis. The responsibility lies with the military.

Overall how long did you spend in Myanmar and what were the biggest challenges you faced during filming?
I was there 8 times in total more than 6 months, spread across 5 years.

Again, trust was hard to build, although somehow, I succeeded in establishing temporarily trust, enough to have persons on camera. Still, it was difficult to read the political games and therefore complex to tell this story, which is why I chose the chapter structure, with a narrator to make it more accessible to the general audience.   

Otherwise, I felt the whole story about Burma/Myanmar was grand and magnificent, with ancient kings, a military junta, the special daughter of a military, set in fantastic nature and landscapes. The political games and intrigue unfolded like the best Shakespearian tragedies. I had to be innovative to seduce the audience into this fascinating universe, although I was filming military people, often in boring situations.

Tell us about your visual style, and collaboration not with one but three cinematographers…
KSP: I had wonderful cinematographers who work in feature film and documentary. I had collaborated earlier with Sturla Brandth Grøvlen on The Agreement. He wasn’t available for the entire film, so I had two other brilliant cinematographers in Troels Rasmus Jensen and Talib Rasmussen.

I staged the interviews with the former military generals in often specific environments, to give the feeling of kings telling their stories. They were trying to control my manoeuvring, my filmmaking space. It gave me a wish to take back control of the storytelling and the situations.

What do you hope to achieve with the film?
KSP: I hope the audience will get a better understanding of the political situation in Myanmar and that they will be surprised. The military are seen as the bad guys, but it’s still important to understand them. Getting this inside knowledge is valuable.

Also, I hope that people will be inspired by the fact that you can use many storytelling tools in a documentary and that you can allow yourself with serious topics, to bring emotional and poetic elements as well.