Jailed for his jokes

Jay Richardson on the new film about Burmese prisoner Zarganar

Imagine that following Beyond The Fringe and Peter Cook’s unprecedented mimicry of Prime Minister Harold Macmillan, the group were placed under secret surveillance, their work censored. And that Cook was later forbidden to perform and thrown in jail for the greater part of his life.

This is the experience of Burma’s most famous comedian, Zarganar. In 1985 he was summoned to perform for General Ne Win, head of the country’s military junta for three decades. Instructed not to tell political jokes, Zarganar emerged with a plaster over his mouth. The dictator laughed but Zarganar was warned against repeating the gag. It’s a request he’s subsequently ignored throughout his career as a comic, poet, playwright, filmmaker and as the Burmese people’s ‘loudspeaker’.

Arrested and imprisoned three times, kept in solitary confinement, beaten, his teeth pulled out, Zarganar was ultimately banned from performing in public and participating in entertainment-related work. He sent his wife and children to live abroad. Then in 2008, after organising disaster relief aid for the victims of Cyclone Nargis, he publicly criticised the Burmese government’s indifference to its citizens’ suffering in interviews with foreign media. For this, he was arrested and sentenced to 59 years in prison, later reduced to 35 years on appeal.

‘It makes you realise how much we take for granted being able to say what we want in the UK,’ reflects comedian Rob Rouse. ‘Obviously, we’re accountable if our views are extreme or unpalatable. Yet we can poke fun and do pretty much what we want if it’s a valid target.

‘All he’s ever done is tried to help people. It’s like sticking Lenny Henry in prison for Comic Relief isn’t it?’

Burma holds its first government elections for 20 years on Sunday. There is widespread concern that the process will be a sham, an illusionary transfer to civilian rule that will perpetuate the military’s grip on power. There are fears too that the authorities will use the excuse of security concerns to prohibit theatrical performances during a period traditionally marked with festivals and events.

Photographs of Zarganar issued on October 14 from Myitkyina Prison, which purport to show him in good health, have not alleviated his supporters’ worries or sense of injustice. Among those campaigning for his freedom are Amnesty International and The Burma Campaign UK, and they’re backing the release of This Prison Where I Live, a film about Zarganar which receives its UK premiere in London on Tuesday.

Directed by Rex Bloomstein, this affecting documentary is comprised of three acts – the filmmaker’s interview with the comic in the year before he was arrested; Bloomstein’s return to Burma with German stand-up Michael Mittermeier and their efforts to speak to Zarganar’s friends; and finally, their visit to Zarganar’s prison and their attempts to smuggle him a message of solidarity.

For Bloomstein, whose documentary-making career has frequently explored incarceration, oppression and the suppression of free speech, Zarganar is ‘one of the most remarkable people I have ever filmed’.

‘His courage, his indomitability, that refusal to be crushed, his fantastic sense of life and marvellous sense of humour, above all his belief in being himself and confronting them. Yet what makes him truly remarkable for me is when he says ‘my enemies must be my friends’. That’s fairly hard for us to understand in the West.’

Zarganar is credited with reviving interest in the Burmese theatre tradition of anyeint, a vaudevillian form of entertainment in which a comedy troupe provide light-hearted relief between female singers and dancers. Investing the performance with political significance, Zarganar uses it in Bloomstein’s estimation ‘as a cover to make barbed jokes and his famous double entendres. Though of course, all jokes are political in Burma’.

With a long-standing affection for Burma and concern for its human rights, it was Mittermeier who initially contacted Bloomstein regarding the man they both now refer to as Zag. The German offered to produce the film and gave the feature its narrative impetus of an unrestrained artist reaching out to a suppressed one, a dynamic that appealed to the director.

‘As someone who has looked at the darkest side of German history in my work over many years, I was attracted to the idea of what it’s like to be a post-war German comedian abroad,’ Bloomstein reflects. ‘Michael has to face Nazi stereotypes all the time and he deals with that, he undermines them. That was an added fascination for me, for him to explore Zag, through his own sincere interest and existing support of Burma.’

Their tiny film crew travelled incognito around the country on a tourist visa, always aware of the dangers of informers and paid agents of the state. Indeed, the man who arranged their visit to Myitkyina Prison was forced to flee the country shortly afterwards. But then simply by meeting Zarganar in 2007, Bloomstein was acutely aware that he’d already increased the risk to the comedian’s life.

He maintains though that ‘the publicity has helped keep Zag alive and helped him reflect his basic right to freedom of expression. He knew the risk he was running, as did all the people who helped us or were too scared to take part. They live with this repression, we don’t, and I can tell you firmly just how much they welcome it and want more of it, not less.’

This Prison Where I Live will receive its premiere at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton, London, on Tuesday and on dates to be confirmed elsewhere in the UK. On November 23, Brick Lane’s 93 Feet East & Amnesty International will host a comedy night in London to support Zarganar and other Burmese political prisoners, featuring Robin Ince, Chris Neill, Bridget Christie, Gavin Osborn and Stuart Goldsmith. Visit thisprisonwhereilive.co.uk for more information.

Published: 1 Nov 2010

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