Moving To Mars: A Million Miles From Burma

Moving To Mars: A Million Miles From Burma


Reviewed by: Val Kermode

This positive and entertaining film, which had its world premiere at Sheffield’s Doc/Fest, follows two refugee families from Burma over the course of a journey that will change their lives completely. Thaw Htoo, once a civil engineer, had been living with his family in a Thai refugee camp for many years, after being forced to flee the repressive regime in Burma. Along with his less educated neighbours, he was given a chance to relocate to England. The scale of the relocation programme is not made clear, but when Mat Whitecross arrived in the camp with the idea of making a film, these two families were eager to co-operate and Mat gained remarkable access to their daily lives.

In the camp, the elder son plays football, the younger children run and play happily and the mother laughs about her fear of the snakes which sometimes enter the house. We are not shown much of the hardships they must endure, but Thaw Htoo talks of his frustration and boredom, spending much of his time listening to his small radio, his only window on the world.

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It is easy to engage with this family, who seem totally relaxed with the presence of cameras. Their everyday concerns are universal. The mother says of her young son: “He only comes home when he’s hungry. As soon as he’s full, he goes off to play.” Father is persuaded by mother and daughter that he has too many grey hairs, and he submits to their giggling attempts to dye them black - “I look like a teenager now.”

We are shown enough of their everyday life to share their sadness at leaving friends and home behind. Their journey, which begins by bus to the airport, is full of excitement and anticipation. The youngest boy squeals with delight as he sees in the airport more cars than he has ever seen in his life before, and simply cannot believe it when he sees a plane take off. The adults are seen wandering through the airport building equally impressed by lifts, escalators and arrays of glossy magazines. The camera follows them onto the plane and through the inevitable discomforts of the journey. This part of the film is very well edited, conveying the tedium but never losing the excitement of the “million miles”.

Whitecross often keeps his camera low during the first stages of the journey, so we see much of it through the child’s eyes. Later the focus shifts to the adults, as they begin their bus journey through England. Father admires the countryside and offers the benefit of his education as he comments on methods of agriculture. Mother says it will be like paradise when she gets to her new home. Their hope brings a lump to the throat.

When they finally reach their destination, Sheffield, the family are greeted by a team of helpers and shown around their new house, which looks smart and clean but very, very empty. They are as delighted and grateful as anyone could be who has just travelled so far to reach a cold, strange country. Their old friends are moving in next door and they are all optimistic about the future.

The rest of the film deals with their experience of life in this new place. The children go to school, the adults to the job centre. They shop for clothing, acquire furniture and encounter officialdom. Having worked with refugees in Sheffield, I know many of the obstacles to be surmounted. In general, children adapt better than adults and women better than men. And friendships don’t always survive just because you share a country of origin.

That is shown to be the case here. A rift develops between the two families, and Thaw Htoo is the one who finds it hardest to come to terms with his new situation. It is the age old problem of the father who feels he has done everything to shoulder responsibility for his family, only to lose his authority as his teenage son gains the confidence to move away. His frustration is painful to witness, but he goes on trying to do his best. We do not see any local antipathy towards the family, though even in a city as welcoming as Sheffield some surely exists. By giving us a picture of optimism and resilience, Whitecross has not only paid tribute to this courageous family but has wisely left us to fill in the gaps for ourselves.

Reviewed on: 05 Nov 2009
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A look at the experiences of two Karen refugee families who have lived for 20 years in a Thai camp and are about to move to Sheffield.
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Director: Mat Whitecross

Year: 2009

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: UK


Doc/Fest 2009

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