Above and Below the Ground

MYANMAR, USA, THAILAND / 2023 / Jinghpaw, Burmese / Color / DCP / 86 min

- Director: Emily Hong
Photography: Emily Hong, Ding Ding, Mun, Zauring
Editing: Sophie Brunet, Aacharee Ungsriwong, Loulwa Khoury
Sound Design, Mixing: Ernst Karel
Music: BLAST
Original Score: Martin Crane
Animation, Illustrations: Pace Ford
Impact Team: Stella Naw, Ningli Hkawn, Ji San, Tsa Ji
Producers: Maggie Lemere, Ja Nang Tsen, Emily Hong
Source: Rhiza Collective

The construction of the Myitsone Dam in Kachin State, Northern Myanmar, is depriving the local people of their homeland and the rich soil nurtured by the Irrawaddy River. Despite facing constant obstruction, Lu Ra has been organizing demonstrations and rallies against the construction for a long time, as she continues her work as a farmer. HKawn Mai, a young aspiring activist, studies law as a means of resistance while also beginning work in the communitybased movement. BLAST, a punk rock band who have a pastor among their members, uses a music video to spread the word about the environmental destruction caused by dam construction and jade mining. The film travels from the river’s past to its future, gently depicting their solidarity and long fight to save their identity. (WM)

[Director’s Statement] In the long haul of social and environmental justice movements, music can provide a critical source of inspiration, nourishment, and alliance-building. The 2007 Saffron Revolution inspired my music-fueled student activism and first led me to the Thailand-Myanmar border fifteen years ago. There, I worked with exile and refugee activists fighting for democracy and Indigenous rights during the height of military rule in Myanmar. Ten years later, now as a filmmaker and anthropologist, I began what would become this film. I learned that during Myanmar’s high risk political context, Indigenous Kachin rock band BLAST secretly recorded and distributed a karaoke music video that gave voice to the cries of the Mali Hka Nu (Irrawaddy) River, bringing attention to the ecological and cultural havoc wreaked by the Chinese-built Myitsone Dam.

Our film offers an intimate look at Myanmar’s first countrywide environmental movement during a rare window of openness (2016–2021, after six decades of dictatorship) that has now closed due to the country’s return to military rule. While anchored in the Myanmar-China borderlands, the film sheds light on dynamics that will be familiar to activists everywhere. As a feminist film, rather than focus on a single charismatic leader, our film aims to ecologize how we understand movement leadership by highlighting those who, as BLAST says, “carry the weight from behind.”

To face the climate crisis and sixth mass extinction, we must imagine different ways of living and relating to our planet. That requires unlearning colonial ways of dominating the environment. Our film’s women leaders and the rock band BLAST are doing just that, while reinventing ancestral wisdom for a new generation.

- Emily Hong

A Seoul-born visual anthropologist and filmmaker based in Philadelphia and Bangkok. Her work seeks to challenge the colonial legacies of anthropology and documentary filmmaking by creating space to honor non-Western ways of knowing and being. Emily is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology and Visual Studies at Haverford College, a co-founder of Ethnocine and Rhiza Collectives, and a Steering Committee member of the Asian American Documentary Network. Her work builds on fifteen years of facilitation, organizing and campaigning experience with grassroots movements in Asia and the US with a focus on Indigenous rights, environmental and economic justice.