A documentary can, if executed well and with the right amount of critical distance, be a powerful medium to highlight a problem and even be one step of solving an issue altogether. If anything, the information provided and the images used within the film may reach the audience, start a discussion and make people aware of events in the world. Therefore, for filmmaker John La Raw making a documentary about drug addiction in his home country of Myanmar, its background and its connection to the country’s politics, is a means to emphasize the pressing matter of dealing with this issue on a communal and governmental level, as he stresses in his statement about the film.
“The Opium War” is screening at Vesoul International Film Festival of Asian Cinema 2020
Within the roughly 50 minutes of his documentary, La Raw essentially follows two agendas: to inform and to reveal. On the one hand, he follows the historical and political background of the drug problem in his country, leading back to the country’s independence in 1948 and the subsequent struggles of tribes in Myanmar demanding autonomy, which had been guaranteed to them. With a civil war that has lasted long and cost thousands of lives as well as growing social issues, most significantly poverty and unemployment, drugs have become an integral problem spreading wider than the cycle of addict and dealer, but which points directly at families and communities dependent on planting and harvesting opium and other drugs. In order to crack this cycle movements, such as Pat Jasan have declared a war on drugs, a mass movement involving them destroying drug fields and even hunting down dealers while also offering help for addicts and farmers.
While its overall structure is relatively straight-forward, La Raw’s chronological approach in combination with the footage he shot following the Pat Jasan through the country also reveals the interconnectedness of drugs, society and politics. In one of the most eye-opening scenes representatives of the military try to shift the blame between the Pat Jasan and enraged farmers by attempting to play mediator. The sighs of the soldiers, their helpless gestures and tired facial expressions may be seen as symptomatic for a system which has stopped working long ago, at least when it comes to preventing crime and furthering misery within large parts of the population.
As mentioned before, La Raw’s camera follows most of the events closely, resulting in a heightened authenticity of his film. At the same time, you often wish the director would attempt a more distanced approach to his subject, especially considering his overall message, which he already expresses in his initial statement to the film. Although its images are shocking, at times they fail to reveal a deeper truth going far beyond the borders of Myanmar while also exposing the Pat Jasan’s actions as questionable, for example, in the very disturbing scenes of them hunting down local drug dealers.
“The Opium War” is a solid documentary about the drug problem in Myanmar, the ways people have decided to fight it and the chronicle of that fight. While certainly making a provocative point and raising the awareness towards an issue, John La Raw at times comes too close to his subject without exploring the deeper layers to the issue.