DER Documentary

Don't Fence Me In: Major Mary and The Karen Refugees from Burma


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by Ruth Gumnit
color, 30 min, 2004




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Since 1962, Burma has been ruled by a military junta. Life has deteriorated markedly for its citizens. Despite its former prosperity and its rich resources, it was voted least developed nation by the UN in 1987, and human rights atrocities continue to prevail. Forced from their homes by the government, more than 100,000 people live in refugee camps along the border between Burma and Thailand; hundreds of thousands more hide in jungles on the Burma side. They are the Karen people, one of the largest ethnic groups in Burma.

Don't Fence Me In chronicles the life of 70-year-old freedom fighter Major Mary On and her people's struggle for self-determination. Mary explains how the Karen are fighting for their very survival; the Burmese military's goal is “to wipe the Karen away so if you want to see them you'll have to go see them in the museum. See just an image or picture.” Her charismatic storytelling is accompanied by rare, clandestine footage smuggled out of the Karen refugee camps.

She illuminates the plight of the Karen still inside Burma, having little food and hiding in the jungle, yet proving remarkably resilient. While the Karen have lost their land, their way of life, and many of those who lived and fought beside them for independence, they have not lost their ties to a rich and beautiful history that transcends their present day despair. The film reveals the Karen refugees' spirit and determination to survive as political and historical forces conspire against them. Don't Fence Me In is an eloquent and moving chronicle of human rights abuses that must finally be brought to the attention of the global community.

"Deeply moving and hauntingly beautiful, Don't Fence Me In... tells a universal story of struggle against oppression and the creativity and courage that inspire people to make meaning of their lives, as their most basic rights - including the right to live - are systematically violated." — Ellen Bruno, filmmaker of the award-winning documentary Sacrifice: The Story of Child Prostitutes from Burma
"Don't Fence Me In... provides a steppingstone for discussion and study in Asian studies, sociology, women's studies. It is highly recommended." — reviewed by Karen Hartman, Rutgers University

Film Festivals, Screenings, Awards
Worldwide Short Film Festival, Toronto, Canada, May 2004
Finalist – Short Film & Video Competition, USA Film Festival, Dallas, Texas, 2004
Cracow Film Festival, Poland, 2004
Frame By Frame HBO Documentary Film Series, San Francisco, 2004
26th Annual IFP Market, New York, 2004
FlickerFest International Short Film Festival, Sydney, Australia, 2005
Slamdance Film Festival, Utah, 2005
Intermedia Arts, Minnesota, 2005
Foreign Correspondent's Club of Thailand, 2005
Frameline29, Roxie Cinema, San Francisco, 2005
Grand Jury Award, Best Documentary, Washington DC Independent Film Festival, 2006 Director's Citation, Black Maria Film Festival, various U.S. locations, 2006
Association for Asian Studies Conference, San Francisco, 2006
8th Annual Artfest Film Festival, Harrisburg, Pennslyvania, 2006
Society for Visual Anthropology/American Anthropological Association Conference, San Jose, California, 2006
Alternative ASEAN Film Festival on Migration, Philippines, 2006
Judges Award & Audience Award, San Diego Women's Film Festival, 2006
Burma Human Rights Day Screening, International Rescue Committee, San Francisco, CA, 2007
Migration Film Festival, Singapore, 2007
Sebastopol Documentary Film Festival, CA, 2007
National Museum of Women in the Arts Festival of Film & Media Arts, Washington DC, 2007
6th Festival Film Dokumenter - Jogjakarta, Indonesia, 2007
India International Women Film Festival, New Delhi, 2007
Migrant Worker Film Festival, Seoul, Korea, 2008
This Human World - Human Rights Film Festival, Vienna, Austria, 2009

Related Resources
Anthropology Review Database's review of the film by Jack David Eller

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