Wednesday, 30 November 2011


Director Luc Besson with Michelle Yeoh.
Photo Magali Bragard
 © 2011 EuropaCorp – Left Bank Pictures – France 2 Cinéma
A poignant film about Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi opened in cinemas across France today. “The Lady”, by French director Luc Besson, comes 20 years after Suu Kyi received the Nobel Peace Prize and 12 months after she was released from house arrest. She had spent most of the last 21 years in detention.

With Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh in the lead, the film is a love story as well as a true political account. It focuses on the huge personal sacrifices Suu Kyi has had to make, and especially shows the impact on her husband and her two sons.

Suu Kyi’s husband Michael Aris, played by English actor David Thewlis, was a professor at Oxford, and he supported her tirelessly in her fight against the Burmese regime. But he died of cancer without having seen her for three years because he was repeatedly refused a visa to visit her in Burma (Myanmar).

This is just one aspect of the lesser-known parts of Suu Kyi’s story that Besson has brought to light. The director (The Fifth Element, Yamakasi) sat down with SWAN’s editor Alecia McKenzie to discuss the movie, which was shot in Thailand and London. Below are excerpts from the interview.

The poster for "The Lady"
McKenzie: Why did you make this film?
Besson: When I read the script, I was in tears. I didn’t know the story so well. I knew just a little bit about her, and I was amazed to see that love can bring you so far, and can achieve so many things. We always think that the only way to achieve things is through money, or power or weapons. But actually, a 50-kilo woman by herself can confront 300,000 military people for 30 years and win, in a way. She still needs us, but she is about to win her fight. It’s pretty amazing to see that, and I just want to share that with people, to say: peaceful ways can also be good, and we should remember that.

M: What was the hardest thing for you as a filmmaker with this movie?
B: The hardest thing was to be honest and to not betray her. I have so much love and respect for her, and she’s still alive and she’s still fighting. It’s not the kind of film to show yourself as a director, showing how brilliant you are or anything like that. You really have to be humble and put yourself at the service of the story, not in front all the time. That was the biggest thing – to fight against my own ego, and be more modest, to work in her service.

M: I think that comes across in the film because the focus is really on her and her story …
B: I tried!

M: Do you think this film will contribute to democratic reforms in Burma?
B: I think that a film by itself cannot achieve anything, but working together we can. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the U.N., Hillary Clinton - there are lots of people who have been working for many years, helping her. The tools they have are laws, reports, numbers. But artists can bring in emotion. That’s what we try to contribute. Through emotion, you touch people and when people are touched, they are more aware, they want to know more, and they want to help. So that was our task - to bring a new tool to this big toolbox. We’ve been working on this for two years, but all the others, the real fighters, have been working for 30 years. I’m very proud that Amnesty International has endorsed the film because it shows that it’s a peaceful weapon but it’s one more tool.

Michelle Yeoh as Suu Kyi.
Photo Magali Bragard.
© 2011 EuropaCorp – Left Bank Pictures – France 2 Cinéma
M: Have you met Suu Kyi?
B: I met her after the film was made.

M: You were allowed into Burma?
B: Yes, I have a tourist visa. I don’t know how I got it actually because it was refused a few times. Sometimes they move in strange ways. You never know why they say yes or no.

M: You’ve said she didn’t want to be involved in the film. Tell us more about that.
B:  She does not want to be involved at all. She didn’t read the script and she hasn’t watched the film. We make it clear that it’s my responsibility and she has nothing to do with the film because we don’t want the government at any moment to use the film against her. She was and is aware of the film, but she has no involvement.

M: What was it like working with Michelle Yeoh?
B: A dream. You know when you have the pleasure of working with an actress so devoted … I mean she loves Aung San Suu Kyi, she respects her. And she knew from the beginning that this is the role of her life. She was so focused that I had almost nothing to do, just follow her, because day and night she was living through her. Even every night she was going back to the hotel with a Gandhi book or a Mandela book, and she didn’t get out of her character for almost a year. She made it easy for me.

M: And is this also the  film of your life?
B:  I think it’s a turn. It’s a different type of film, and I’m very proud of it. It’s the type of film that changes you. You can’t be close to this woman and stay the same. She’s just too powerful. I’m sure that it’s the same for people who met Gandhi or who’ve met Mandela. You see life differently after that.

David Thewlis as husband Michael Aris
 Photo Magali Bragard.
© 2011 EuropaCorp – Left Bank Pictures – France 2 Cinéma
M: Looking at your earlier films, would you say that you’re attracted by the story of outsiders, people who fight against conventions?
B: I think I’m attracted by the human story of people like Suu Kyi, when something touches me and can touch everyone. I’m not very specific on things. I try to be a simple movie-goer and when a film hits me, when I’m crying so much, or when I’m excited by it – that’s the one I want to make.

M: There have been several special screenings of “The Lady”. What response have you got from ordinary people and from people in your profession?
B: I think the film is touching for normal people, and they’ve told me so. For professionals, I think they are proud of me in a way because they’ve said it was courageous to do the film. They’ve been very kind. The third reaction has been from the press, and that’s always a little bit more difficult. Some like the film, but some think that it’s their subject and they’re confused because it’s the first time I come onto their field, and I decide to talk about her personal life and the love story, rather than about the political side. Some journalists are disappointed that I’ve talked about “heart” rather than politics. I understand that, but I have nothing to teach people about politics. Just go on the Internet, and everything is there. What I can bring is not news, but I can show that the wall of love in the story is so important. That was what I chose to do, and it disappoints some people who wanted a political film. But it is the press’ role to talk about politics, and it’s my role to talk about emotion.
(© 2011 - SWAN)