Having examined the strong Anglo-Burmese heritage suppressed by her mother in 1996 debut "Our Burmese Days," helmer Lindsey Merrison journeys deeper into the contempo society of Myanmar (as country's been known for past dozen years) in lively, colorful docu "Friends in High Places."

Having examined the strong Anglo-Burmese heritage suppressed by her mother in 1996 debut “Our Burmese Days,” helmer Lindsey Merrison journeys deeper into the contempo society of Myanmar (as country’s been known for past dozen years) in lively, colorful docu “Friends in High Places.” Story of flamboyant mediums and the cult that’s sprung up around them has already nabbed one ethnographic fest prize and will garner more praise on the circuit before vigorous tube and ancillary life.

Pic examines influential role of the “nat” in the lives of the Burmese. These mediums, once predominately older ladies, are now primarily gay men known as “nat kadaw.” For a repressed population that’s some 80% Buddhist in a dictator-controlled society where unburdening oneself to a stranger is considered shameful and scandalous, these sassy, assertive, almost supernatural figures — part fortune teller, carnival barker, and cabaret artist — have become a primary source of solace and inspiration. “If there is Buddha,” says one of the two older Burmese women narrators Merrison uses as unofficial guides, “there must be nats.”

Though off-camera throughout (and heard asking questions only fleetingly), Merrison can barely contain her glee at the spectacle of these gaudy figures, who go by such names as Mr. Famous and Lady Silver Wings. Whether advising prayer to recover lost money or providing intricate instructions designed to garner success and fortune, the nats and the elaborate trappings surrounding them and their often eccentric ceremonies put most Western TV hucksters to shame. Confides one, on the booming nature of his business: “Leprosy isn’t as contagious as people’s problems.”

Tech credits are lush, with Lars Barthel’s smooth, perceptive 35mm lensing in the capital of Yangon never hinting that filming was done entirely on the sly, with no permits. A 58-minute cut of pic, prepped for tube play, also screened in the Berlin fest market.

Friends in High Places

Germany-Switzerland

Production

A Lindsey Merrison Film (Berlin)/Dschoint Ventschr (Zurich) production, in association with Arte/WDR (Cologne), DRS (Zurich), YLE (Helsinki), NRK (Oslo) and SBS (Sydney). (International sales: Documentary Educational Resources, Watertown, N.Y.) Produced, directed by Lindsey Morrison.

Crew

Camera (color), Lars Barthel; editor, Stewart Young; music, U Sein Kala Hsaing, Waing Ensemble; sound (Dolby Digital), Marc von Stuerler, Annegret Fricke. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 17, 2002. Running time: 89 MIN.
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