Today I leave Sittwe. Five days with the Rohingya, who some call the most persecuted people on earth. Five days of attempted witness. Five days of peeling back the veil of a slow genocide. Five days of descent into their horror. Five days of seeing, even so briefly, what it is like to be stripped of birthplace, nationality, freedom, opportunity, land, education, jobs, food, health care, and finally, the right to your own name. Five days of warmth from a people who are told by their government that they do not deserve to be alive.
I wrote the above on the day I left Sittwe, Myanmar, after wrapping production on Behind The Fence, a virtual reality documentary that I directed with my colleague Jonathan Olinger. This is my first virtual reality film, Executive Produced by The Nexus Fund. We chose VR because the situation facing the Rohingya Muslim minority in Myanmar is so dire and little known, that we hoped this nascent technology could amplify their entrapment to a world that has the power to prevent their annihilation. I could talk about the challenges of making a 360 film, what cameras we used or how we even got access to the camps, but I hope all of that disappears when you watch Behind The Fence. Be transported to the camps the Rohingya are forced to live in; and not to be a voyeur of their suffering, but to let your witness become solidarity. They do not need spectators.
What you will see in this film is the story of a group of people called the Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Myanmar, who are surviving a Buddhist-led campaign to eliminate them.
You will see Abul rubbing his wife’s shoulders and spending his entire income, 50 cents, on three apples, because she asked. You will see Abul arranging the sticks under his wife’s chair so that it is level, giving her some small comfort despite her pain, for which there is no hospital to take her to, nor medicine to buy. You will see Abul asking to be recognized by his ancient name, Rohingya. You will see a religious leader digging small graves for small bodies. You will see a young girl collapsed in tears over her dead father. You will see what life is like for people who live in confinement. This is not just another refugee camp ― this is systematic and calculated elimination.
When I left the concentration camps the Rohingya live in, I penned these words as a feeble effort to express what should not exist.
I am born thus.
Must it condemn me to die?
banished behind barbed wire.
I do not breathe your air,
mine is constricted and I choke
with the death of the young.
The boats go out to sea at midnight,
carrying all those who will try to buy their freedom.
They know not the waters will become their grave.
I see smoke on the horizon,
I feel the pulse of rain.
I hear the call to prayer.
Gaunt and shadowed bodies,
move like powder in the morning light.
They dig their own graves,
clinging at least to the right to choose their resting place.
Grant us at least this.
Penned in to die,
a low hum vibration still
rises up from this corner of the earth.
A frequency only a few hear.
And if you are one, it is a siren.
I invite you to experience Behind The Fence and learn about this group of people who have a name. Speak it out loud, and respond to this siren, which can not be forgotten once heard.