Veteran filmmaker Jeanne Marie Hallacy speaks on tribute to mothers, daughters, sisters

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Content warning: Sexual violence

Last year, 700,000 Rohingya refugees fled to Bangladesh in an effort to escape the wrath of the Myanmar army. This August, investigators appointed by the United Nations concluded that military leaders in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, should be investigated and prosecuted for the “gravest” crimes against civilians under international law, including genocide.

The Rohingya — descendants of Arab traders and other groups who have been in the region for generations — are among the many ethnic minorities in Myanmar, and they make up a large percentage of the Muslims in the country. Myanmar’s military dictatorship was dissolved in 2011, but the Myanmar government hasn’t become any more tolerant of the Rohingya, as it denies Rohingya citizenship in the predominantly Buddhist country. This goes to the extent that the government refuses to recognize the Rohingya as a people, and rather, as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. The Rohingya crisis has been termed the fastest-growing refugee crisis in the world.

Veteran filmmaker Jeanne Marie Hallacy is passionate about stories of social justice, and, with “Mother, Daughter, Sister,” she has added another film to her already long list of documentaries about human rights issues relating to Southeast Asia. “Mother, Daughter, Sister” is a documentary film that reveals the brutality of the acts of sexual violence against not only the Rohingya, but also the Kachin women of the northern Myanmar ethnic group. In particular, the film tells the tales of four women who are either survivors of sexual violence by Myanmar’s military themselves, or members of survivors’ families.

“We have produced several other documentary films other than ‘Mother, Daughter, Sister’ that are all focused on human rights issues, so I had a background in understanding the content of the crisis that is currently affecting the Rohingya and the Kachin,” Hallacy said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “What led us to do this project now was because the scale and the gravity of what has happened to Rohingya women and girls (is) beyond description of anything I had ever experienced in 30 years of doing this kind of work.”

The film opens with young girls recounting their experiences with sexual crime and abuse, diving straight into a topic that is sensitive and harrowing, only to show the extent to which no one believes them.

“The quick response by the Myanmar military to not only deny that the crimes took place (but) to actually (allege) that all of the girls and women who claimed that they were survivors of sexual violence were liars … was just fully unacceptable,” Hallacy said. “We wanted to make the connection that this issue of the use of rape as a weapon of war by the Burmese military had sadly taken place over many decades of the armed conflict between the Burmese military and the various ethnic national groups that outraged the armed resistance. … That was why we set out to make ‘Mother, Daughter, Sister.’ ”

In the film, San Lung, sister of Lu Ra, a Kachin schoolteacher who was raped and killed, communicates to her audience, “The law should treat everyone equally — whether you are poor or rich, educated or uneducated, or someone in authority.” This introduces two other factors to the conflict — education and the law.

“When communities, particularly women, are not given access to education, to opportunities for their own self-development, and are unable, because of conflict and all that that entails — displacement, instability, a lack of security, a lack of economic sustenance to your family — it gives them no room whatsoever to understand what their human rights are and how those are tools they can employ … to stand up to what’s happening to them,” Hallacy said.

Hallacy believes strongly in the power of visual storytelling, which is why she uses film to discuss issues she feels strongly about.

“If I cite the number ‘735,000 people’ to you, that is going to affect you to a degree, but it is not going to move your heart. If I show you the story of just a few people among those 735,000 and bring you into their lives and let you feel like you have an opportunity to get to know them a little bit, that will move you in a much more meaningful way that will hopefully have you take action in some form,” Hallacy said. “That’s why we create these films.”

Hallacy picked “Mother, Daughter, Sister” as the title to her documentary because she thought it to be a beautiful way to pay tribute to the various ways in which women intersect in everyone’s lives. This film is heartbreaking and forces its viewers into the harsh reality of the issue of sexual violence among refugees, as well as the barbarity of the Rohingya crisis. The film is for anyone who is, has, or has been a mother, daughter or sister, and it is about survivors.

Anoushka Agrawal covers film. Contact her at [email protected].