Freedom and its Limits: A Conversation with Rex Bloomstein

The Online Citizen speaks to Rex Bloomstein, director of The Prison Where I Live which focuses on the plight of Zarganar, Burma’s leading political satirist who is currently serving 35 years in prison for “public order offences”. In this exclusive interview, Bloomstein shares the journey of making the film and his opinions on human rights, freedom of expression and the future of Burma.

TOC: How did the idea for This Prison Where I Live come about?

Rex Bloomstein: Back in 2007, I was making a film on freedom of expression called An Independent Mind. We were filming a number of people – artists, writers, cartoonists, singers, journalists, historians and comedians – from around the world who were under the threat of persecution. In my search for these people, I heard about comedy in Burma and a particular troupe called The Moustache Brothers who performed every night at Mandalay illegally. So we made plans to film them. But our fixers and contacts said I must also film the greatest comedian in Burma. The man in Burma was Zarganar.

So they told us about him – how he had confronted the authorities, how his humour was hugely popular and what a legendary figure he was. So we contacted him and it so happened that he was out of prison, but totally banned from any artistic activity. Everything. He couldn’t go on stage, produce or direct. He couldn’t write anything in printed media. Banned completely. He agreed to be filmed even though it was forbidden by the authorities.

We filmed him for two days. I found him a wonderfully energised, committed and brave man who was surprisingly not bitter about his experiences. We talked about his life and his times, his belief in Gandhi, his love of Buddha and his great respect for Aung San, founder of Burma. We talked about the confrontations he had with the government. There was once when he had to give a special performance to the dictator, General Ne Win. He had been warned by Ne Win’s aides not to perform any political jokes. So he got on stage with a plaster on his mouth as a symbolic gesture. Ne Win asked him, “Why have you got a plaster on your mouth?” and he said “Because I’ve been told not to tell any political jokes”.

Eventually, I didn’t manage to use the footage which I had taken so it remained on the shelf. 15 months ago, an NGO contacted me telling me that Zarganar had been given 59 years in prison. When I heard that, I told myself I must make a film out of the footage to alert the world to him, to help campaign for his release. By a series of events, my proposal found its way to Michael Mittermeier, one of Germany’s leading comedians who expressed interest at the fate of a fellow comedian. We got in touch and collaborated to make the film.

TOC: What strikes me about the film is the sense of normality that seems to pervade the scenes of everyday Burma and this seats uncomfortably with the awareness that you all were undertaking a mission that could threaten your personal safety and liberty. Did you sense a general climate of fear amongst the Burmese people?

RB: We were visiting his flat, travelling around and going to Myitkyina where he is incarcerated. White western men are no doubt noticeable. We couldn’t see the informers but we knew that it was very likely that we were under surveillance. So we often tried to appear as tourists to go under the radar. We talked to a number of people but they wouldn’t go on camera. It was too dangerous for them. We had to face that reality and that in itself is reflective of the regime.

TOC: What is the local community’s perception of Zarganar? Has anyone professed support for him within the country?

RB: He is a hero in the community. He is hugely loved and admired, but I doubt there is any open support. He’s a banned person – you cannot mention him at all publicly. But of course, the longer he is in jail, the less significant he becomes to a younger generation. One of the purposes of the film is to remind people of this wonderful man.

TOC: It seems that among the Burmese people there is this tension between wanting to be heard by the rest of the world and the fear of persecution should they speak up.

RB: Yes, I think they are intimidated. There is no free media of any kind. The military dominates. The news is state-owned. There is no freedom of expression. The Saffron Revolution failed because the overwhelming might of the Burmese army was turned on unarmed monks and demonstrators. So the spirit of non-violence plays into the hands of the military, except in the north where I understand there have been armed attacks by various ethnic groups which are struggling for independence there, at times even leading to full-scale military action. So the tensions are all there, they are just controlled.

TOC: It seems that individuals like Zarganar are bringing politics into the mainstream with the work they do. Do you think this increased political awareness among the Burmese people would translate into any real change for the country?

RB: Depends on what you mean by change. They have created this new parliament – this limited political structure, which the rest of the world believe is a complete sham. The legislation is configured such that the so-called MPs reflecting the military have the dominant vote. How long will this structure last? The people are not properly represented. The institutions are not fully developed. Corruption is rife. There is huge intimidation with over 2000 political prisoners. The potential for the people rising up will always be there. But with such an overwhelming military machine, it’s going to be hugely difficult.

Zargarnar and his family, who are currently living in exile in the United States

TOC: Many of your films touch on human rights, specifically the right to express yourself freely. How fundamental do you think freedom of expression is to the development of society?

RB: I believe it is crucial to any society’s development. Not to know what’s going on, not to be able to follow what the politicians are doing, not to be able to expose corruption – these restrictions can only diminish us as a community and polity. Being able to have that dialogue with oneself and to be self-critical is crucial to the health of a country. If we don’t know what is going on, how can we change anything? If those in power can control what you and I are hearing, their power is perpetual. Good democratic structures come with a free and independent media, which is not to say there shouldn’t be safeguards. And this is another debate. What are the limits? Who sets the limits on free speech?

TOC: What do you think are the limits?

RB: I think everything goes except calls for violence towards a community or an individual. States around the world often use the word “irresponsible press” and that term can mean anything. Governments will always use excuses like this to avoid criticisms and avoid exposure of corrupt acts. But of course, the government still has to function so there is a tension there. But it is a creative and lively tension as always.

TOC: The rhetoric that is often pursued by the state is that social discord will arise should we remove censorship. What do you think about that?

RB: Most countries in the developed world have laws of defamation. Go to the courts if you think you have been defamed.

TOC: But defamation laws can also be abused to constrict freedom of expression.

RB: If you feel wronged, you must go to the court. But I don’t see it as the government’s responsibility to limit the marketplace of ideas. Sometimes we have to live with satire, the cruelty of satire. And we have to live with people’s views that we find offensive. Who is to decide what is offensive? Who is to decide what acceptable and responsible opinion should be? These are fluid notions that are evolving all the time. What you are doing online may become the mainstream one day. What is deemed unacceptable today will be acceptable tomorrow. This fluidity is part of the human discourse and the media institutions are reflecting these variations through the forms that express this, from satire to political journalism.

Of course it hurts people; certain groups will not tolerate satire and criticism. Look at Islam. Those who interpret it in a particular way will not be tolerated and as we know there have been many famous examples of that, from Salman Rushdie to the Prophet Mohammad cartoons in Denmark. These famous cases illustrate the tensions between the forces of various religious or political groups which wish to maintain a notion of respect and deem it an offence should they be caricatured, mocked or joked about publicly.

So it’s true that people can be hurt. There will always be this constant tension between those who wish to be creative, critical and satirical about aspects of their society and those who are being criticised and offended. But then you see, it’s about them stepping forward to initiate a debate. When we resort to oppression such that those feelings of offence for whatever reason are turned into repressive or violent action, we are all diminished.

TOC: The other argument concerns not offence, but the supposed distortion of “truth”, justifying censorship on the grounds that people are easily manipulated and lack discernment.

RB: That is a form of elitism. They are saying people are not capable of making up their own minds. So we make their minds up for them. That is wrong. The more serious argument is when means of expression are used to accuse a sector of the community or a minority of being a danger and a threat. There have been some terrible examples of this. In recent times, during the Rwandan genocide, the Tutsis were denounced by radio stations as cockroaches. This is an extreme situation, in which the forces and means of media production were taken over by the state and used to target the minority population. This is state control of media being used in the most terrifying way. So the means, the technology for expression remains the same. It is just being used by those in power. Such a situation is an extreme and difficult one that I think potentially distorts the debate about freedom of expression and its limits. There are limits and those limits should be debated in the courts without state intervention. The state must justify itself should it choose to intervene.

TOC: So what you are saying is that debate about freedom of expression should take place organically within the public without the intervention of the state.

RB: Exactly. I think the state distorts the situation. The arguments they put forth are used to protect itself against criticism – a cover for their censorship activities. When they talk about irresponsibility and potential violence, all these must be justified.

There is also the argument about multiculturalism, which can go too far – when a group deems any criticism of it such an offence that it targets its offenders either with fatwas or violence. This terrifies, intimidates and stifles debate. While it is vital that people be allowed to flourish within their own communities, we have to recognise that we are all living in a wider society. So I think the argument on multiculturalism can be used to justify repressive acts and censorship.

TOC: Back to Zarganar, it seems to me that the man has a certain gentleness and grace which departs from the Western, liberal model of the activist as one who is entirely hostile towards the establishment. Did that strike you as something quite exceptional, comparing with the many activists you have met throughout the course of your career?

RB: Yes, he is very different. I was brought up in Western, liberal societies where, you know, we do not express the tolerance for the other, the enemy, which Zarganar does. So I was astonished by his humanity and breath of his vision – how he is able to encompass all those intimidate and torture him within this vision and not be so damaged by them. To be like Gandhi and look at them in the face and say: I will not be like you, I will not react like you and I will not hate you. In that way, I think he is a glorious example of an evolved human being. It was fascinating to me that he actually said in the film that the enemy must be his friend. Can you imagine that – your enemy being your friend? He is a leader, not in the political sense, but as an embodiment of conscience. He sees it as his profound mission to be the loudspeaker for his people. He’s a hero in Burma, not a criminal.

TOC: How can we help?

RB: I think you are helping by talking to me, by seeing the film, by thinking about him. He is now in your consciousness, where before he never existed. I hope the film, which will be shown in a number of countries, will alert the world to this man, the abuse of his rights and the disgraceful behaviour of his government. The fact that you and others are aware of this all adds, I hope, to the pressure to release him one day.

The Prison Where I Live was screened at a private event hosted by the British High Commission on 11 February 2011. For more information about the film, visit To join the campaign to free Zarganar, visit

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