Several Memories Three

R: The idea was really to have someone who hasn’t really been personally involved in the history of the Substation at all. And coincidentally, I’m the same age as the Sub, so it’s like we have both been growing together, but on separate trajectories. In a way, I’m now trying to reconstruct all these memories for myself, to understand and negotiate the gaps between my generation and the one which came before it. Eventually what we are looking at is not a documentary or a strictly factual archive. We’re thinking of using these memories and impressions more as raw material to create a certain object, but I’m not sure what this object is going to be yet. At the moment, we are looking more at a book, and it’s probably going to be more experimental fiction than anything else.

S: So you have already been talking to the various practitioners and other stakeholders who have been involved in the Sub, I presume? Before we start, can you just let me understand what is the kind of angle you are taking for these interviews and why.

R: I’m really trying to keep it as open as possible. But I suppose ultimately we all don’t want this project to be about nostalgia – not that there is anything wrong with nostalgia per se, and I do think there is a place for nostalgia in society – but I think we really need to move beyond that for the purposes of this project. We are still very much looking into the past, but I’m more interested in using these memories for the purposes of pointing us towards the future, not just for the Substation, but also the larger arts community. So to begin, why don’t you start by telling me about your relationship with the Substation?

S: Before we do that though… this is really like me turning the tables, can you tell me what has your association with the Substation been like?

R: My association? Are you referring to my background?

S: No no, that’s for another occasion. I mean, has the Substation featured in any way at all in your thinking, your being, in your activities, your socio-cultural or personal identity, prior to taking on this project?

R: Hmm… Well, I’m 20. I just completed my NS. And before that I did art when I was studying in JC. I suppose when I was studying, because of schoolwork and all that, you know, I didn’t really have much of an awareness of what was happening in the arts community here. I didn’t really watch any shows whatsoever. Going out to watch a play or an exhibition was something I rarely did. I think it’s pretty much the same for most in my generation. I suppose it was only after I graduated that I found the time to do whatever I’m doing now and that was when I became more exposed to the Substation – not that I never knew about its existence before. I had heard about it, mentioned here and there, but it was probably existing more on the peripheries of my conception of the arts scene. In terms of a formal or a personal relationship, there hasn’t really been one. It’s just really more of a place to see shows and this project here is really my first time working with it. I do somewhat gather the same sentiment for the people I talk to: that the Sub no longer holds the same value for my generation as it did for those who were here during the nineties. So this gap is something I want to address in this project.

S: I see. So you want to think about why the Sub doesn’t hold what you think it held for others a decade earlier. Just on that matter, for someone like you, coming through the mainstreams of being Singaporean, which is the education system with of course, junior college as the culmination, and then the national service which was a political obligation you had to fulfil, I’m wondering if there is any sense of place, any at all, which figures prominently in your life. Is there a place that possess for you some form of significance or strong resonance?

R: So you’re asking me about my past?

S: Yes, your past twenty years. In terms of a place, I’m curious to know. A place. Does the idea of a place mean anything to you? In terms of location – not rootedness, but location, where certain things happen to you and you happen to that place, and there is a kind of deep empathy connecting you to it. Any, at all?

R: Primarily the places where I grew up then, I guess. My school would be one such place, since I was there during a significant and formative period of my life. But of course, I’m not sure if that would change in the future. The feeling may become stronger, but it may also diminish.

S: I’m asking you this because I have strange premonitions and prejudices about these things. Premonitions that have to do with, generally, an increasing sense of placelessness… and I feel that very strongly. If I were to like you, think of the place I was born, the school I went to, the community I grew up with, none of them exist anymore, physically. And if they exist, they exist somewhere else. It’s like River Valley Road School not being on River Valley Road anymore, which is about the severest form of dislocation you can think about, the whole geography screwed up in a way. And I was just wondering because I have only one son and he’s thirty-five years old and I have very little connection to people of your generation. So I just do not know what you all feel about this sense of floating placelessness. That’s what prompted me to ask if you have any thoughts about this place… but you have already answered that.

R: I suppose before this, it just didn’t strike me as a place – you know, a place, as opposed to a space, though it is, in a way, both a place and a space. I just didn’t feel as if there was something special going on in it.

S: And I’m wondering if there are any such places in Singapore at all – places that strike one, that tell you there is something special and amazing going on inside.

R: I think that’s because the idea of a physical space is progressively something that my generation and perhaps even other generations as well don’t feel that connected too, because space these days is becoming a virtual concept. A lot of our interactions happen over the Internet. Most of us connect more online than physically.

S: So there is not even bodily contact, or not as much?

R: I’m not saying that it’s good or bad, of course. It’s just a different mode of communication.

S: Yes, of course. No judgement. I’m just curious about the phenomenal aspect of it. How it works out… the shifts in terms of the relationships between people, between spaces and between people and spaces… the kind of sensibility that people have today… You’re right. It’s just a different world we live in today, isn’t it?

R: Yea, I guess.

S: Well, now that we’ve got that cleared, let’s get back. My relationship with the Substation. I’ll wait for you to prompt certain things, but if I can just kick off by saying that as far as I recall, my connections with the Substation was virtually from day one…

Images courtesy of The Substation.

Several Memories Two

P: The problem here is that people are unduly afraid of discourse. What we really need here is not to avoid discourse but to allow it to happen in a safe space, and the Sub provides this space. I can’t think of any other better place in which this can happen. It’s tragic that a country with so much potential is being stifled internally by its own irrational fears. When I first came, I must admit I was ambivalent about censorship. I didn’t think much about it. I didn’t have a stand. But after what I’ve been through and witnessed personally, I’ve come to realise the evils of censorship. People lose the courage to speak up. There are very few people in the next generation who have the courage to serve as an intellectual vanguard for the community. Self-censorship is prevalent. And what troubles me most is that while people recognise this, they don’t seem to see any problem with it. What do we stand to lose anyway even if we have to shut up a little? So what if we are censoring ourselves? We can continue living our lives. But the thing is this: self-censorship is not just a socio-political phenomenon that concerns only the academic attention of the liberal fringe. It is deeply personal, even existential. Something at the core of our humanity is lost when we choose to silence ourselves. What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to have a voice?

W: It’s interesting that you speak of self-censorship as an existential issue, because that would necessarily mean that whatever that’s causing it cannot be entirely institutional. It runs much deeper than that. We cannot simply just put the blame on the government. In any case, I do think the NAC and the government as a whole are changing their tone. There is a marked difference in the way it chooses to address artists or the citizens in general. In the past, it used to be the artists kowtowing to the NAC. Now, it’s more about engagement and discussion. Sure, things are not perfect yet, but our institutions are clearly adjusting themselves. The problem now really lies with us. I know because I’ve spent time in places like Vietnam, Malaysia and so on. Just look at Vietnam: Communist government. Strict censorship regime. But the people are so much more energised, courageous and creative. But us? We are too affluent, complacent. Perhaps we are not really crippled by fear, but apathy. The only one crippled by fear is the government. The rest of us just don’t really care.

P: But that in a way can too be attributed to the institutional apparatus. We are not evolving because we took the easy route to progress. We were made to follow a highly planned trajectory, based on rigid controls, fixed routes and tested formula. We did not grow naturally as a people.

Y: For me, I think culture does play a big part in the way we approach the arts and discourse. I’m talking more about cultural baggage here. You can see this in the different ways the media from different languages approach the arts. In my view, the position of the English media in the past decade has remained unchanged: that contemporary art is something that can’t be understood, and thus there is a need to keep questioning, to keep justifying its practice. There is really close to nothing when it comes to developing a discourse. Instead, they focus more on spectacles and shows with a human focus. It’s mostly an editorial thing, of course, for we know that our journalists are much more intelligent than the words that get printed under their names. The Chinese papers, on the other hand, are much better when it comes to arts reportage. They can understand and talk about the issues and the reviews are very heartfelt. My personal theory is this: that the Chinese come from a historical tradition in which culture was really the cornerstone of society. Think about the Chinese literati of the 60s. They were the agents for social change. Because of this legacy, there is a natural inclination for the Chinese papers to defend culture. For the English papers, there may be some vestigial anxieties about this colonial language, the sense that we are using a language that is being transplanted form elsewhere… as if we don’t have a culture to call our own.

W: Yes, speaking of the media in Singapore, whatever happened to it? I don’t think the English media was always like that. We had people like Hannah Pandian, Sasi, Susie Wong who were writing really deep, relevant stuff. Who’s filling their shoes now that they’ve left? In talking about discourse, we cannot ignore the role of the press. The press is important because it is the only constant over the decades. It chronicles the scene from its early days and provides continuity and memory. It is the best space that can help sustain discourse.

O: We have to be cautious when examining the relationship between the media and the state though, because it never really is about one genuflecting to the other. Sometimes the state takes the cue from the media. The Josef Ng incident is a case in point. Its scandalisation by the media made it necessary for a policy decision to be made. This also means there is a vicious circular loop in place, an endless mirroring between the the media and the state in all facets, which is anathema to what a functional artistic discourse should be. The entire institutional climate needs a paradigm shift. I’m really not optimistic about the general direction of things even now. Everywhere there is still the same philistine attitudes and media anxieties over art, the same default mistrust of artists. It’s all tied to the larger authoritarian culture…

T: Sorry to interject but I have to point out the elephant in the room. Everyone is criticising the government for this and that, but all of you seem to have forgotten that you are also receiving support from them. So what relationship are we maintaining exactly?

P: No, I don’t think any of us has forgotten that. We recognise that and that’s why there is so much frustration. In a place where the entire private sector also sings the same tune as the state, there really is little space left for us to manoeuvre. But that said, I don’t think we should be taking an antagonistic stance any longer. As W mentioned, perhaps the NAC is really willing to engage and discuss, and it’s only right that we partake in the dialogue. In fact, if anything, we must be the ones initiating the dialogue.

T: This goes beyond it being about us versus the NAC. It’s also about us versus us. You say they are willing to engage and discuss, but they are not doing so with everyone. It still has an agenda and will work only with those who can help fulfil its agenda. This has created a divide within the scene and the worse thing is that we have internalised it. Look at theatre. It was one of the art forms that benefitted most from the professionalisation of the scene. Like with the Esplanade, the theatre people opposed it first, but now they are all working with it. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that. We should work with government, but we must also remember those who are falling through the cracks. Currently what I see is a bo chap attitude towards each other, or worse, antagonism. There are some artists thinking, why are all these political artists making life so difficult for all of us? Why must they do all this childish things like stripping naked and creating trouble? By that, you know I’m talking about performance art. I think there is also a class divide at work. The theatre people look at us and think we are just bad actors putting up bad performances.

O: Is there really a need to disparage theatre like that? I understand your concerns about the inequalities, but you speak as if we are fraternising with the enemy! Remember that it was theatre which first gave visibility to the fact of homosexuality. Without it, I don’t think we would even be discussing 337A today. Theatre was and is still the space to discharge social ideas. It’s unfortunate that we have developed a perception that theatre has gone all glossy and commercial because of its professionalisation, when it still is very much about the issues, about filling in the gaps of public discourse. We are all working towards the same aspirations. In fact, I find that there is too much theatre dabbling in political issues – bad theatre, in fact, for I don’t think theatre is actually the best medium for going into party politics.

W: Can we please don’t go into a petty argument pitting one art form against another?

O: Yes, I would gladly not want to myself. I think moping about the state of the arts is at times really just an excuse to cover up for the poor quality of the art here. Why do we have no great works of art here? Because the environment pampers us too much. And because our brightest people are doing law and medicine, instead of art. It can be as simple as that. Sometimes we just have to take an austere, uncompromising view: just focus on being great artist. With that, every other thing becomes immaterial. If you are good, you can thrive.

Images courtesy of The Substation.

Several Memories One

D: I would propose looking at the history of the Substation in terms of three different decades. The first would be the nineties, defined by a strong, ground-up, DIY spirit, when the Sub was a space for people to encounter one another and for ideas to be negotiated. This was followed by the second decade, which was a time of institution-building, when it became clear that the earlier mode of operation was no longer sustainable and thus economic imperatives had to take over. I would say it became more of a space for presentation rather than process. And of course, it was also during this decade that the Garden was gone, which I think played a very big part in removing the community from the space. I remembered feeling very betrayed when I came back and found that the Garden was not there anymore. Most people felt the same. The third era would be now, I hope, when we see that things are beginning to change a little, although it remains to be seen what is the exact impact of these changes upon the Sub’s identity.

K: I have to take issue with the way you compartmentalised the history of the Sub, simply because we cannot be looking at the three decades so schematically in relation to each other. The nineties was a time of unprecedented growth and thus any period that followed it would naturally appear dull and uneventful. There is also the tendency to look at the past through a romanticised view. You mentioned the Garden. Truth be told, from what I’ve heard from Sasi, the Garden was actually underutilised when it was still around. You can count with one hand the number of events that took place there each month. We have to look at the history of the Sub in terms of the broader landscape that was evolving both because of and in spite of it. The Sub could maintain its identity as a locus of the arts community in the nineties because it was the only place where it could thrive. It was a time when the arts was still largely a fringe phenomenon and the Sub was this fringe. While I cannot say that the arts has become mainstream now, there has at least been an institutional normalisation of the arts which has farther led to its professionalisation as an industry. Now, even within the fringe, there is stratification between the so-called commercial and non-commercial artists and with the community itself fractured, it is only inevitable that the centre at which it gathers begins to vanish.

D: I’m not denying that external factors played a part, but internally, Sub as an institution had also changed after the nineties, no? There was a perception that Sub had become more serious, more academic…

F: But the Sub was already very academic from the start what, like the conferences, art vs art etc. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with it becoming more academic. The Sub needs to differentiate its identity. There is no obligation for it to be a community centre. Actually, from how I see it, a lot of the negativity surrounding the decade when Weng and Audrey were in charge was due to bad PR – the way decisions were made without consulting the community and how they were communicated. There was still a lot happening at the Sub at that time. It was still a lot about process.

P: I don’t think it was a matter of how many things were happening at the Sub. There were probably as many things happening in the two-thousands as in the nineties. The problem was that of curatorial dialogue. What is the discourse that is being generated by all these disparate activities? There were campaigns against everything from the death penalty to cat culling, while at the same time, you had people practising yoga and capoeira in the studios upstairs. The Sub just seemed to have lost its direction, as if it didn’t know where to go.

D: I think that was also the time when people were saying that the Sub was being hijacked by civil society.

K: I don’t agree that it was “hijacked”, because art and civil society have always been intertwined from the time of the Sub’s conception. I believe Pao Kun would have approved of the inclusion of civil society within the Sub’s programming, because he envisioned the Sub as the public space more than anything else. The operative word in “A Home for the Arts” is the word “Home”, which entails openness. The Sub needs to be open to the community and be shaped by its needs.

P: But was the Sub really conceived to have so nebulous an identity? One of the biggest misconceptions of the nineties was that it was all laissez-faire with no programming, as if it was really an empty space awaiting for artists to fill it. Not to say it wasn’t open to all forms of art and practices of course; but despite the porosity, there was a very strong curatorial programme running its core. Think New Criteria, Raw Theatre. Some of the works produced by these programmes defined the generation. The Artist-in-Residency initiative was also essential. Its successor, the Associate Artist Scheme, could never match up to its productivity.

J: Sorry if I’m deviating from the current discussion thread a little, since we have been harping on a lot about programming, but I think in talking about a space like the Substation, we too often forget the most important element – the physical space, the geography. The reason why Sub was able to function as a community centre was because it was literally the centre of a wider civic space. The National Library was nearby. There was S11, the kopitiam opposite and within the Sub, there was Fat Frog. The best part was that all these spaces seemed to spill over into one another. It was one continuous space. You didn’t know where you were stepping into because there were no demarcations. I think the loss of the National Library was the start of the decline. For one, Literature began to disappear from the Sub. All the book events that used to happen in the Garden – gone. The final straw was the loss of the eating places. Food and art has to come together and it has to be the right kind of food. Where can you go after you watch a performance at the Sub now? Timbre?

P: I think we need to stop thinking that removing Timbre would be the panacea to all our problems. Who is going to fill the Garden when we have it back? We have changed as a community. Amongst us, there is distrust and vanity at play. Artistic practice has become a largely become an individualistic pursuit. Nobody is interested in what each other are doing. I think the younger generation of artists are the best indicator of this. Do they even give a shit about our own history, our community?

K: I am wary about pursuing this line of argument though, because once again we are invoking the spectre of a quaint, communitarian past. I don’t think we have become more selfish, or at least not to the extent that it should be a cause for alarm. We are a much larger community now and thus it is inevitable that the sense of intimacy be lost. Besides, the more collectivist modes of art-making in the past emerged more from an economy of means than a communal ethos. We had to share and collaborate because resources were so sparse and there was only so much we could do if we were to operate individually.

F: Most of us also had more free time. Nothing much to do.

J: Yes, that was a factor too. Ideas need time to flourish. If it helps, I think we are beginning to understand again how important it is to give an artist time. The new Arts Creation Fund, for instance, is a good sign of that.

D: We also need to reclaim that sense of imagination. Isn’t that what we, as artists, are supposed to do – imagine?

K: Let us put our imaginations to work then. What do you imagine that the Sub can be in today’s ecology?

F: I think it needs to be the leader of the arts community. I don’t think a community can survive without leadership. It may not be official, but we already have people recognised in some ways as the ones taking the lead in the scene here. But they are all individuals and we cannot count upon them to be there all the time. But when an organisation takes the lead, there is continuity, because organisations have legacies that can be passed on even as the people leave.

P: For me, the Sub has to be a hotbed of discourse, simply because that is the best thing it is capable of doing and that there is no one institution fully committed to it at the moment. It is clear that the Sub has run its course as a physical space. There is no way it can compare to the bigger, glossier spaces out there. It must focus on artistic process and research.

J: If I have it my way, I will turn the entire Substation into a writer’s centre, simply because it makes economic sense. Writers, like all artists, need space. But all we don’t need a lot of space, just a small, no-frills room to call our own, which is readily available at the Sub. I would happily book a room at the Sub just to write.

D: For me, it’s very simple. It has to be about art – not just any art, but contemporary art practice.

K: That’s a very amorphous notion, D. But I’ll add to that another amorphous notion which we are all too familiar with; I think the Substation should continue to be a home for the arts.

Images courtesy of The Substation.

The Fifth Memory

Members of the Memory Society in action

Members of the Memory Society in action

Seven Cardinal Notions of the Memory Society

1. The body is the world of pure reality, unlike the mind, which is the world of apparitions.
2. One must only use the body to remember feelings, not sights and sounds, for the latter belong to the world of the mind.
3. When remembering, one must keep the body in motion, for a body which is still cannot remember.
4. The body remembers through repetition: the more one repeats the motions, the more deeply the body remembers.
5. One must not use words to help in the remembering, for words belong to the world of the mind and would not be understood by the body.
6. When connecting, one must listen to the body of the other.
7. One must not ask the body questions, for the body is not the mind and cannot provide answers.

Image courtesy of The Substation.

Freedom and its Limits: A Conversation with Rex Bloomstein

Rex Bloomstein, director of The Prison Where I Live

Rex Bloomstein, director of The Prison Where I Live

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

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 edited version of this interview was first published on The Online Citizen.