translated by Geof Aberhart, proofread by Stefanie ESCHENLOHR and TSAI Wan-ying
Days Around the Mines
This is Hpakan—a place of war, a grey area, a place to pursue dreams.
“When we were about eight or nine years old a lot of the young people in the village would go down the mine. Back in the 30s or 40s, you didn't need any money for it, you could just come here and, if you were lucky, strike it rich and turn your whole life around,” says LEE Yong-chao.
In other lines of work, say waiting tables, you might earn 100,000 Myanmar kyat a month, not even USD$70. Supporting yourself, let alone a whole family, would mean working yourself to the bone. Considering this, it's no wonder more and more people head for the mines. But with big dreams come bigger risks. Amber miners say that to be one of them is to be like a rat, living like a rat, working like a rat, scurrying through holes and tunnels just to eke out a living.
These self-described “rats,” these miners chasing their dreams, are the subjects and objects of the documentary“Blood Amber.” Some come from as far as China, others from the nearby town of Tanai. Some have spent a few years working in factories in Taiwan, others have come from family farms. Some write poems, others play guitar. While they are all grouped together as “miners,” they each have their own background, personality, and interests.
No dialogue, no interviews, just men wearing flip-flops and walking, walking, walking. For a 10-minute long-shot scene in “Blood Amber,” we follow these men along the sloped road, the image swaying, recording another big daily routine for the miners outside of work—their trips to go carrying water.
In shot, we hear occasional shells go off; out of shot, war continues to rage.
June 15th, 2017, was the deadline given by the Myanmar military for the miners to evacuate the area. Before the 15th, the military government had begun dropping flyers from helicopters telling the miners that if they didn't evacuate, they would be considered “rebel forces.”
Until about mid-January of 2018, the government was using helicopters to bomb the area. LEE Yong-chao had been in contact with miner Bang Moe and heard he had continued mining, but later lost touch with him. All he knew was that the situation had changed since he shot there, and that no one was allowed to take cellphones in. “Maybe he went back in and kept working,” says LEE.
After screening “Blood Amber” at an international film festival, LEE recalls, he met a couple from Germany. After watching the movie, they had come to two different perspectives—one felt the miners were too greedy for money, while the other felt they were there to try and improve the quality of their lives, and that their circumstances had left them with no choice.
The outcomes from finding amber or jade differ by place. In the film, no one made an overnight fortune off amber; with the situation unstable, the price was not that high, with the amber found ultimately only going for about 8 million kyat, and split evenly between the miners, that left them each with about 200,000 kyat (around USD$135).
“Some moments I was really struck by how big the gap between people can be,” says LEE Yong-chao.“Sometimes you'd see Bang Moe and company and they want to go get a drink, but you'd ask them to whip out 100 kyat and there'd be nothing. I really felt conflicted seeing the difference between us at points like that.”
“It's not easy doing this, but we need the money.”
“For the poor, mining amber is the only way out of poverty.”
At the end of the film, the miners sit in a narrow, dark mine for a break, smoking and chatting. Do they want things to change? Yes, but whether things can change is something they're just not sure about. Or maybe they're still betting on their one-in-a-thousand shot.
Flipping the Script
When filming a documentary, the unexpected can make it hard to follow the script. For LEE Yong-chao, the same could be said for life.
He arrived for our interview 15 minutes early, looking serious with no “business smile” on his face. When the interview started, being unaccustomed to overly formal situations, with a little embarrassment he suggested we “just chat a bit.”
While today he lives in Taichung, LEE spent his childhood in a small town in rural Myanmar. Watching a film was no easy task; he'd stare at the beautiful posters and decide he wanted to go see one film or another, but when he ran home and asked for money, none was forthcoming. Just being able to get any little bit of money was like winning the lottery. And so, moneyless, he would stand outside, peeking through holes in the fence. “Coming to Taiwan, I wasn't thinking about making movies. Growing up, even just getting to see a movie was pleasure enough.”
After graduating from high school, he happened across the opportunity to take a test for Taiwan's Overseas Community Affairs Council and was lucky enough to get a scholarship. “If I hadn't made it in, there's every chance I'd have ended up a miner too. Some of my old classmates, who tested and failed twice now work buying and selling jade.” Once he got to Taiwan, LEE didn't immediately start college, but rather took the test for the Division of Preparatory Programs for Overseas Chinese Students at National Taiwan Normal University. It then turned out, he ended up in the Early Childhood Education Department, a far cry from his own interests. With no other option, he studied for a year and took the test again, finally getting into a multimedia program.“To be honest, before I got in, I didn't really know what that was, but it sounded interesting,” he laughs.
After spending some time in the media as a photojournalist, LEE realized he still loved movies and wanted to make them, and that he wanted to go back home. His father had been a jade miner, and his brother works in the mining area today, so with the resources and memories he had, LEE grabbed his camera and his phone and started shooting. He started with his friends, as well as filming the monks in rural Myanmar. So what would make him shoot something outside of Myanmar? LEE responds that anything that moves him is worth shooting, it's just a matter of resources and having a team. Sounding a little unsure exactly how to put his thoughts into words, he continues, “for the time being, I don't really want to make a documentary. As I shot and shot, I felt like things got crueler and crueler.”
When he says “cruel,” he is talking about the line between being attention-grabbing and being unethical. When fights broke out between the miners as they all lived together, should these unexpected scenes go into the film? When they encountered military inspections, should he surreptitiously film them? After some internal conflict, he chose to opt for the choices that would disrupt the people being filmed the least. Laughing, LEE says, “who knows, maybe I'll be a little crueler next time and shoot it all!”
Already “Blood Amber” has been nominated for several awards and earned quite a bit of acclaim. While he may have become a filmmaker by accident, it's still hard to tell if this accident was a happy one or not, nor whether it might have been better to stay and struggle in Myanmar. “A lot of us came to Taiwan and then went back home afterward. Sometimes I wonder if I'd just stayed and struggled in Myanmar buying and selling jade and amber, maybe I'd be better off than if I tried to go back now. So, in the end, I still don't know who was right and who was wrong as far as coming to Taiwan goes. Maybe there isn't a right and a wrong,” says LEE. “Ultimately you have to walk the path you choose.” And so, the script for the film that is LEE Yong-chao's life continues to be written.