Proficient cinematographer Tin Win Naing has been in the thick of recent unrest in Myanmar/Burma, filming the chaos in the streets during the Saffron Revolution and its aftermath. But those events are only backstory for the experiences Naing shares through In Exile, which chronicles his time in Thailand after he fled Burma in 2009, fearing for his life with the government cracking down on suspected dissidents. Soon after finding a community among fellow Burmese refugees, Naing secured foreign assistance to make a documentary about their struggles.
There are inescapable comparisons to be drawn between this film and Ta’ang, another documentary about Burmese migrants playing at the Toronto Film Festival this year [see our review here]. But while the other movie is an epic-length, non-narrative ethnographic survey, In Exile runs little more than 70 minutes and stays with the friends Naing has made. Whereas Ta’ang is purposefully ambiguous as it closes, In Exile can’t quite figure out how to wrap itself up, not so much ending as it simply leaves its characters once Naing is able to return home. His inexperience as a director is evident. Odd, overly manipulative musical choices and unwieldy tangents abound.
Still, Naing’s camerawork is strong enough, observing both the beauty of the landscape and the toils of his characters, who often work under slavelike conditions, with a steady gaze. And abridged as their stories are, watching the subjects make the best of the situation, like trying merely to arrange a traditional wedding in a foreign environment, is affecting, sometimes heartbreaking stuff. And Naing’s affection for them bleeds through at every moment; after all, they are his friends, and he’s documenting his own hardships along with theirs.
A somber but non-sappy look at the exploitation of people already ground down by circumstance, In Exile at its best feels like snippets from a modern-day Grapes of Wrath. That conviction can only carry it so far, but its brevity means it doesn’t wear out its welcome. Like Burma itself, Naing remains in an uncertain position by the doc’s end. Here’s hoping he gets to keep using his camera.