Total Denial, 2006

A fascinating chronicle of the landmark tort case brought against Unocal on behalf of fifteen displaced Burmese villagers who were raped, beaten, enslaved, tortured, and even killed by the Burmese army in service to Unocal for the construction and security of the Yadana pipeline linking southern Burma to Thailand, Total Denial is a dense, intimate, and often overwhelming exposition on the insidious, blind-eye approach of large corporations – and in particular, the oil companies Total and Unocal – towards conducting business within the countries of corrupt, repressive, and illegitimate regimes with known histories of human rights violations. Guided by human rights activist, Ka Hsaw Wa, a native Karen (Burma’s largest ethnic minority) who cut his activist teeth with the violently suppressed student demonstrations for democracy in 1988 (for which he was arrested and tortured) who has been gathering the testimonies and documenting the plight of the displaced villagers as they hid in the jungles between Burma and Thailand, the film exposes the interrelated political and economic machinations that knowingly enable the perpetuation of human rights violations with relative impunity. Following the ignominious trail of corrupt symbiosis – from Unocal’s creation of a series of shell companies that obfuscate their involvement (and the extent of their involvement) in these unethical practices, to government intervention in the legal action (former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage campaigned to sway the court into dismissing the lawsuit without going to trial), to the Burmese army’s long history of dealing with independence movements of ethnic minorities through brutality and genocide, to a kind of myopic, powder keg diplomacy that favors silence and willful ignorance in order to achieve short term national goals than in confronting the reality of human rights abuses and global dynamics in order to forge a long term solution – and juxtaposed against the haunting testimonies of the face obscured, Burmese “John Doe” litigants as they recount their traumas of repeated village burning, intimidation, extortion, forced labor, and violations suffered at the hands of Burmese army in an attempt to clear and depopulate the area around the construction site and logistics infrastructure, filmmaker Milena Kaneva presents a probing, illuminating, and incisive exposition into the everyday reality of the incestuous alliance of politics and big business economics.

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