Skip to main content
The Independent Critic

Ka Hsaw Wa, Katie Redford
Milena Kaneva
92 Mins.


 "Total Denial" Review 
Add to favorites
How could it be so?

How could it be that during a time when the nation of Myanmar (Burma) is in the news constantly for the human rights abuses of its military junta that I could be sitting in a theatre alone watching Bulgarian filmmaker Milena Kaneva's stirring documentary on this very subject?

Sure, the film played at one of Indianapolis's smaller and more uncomfortable arthouse theatres. But, this is BURMA...THE Burma...The same Burma that has kept Nobel Prize winning Aung San Suu Kyi on house arrest for years...The same Burma that just this past September began systematically arresting, torturing and murdering Buddhist monks...The same Burma that has, for dozens of years, ignored the will of its people with an iron and deadly first.

How could this film, which so vividly documents the abuses of the military junta as it acts as "official" security for American company Unocal and Total while building a multi-billion dollar Burmese/Thai oil pipeline, be so ignored by a general audience or, minimally, those in the city devoted to human rights?

Is it a case of simple lack of marketing on behalf of the theatre or, dare I say it, a case of total denial in this very city where I work and live and love?

"Total Denial" is the story of 15 Burmese villages who, capitalizing on a practically unknown 1789 law, sue American corporate giant Unocal in a California court and subsequently won an unprecedented settlement said to be in the eight-figure range.

Documentarian Milena Kaneva followed award-winning human rights activist Ka Hsaw Wa as he defies the junta over a five-year period and gathers evidence of human rights abuses including rape, forced labor, murder and forced relocation.

The film, which has been re-edited from the original version that first played the 2006 Human Rights Watch festival, is as hypnotizing when following the unfathomably courageous Ka Hsaw Wa as it is when the camera is fixed on the junta's victims. The victims, many of whom had to remain anonymous out of fear of reprisals, either trust Ka Hsaw Wa implicitly or are simply desperate to tell someone, anyone who will listen, their stories.

While the jungle-like conditions under which Kaneva must film inevitably impede the film's production quality, "Total Denial" remains impossible to turn away from even with its occasionally jarring camera work and minimalist production values.

Ka Hsaw Wa, who married American human rights activist Katie Redford and speaks quite clear English, is as enchanting when captured lovingly playing with his wife and daughters as he is playing a potentially lethal game of cat-and-mouse in the jungles of Burma.

The power of the effort is brought home in a simple, sparsely shot scene in which Ka Hsaw Wa shares that he carries a gun with only one be used to commit suicide should he be captured by the military junta.

While "Total Denial" is much less captivating during its American courtroom scenes, it is no less appalling to watch smug, self-righteous lawyer Daniel Petrocelli (who also defended Enron's Jeffrey Skilling) not only minimize the accounts of the accusers but accuse them of downright fabrication. It isn't so much Petrocelli defending Unocal, that would be expected. It's HOW Petrocelli defends the corporation and the openly smug and condescending manner in which he openly speaks to Kaneva's camera that is so completely appalling.

The case, which even the Bush administration attempted to have thrown out, was brought to American courts by Earth Rights, an international human rights organization co-founded by Ka Hsaw Wa and Redford, on the basis of the rarely utilized 1789 law that allows foreign citizens who've been harmed by the actions of American corporations on their soil to hold them accountable.

Along with the film's occasionally modest production values, "Total Denial" is likely to be confusing to those not familiar with the situation Burma. While human rights abuses are documented throughout the film, it's not abundantly clear just who's committing the abuses until the film's halfway point and, at times, it's difficult to see a convincing tie-in between the actions of the military junta and Unocal and, at times, it almost feels as if Kaneva is counting on the anti-corporate sentiment that seems to prevail among many human rights activists.

The majority of these modest quibbles are resolved by the film's somewhat anti-climactic scrolling announcement ending that announces the financial settlement by Unocal, though it's quite unsatisfying to not know what became of the financial settlement itself. Was it shared among the villagers who'd been so wronged? Was it kept by Earth Rights?

Currently in limited release for an Oscar-qualifying run, "Total Denial" is a film that, perhaps now more than ever, deserves more than our total denial. It commands our attention and, without a doubt, deserves more than an audience of one.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic