By Matt Zoller Seitz
"There's that bit, call it my reptilian part of the brain, saying, 'This isn't normal...There's something really unusual going on...'" That's international reporter Marco Werman on tonight's Frontline World, describing a rare total solar eclipse from a prime vantage point in the Libyan desert. But he also sums up my reaction to this terrific nonfiction series. Conceived as a globally-minded mirror of PBS' better known Frontline—which positions itself inside the US, looking out—Frontline World is one of the most surprising and daring programs on American TV—a four-times-a-season potluck supper of stories from corners of the globe that U.S. commercial newscasts rarely visit unless there's a "What's in it for us?" aspect (these days, network news bosses can only justify an international reporting price tag if there's a tangential connection to the War on Terror or a sex trade angle—and if there's both, hey, jackpot).
Produced out of PBS' affiliate station WGBH in Boston, Frontline World ignores marketplace wisdom; instead of giving viewers what market research says they're already interested in, it simply offers off-the-beaten-track stories you had no idea would be so fascinating, thereby simultaneously doing Frontline World, its viewers and journalism itself a favor. The program typically offers four new episodes per season, with three or four segments per show. There's no set-in-stone lineup of weekly contributors, though certain regular faces recur. It's backpack journalism, shot in the field with minimal (sometimes smuggle-able) equipment, then often edited via laptop software and uploaded to the home office. Production values range from industry standard (if clearly improvised) to borderline AV Club.
Two of the three stories on tonight's episode are almost slick, shot in what looks like high-definition video—Werman's closing story ("Out of the Shadows") and Clark Boyd's a middle segment on the effect of micro-loans on developing economies. (Sounds like a thesis paper you'd rather not read, but hold on—it's an inspirational story about capitalism and social conscience meeting halfway; one of its subjects is a Uganda war survivor who avoided backbreaking labor as a coal digger by starting a now-thriving peanut butter factory.) Evan Williams' opening segment, about the Burmese government's systematic repression of the Karen minority, is much cruder, production-wise, but on this playing field, where only content matters, that's no handicap. Sneaking over hills, through jungle brush and past burnt-out villages in the company of the anti-government Free Burma Rangers, Williams' grainy, often flickery handi-cam records an institutionalized campaign of brutality that's mauled the landscape, dispersed 700,000 citizens to points outside Burma (now called Mynamar by the country's despotic ruling government) and turned dissent into a synonym for suicide. ("Just for me please, don't take photos," a taxi driver tells Williams. "If you take photos, it makes me big problems.")
According to Williams—who was blacklisted by Burmese leader General Than Shwe, Burma's ruler since 1992, as an enemy of the government, and had to report this story while posing as a tourist—anyone who's thinking of criticizing the powers that be might as well spare his or her family the suspense and jump into the nearest well. Goverment critics are routinely arrested on undisclosed charges and held behind bars until they die of neglect or torture-related trauma; the general's most formidable political rival, Aung San Suu Kyi (pictured above)—leader of the National League for Democracy—won a landslide election against the big boss in 1990, then was placed under house arrest for most of the next 16 years.
The only thing democratic about this situation is the allocation of cruelty, which is dispersed throughout Burma's social strata. Alarming as the general's iron-fisted electoral strategy may be, it pales compared to less prominent citizens' suffering. Their ranks include an antigovernment activist snatched from a restaurant by cops, then killed, presumably in custody; his widow never saw the body. "My daughter sometimes asks for her father because she didn't see what happened," the widow tells Williams, sitting lotus-style on her kitchen floor, child on her lap, "...and I don't know what to say to her. Where did your father go? He often went to buy the eels from the bigger fish store. So she thinks that's where he's gone."
Conventional U.S. media wisdom would deem this subject unsexy, i.e., a snooze. Though Burma has been considered a very minor front in the post-9/11 antiterrorism initiative, large number of U.S. troops aren't currently getting killed or maimed there; therefore it's deemed not worth a sustained expenditure of network money. Shrugging off groupthink, Frontline World gets the gist of this story out with a couple of reporters and their equipment-laden backpacks, with an undeniable sense of craft (the sound is both crystalline and inventive) and an urgency borne of personal passion—and it does it on a nationally televised platform more prominent and immediate than anything comparable on the Internet. Simply put, it tells stories for no other reason except that they need to be seen and heard. What other reason is there?