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Meet the Filmmakers: Kim A. Snyder--'Crossing Midnight'

By Tom White

Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work is represented in the DocuWeeksTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, currently running through August 20 in New York City and Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is Kim A. Snyder, director/producer of Crossing Midnight..

Synopsis: Crossing Midnight tells the story of a remarkable community of refugees from Burma working against incredible odds to help their own. During the violent crackdown of the 1988 student uprising, Dr. Cynthia Maung and a group of fellow students fled to the border of Thailand. There, with virtually nothing in hand, they created the Mae Tao Clinic in a one-room barn. Today, in the midst of an unparalleled healthcare crisis, the clinic has grown into a community of over 500 healthcare workers, a school for refugee children and a dedicated group of cross-border backpack medics.

IDA:  How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

Kim A. Snyder: Circuitously! I actually did master's work in international affairs at Johns Hopkins, then had a brief stint in international trade at a large international bank, wherein I became involved in the filmmaking community in Eastern Europe just after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

My entree into film was first in features--curating and repping foreign films from former Eastern Europe--and then in indie production (Trevor--1995 Academy Award for Live Action Short; Jodie Foster's 1996 film Home for the Holidays). The seque into docmaking came later, when a turn of events in life led me to make my own first film, I Remember Me, which was distributed by Zeitgeist back in 2001. I've been making docs ever since.

IDA:   What inspired you to make Crossing Midnight?

KAS: Two years ago, I co-founded the BeCause Foundation to produce a series of short docs that all highlighted people and communities doing unusual work around a number of tough issues. Crossing Midnight is the third of this series. After two stories that were set domestically, a friend introduced me to "The Border" (the Thai/Burma border) and to the work of this incredible community of refugees from Burma who, following a student uprising in 1988, had escaped an oppressive regime and nurtured a community of healthcare workers and others over the past two decades. Today that community is over 500 strong.

After my first scout to the region, I was completely humbled and taken with the quiet resolve, resourcefulness and resilience of these people to help their own in the face of overwhelming odds. While stories of Burma were getting out there to some extent, I felt that the plight taking place in this particular part of Eastern Burma--one where over a million internally displaced people were living on the run in the jungles--was a lesser told story.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them? 

KAS: In the filming itself, one of the most obvious obstacles was access to Burma and security. After a highly unusual murder of an opposition leader in the Thai border town of Mae Sot where we were based, my cameraman did not wish to cross the border. I felt it important for the story we were tracking, so we crossed with our soundwoman into Eastern Burma with the guidance of some of our trusted backpackers. This crossing could not take us deep inside of Burma for risk of putting our subjects at risk, and so depicting the work being carried out in the field was limited. However, we had brought several small HD cameras that we donated to the backpackers, adding to several SD cams they'd already employed in the field. Subsequently, we had access to dozens of hours of PAL video footage from deep inside the jungles, lending visuals to the lives of individuals on the run.

Translation was difficult as Karen (ethnic minority), Burmese and English were all necessary. This became particularly tedious in post-production, and as it was my first time making a foreign language doc, I sorely underestimated the time it would add to the post-production schedule. Some characters insisted on communicating in sketchy English, and it was difficult not to oblige for fear of offending them. Eliciting stories from those who had been on the border for many years were often told with low affect and nonchalance--until we met the children who were able to speak with a fresher tone about their experiences in fleeing Burma, and their lives in the refugee camps along the border. Given our relatively short filming timeframe, it was difficult to develop characters, so I tried to develop the community as the character.  

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

KAS: During pre-production, I envisioned that the film would be largely focused on Dr. Cynthia Maung, the founder of the clinic and community we were filming. During the shoot, especially in her interview, I realized that she saw her role of leader/founder as somewhat inconsequential and truly saw herself as part of this larger community. Consequently, she had less of a physical presence and more of a sense of the force behind the movement.

The biggest departure was in the edit; we had tracked an unexpected development while there, which was the assassination of an opposition leader (believed by many to have been carried out by the Burmese regime) in the town we were based, which profoundly affected the community. We had access to those developments and documented his funeral across the border and the reaction to it. We had a version that included this but decided that for the purposes of a short film, it required way too much complex political backstory to understand it, and in our later versions we chose to omit this scene and restructure the film.

IDA: As you've screened Crossing Midnight--whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms--how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

KAS: In general, people in the US have no idea what is happening in Burma, so people are shocked when they see footage of people in Eastern Burma--families, children, women carrying babies--fleeing their villages through jungle areas, carrying everything they have, dodging landmines and seeking safety from soldiers who are tracking them.

Many people are surprised to learn that ethnic Karen people from Burma are the largest growing population of refugees in the US and are being resettled all across the county. The film seems to help people in communities with higher concentrations of these refugees--in Nebraska, North Carolina, Maryland--make the connection with the experiences of these refugees in Burma. After some of the screenings, educators have requested to use the film in their classes.

Crossing Midnight also includes some scenes from the most recent Rambo movie about Burma with the tag line "Live for nothing. Die for something." People from Burma were thrilled that a pop icon, Sylvester Stallone, would focus his attention on their plight. Many who have seen the movie say it is his most violent film ever. People from Burma who have seen the film, however, say that the violence is accurate and the atrocities are even more severe in Burma than in the film.

Screenings have been organized at a variety of international organizations such as OSI, the IRC, etc., and activists are taken with the power of a community taking matters into its own hands and not waiting for an outside hand, as well as the sense of hope that documentaries about a protracted conflict situation rarely convey. The focus on a community committed to healing itself and educating its children in the face of great odds is deeply inspiring for those committing their livelihoods to advocating for Burma, and many activists have requested to use the film for their political advocacy campaigns.

Finally, people from Burma, particularly ethnic Karen refugees, have embraced the film and seen it as an invigorating force. The Karen American Communities Foundation (KACF), a group of Karen refugees in the US dedicated to supporting Karen people in their resettlement to the US, have launched a number of screenings, as they feel it accurately represents their experience and are developing it as an educational tool for community organizing.

IDA:  What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

KAS: Errol Morris, Agnès Varda, Capturing the Friedmans, My Architect, God Grew Tired of Us, The Kid Stays in the Picture, The Yes Men.

Crossing Midnight will be screening at the IFC Center in New York City.

To download the DocuWeeksTM program in New York, click here.

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