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©2019 by Capital of Mae La

The Background Story

This short documentary tells the story of Mae La camp, one of the largest refugee camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border, and of the people who live there. In 2014, I, designer and filmmaker Belle Phromchanya, accompanied anthropologist Jiraporn Laocharoenwong, who was doing research there, to visit this camp, which has been a home for over 40,000 refugees for more than 30 years.

It was Karen New Year and people were gathering together in traditional Karen dress, making preparations to celebrate. It was busier than usual, because a number of refugees who had resettled abroad had returned for the occasion to visit family and friends.The ceremony was spectacular, and the human connection palpable. Over the days after the New Year celebrations, my preconceptions about refugee camps would be challenged even more.

While originally envisioned as a temporary settlement, the camp has obtained many features of a city: Mae La is vibrant, alive, diverse, and even though it is normally hidden from view and literally behind a fence, people make a living here, work (both inside and outside the camp), study and go to school. Modern facilities such as smartphones, internet, and cable TV are used in most households. They travel back and forth to Karen areas in Myanmar to visit family, because while access for outsiders is highly controlled, camp inhabitants are actually quite mobile. As news had recently arrived that the camp is about to close in the near future, I could imagine the emotional struggle for the people living here for most of their lives, that they might need to go back. Is this what it described ‘in-between’ life?

Through numbers of conversations with camp inhabitants we met during our film shooting, we came across individual persons whose lives are fascinating all with unique stories. All this take place against the backdrop of the camp's impending closure and preparing for repatriation.

The film is a semi-longitudinal work in the Mae La camp filmed over a 4-year timespan, in collaboration with Jiraporn. We use the camera as a witness to show the individual stories of the camp inhabitants. The filming process was mostly unplanned and randomly selected through the people who passed by. We let people choose their own participation, filming people who were willing to share their stories with us. The film represents what we saw, talked about, and experienced during the time we were at the camp, reflecting the actual situation of life in the camp through the perspective of refugees themselves.


Another 'Refugee Story'

Why This One Matters?

The recent European Refugee crisis, as well as persecution of Rohingya refugees in Myanmar, gained worldwide attention in the media. This crisis is, however, not something new, but a recurring phenomenon worldwide, as can be seen from Tibetan refugees in India, Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon and Jordan, and Karen and other ethnic minority refugee camps along the Thailand-Burma borderland. What these camps share is their long-term existence, their temporary nature essentially having become permanent.

This project aims to present an intimate understanding of the lives of refugees focusing on the aftermath and lived experiences of refugees living in a long-term camp. What happens to refugees who have been living in a camp for over three decades, and especially one who was born from there? What happens when the media attention for a particular crisis stops? How do they live and continue their lives after the donors stop funding?

This film is produced under an artistic and ethnographic context hopes that it represents a real-life story, and able to trigger valuable conversations about the situation of the Karen refugees and probably relating to other groups of displaced persons who have been affected by the long term conflict.

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