Total Denial is, to put it lightly, a niche film. Directed, produced, and edited by the Bulgarian journalist Milena Kaneva, it tells the story of human-rights abuses committed by the Burmese military on behalf of Unocal, an American oil company laying a pipeline there. Kaneva was obviously shooting on a budget: Some of the camera work is messy and slapdash, and the narrative can be confusing—I didn’t realize just who was killing whom until nearly an hour had gone by. Still, Total Denial is intelligent and brimming with what can only be called heart. A great deal of this is due to its protagonist, the charismatic human-rights activist Ka Hsaw Wa, who has spent the past 10 years hiding from the Burmese military regime (lately much in the news for its violence against the country’s Buddhist monks) and documenting the stories of villagers whose lives have been disrupted by the oil pipeline. Wa and his wife eventually filed suit against Unocal in California, under the provisions of an obscure 1789 law. The film moves back and forth between jumpy National Geographic–style footage of jungle huts and deadpan coverage of the vagaries of the American circuit-court system, which quickly emerges as the more outlandish locale.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 16, 2007