Beyond the Salween River

- BURMA, VIETNAM, THAILAND / 2019 / Karen, Burmese / Color / Digital File / 65 min

Director, Producer: Gigi Berardi
Photography: Lucio Cremonese, Susanne Salavati
Editing: Swann Dubus
Sound: James Hynes
Co-producers: Tran Phuong Thao, Swann Dubus
Production Company: Varan Vietnam
Source: Gigi Berardi

The “Backpack Medics” team bring medical services to areas populated by minority groups isolated by war. Carrying their medical equipment, these doctors cross through war-torn areas, penetrating into the jungle and camping in the wilderness. Meanwhile, at the base camp, young villagers gain medical knowledge and first aid. Minority groups taking their future into their own hands, to learn, mobilize, and rescue. They take the knowledge and experience they have acquired and set off . . .

[Director’s Statement] My first encounter with the medics was in 2006 while backpacking in Mae Sot, a town on the Thai/Burma border. Their stories inspired me, and I decided to volunteer at their headquarters. My initial short stay became 18 months. In this time, I taught them basic camera and video editing skills so that they could start documenting their work in the jungle and advocate for it.

Five years later, they finally invited me to document them on one of their expeditions, a rare privilege for a Westerner at the time. On this research trip I spent six weeks following the Backpack medics in the deep Burmese jungle, living with them and like them. I ate only what the land had to offer, slept in a hammock in the open air and hiked through rivers with leeches over steep mountainous terrain amongst thin air. I trekked over 500 km, lost almost 25 lbs and picked up a tropical disease. For me, it was a hell I could eventually escape. For them—it was daily life.

My goal with Beyond the Salween River is to give the Karen people a voice, as they show their resilience in overcoming multiple healthcare challenges. When I started the project, it was clear to me that in order to dig deep into their lives and culture, and to show them in the purest way with an observational approach, I had to dedicate an ample amount of time in the Jungle and live with these people. Eventually, I ended up carrying out five shooting trips, each of them lasting six weeks; the longest I could tolerate in living without any of the comforts that come with the civilization into which I was born.

Beyond the Salween River is a portrait of a population and a culture for which a group of people are fighting to preserve its legacy.

Gigi Berardi

Italian-born commercial & documentary director/producer from Milan, based in Bangkok. Graduating from the University of the Arts in London in 2005 with a degree in film and video, he has in recent years produced several short form documentaries which have been screened at over one hundred festivals globally. Among them is the work Unravel (2012), which has won over twenty-five festival awards.  In 2012 Gigi was selected for Documentary Campus where he began developing the story Love Me or Fear Me, a feature documentary about men fighting misogyny in India. In 2013, Gigi received his first broadcasting commission from Al Jazeera to direct an episode of Witness. In 2014, Gigi was commissioned by Minority Rights Group International to produce Up the Hills; Down the Valley, a documentary about the spread of HIV among the ethnic minority women in Northern Vietnam. The film was a co-production with Varan Vietnam. The project also initiated a collaboration with Tran Phuong Thao and Swann Dubus, co-producers of Beyond the Salween River.