Moving to Mars follows two refugee families from Burma over the course of a year that will change their lives completely. Forced from their homeland by the repressive military junta, they have lived in a Thai refugee camp, some for almost twenty years. A resettlement scheme offers them the chance of a new life; but their new home, in the British city of Sheffield, will be different to everything they’ve ever known.
With intimate access, this feature-length documentary from Mat Whitecross (The Road to Guantanamo) depicts the families’ moving and sometimes humorous struggles with 21st century Britain. Their stories give a unique insight into the experiences of displaced people in the UK, whilst showing the human consequences of Burma’s political climate.
The two families are from Burma – Karen – an ethnic group much persecuted by the ruling military junta. Driven from their homes by military aggression, the families live in Mae La Camp – a restrictive 3km enclosure on the Thai-Burma border. Although officially a ‘temporary’ shelter area, the camp has grown to accommodate almost 40,000 refugees. Conditions are basic, with limited facilities and overcrowding. The refugees in the camp face a life of un-ending confinement, unable to return to Burma or enter Thailand to find work, surviving on rations and charity hand outs.
With such restrictions placed upon their freedom and aspirations, many Karen families are choosing to be relocated abroad – to countries about which they know almost nothing. The Netherlands, the USA, Australia and Norway have all accepted groups of Karen refugees, and the UK has recently joined that collective. As the film begins, a group of 152 refugees from Mae La Camp are about to set off for new lives in the city of Sheffield. The families it follows are part of that group.
These two families are from very different backgrounds, but neither are obvious candidates for political exile. Thaw Htoo is a mild-mannered civil engineer, married to piano teacher Tutu Paw. Both are well-educated and speak English. They were forced to flee their home in Rangoon after Thaw Htoo’s brother joined the Karen rebel forces. Jo Kae, the father of the other family, is an illiterate farmer from Burma’s Karen state, who fled his village after sheltering some students after the 1988 uprisings in Burma. His wife Daisi is a nursery school teacher. Despite their differences, these couples and their children are thrown together on their life-changing journey and become somewhat unlikely friends.
The film follows the families as they depart Mae La Camp, leaving their friends, relatives and neighbours behind to begin their journey to England. It shows their bewildered reactions to Bangkok’s vast and futuristic airport, their excitement at travelling on a plane for the first time, and their confusion on arriving in the UK. Staying with them over the course of their first year in Sheffield (2008-2009), the documentary charts the challenges they face in adjusting to UK life: learning English, starting school, coping with new technology from washing machines to burglar alarms, and making new friends.
As the year progresses, both families experience new struggles and successes. Thaw Htoo finds it difficult to integrate into the Karen community in Sheffield, and all find it hard to adapt to British weather, different customs and behaviour. The children initially find it hard to adjust to school-life in the UK, missing their friends in Mae La Camp and struggling to communicate. What progress will they have made by the end of the year? Will their parents’ dreams of education for their children be realised? With unprecedented access, we see their difficult journey and new lives unfold.
“Whitecross’s greatest strength is a steadfast refusal to make any ethical assumptions, or to use his story as an excuse for political grandstanding… ‘Moving to Mars’ succeeds because of its unsentimental humanity: the film steps back and allows us to make up our own minds about these troubled, likeable, struggling characters.” Tom Huddleston , Time Out London
“The refugee story, of people being separated from their homeland against their will, is always a very moving one. And it’s told beautifully here – sensitively, but not hand-wringingly worthily.” Sam Wollaston, The Guardian
“Whitecross’s unobtrusive and touchingly human documentary depicts the emigration of two Karen Burmese refugee families from the Mae La Camp in Thailand to Sheffield, capturing their final days of jungle living, their alien journey halfway round the world, and their fumbling attempts to acclimatise to an exciting and confusing new culture, highlighting both the differences and universalities of human experience.” Iain Stott, One-Line Review
Winner, Best Documentary on a Contemporary Issue, Grierson Award 2011
Gold Plaque, 46th Chicago International Film Festival
“It was so great that Worldview got involved in the film, not only providing some very vital funding at a crucial time, but also their experience was enormously helpful especially when we faced tricky times filming near the Burmese border.” – Karen Katz, Producer.