The IWM Short Film Festival showcases films responding to past and contemporary conflict across 5 days of screenings, featuring animations, dramas and documentaries
Discover more about some of the films shortlisted for the 2018 festival in our interviews with the filmmakers behind them.
Luke Radcliff’s documentary Burma’s Forgotten Army uses archive material and interviews with Burmese soldiers to shed light on the little known but significant contribution of Burmese hill tribes of the Second World War. Here he discusses the challenges of making his film and the incredibly diverse stories he discovered during the process.
Tell us about the inspiration for producing Burma’s Forgotten Army
This film was made to highlight the contribution made by soldiers from Burma to the Allied WW2 effort. While most here in Britain know very little of the Burma Campaign, the decision by local men and women in Burma to back Britain at a time when it seemed to be losing badly was to have huge ramifications on their lives and on their country. Many of these effects still live on today. This film is an attempt to remind us of this.
Tell us why it was important that you submitted your film to the IWM Short Film Festival
The Imperial War Museum is an incredible and awe-inspiring institution whose resources on the world’s wars are second to none. It played a crucial part in my research, providing access to incredible archive material, as well as featuring as an impressive and apt location. In many ways at the end of the production process I was keen for the film to in some way offer something back.
It seemed the perfect place to try and add a little-known chapter to our understanding of the Second World War.
What drew you to this topic and how did your research process begin? How did it take you to Burma?
I first became interested in the story of the Burmese soldiers a number of years back while volunteering in the refugee community on the Thai-Burma Border. What surprised me was that many of the ethnic minority Karen - who made up the majority of the refugees in the region - were proud descendants of soldiers who had fought for British & Commonwealth forces during World War 2.
What shocked me further was to learn that the ongoing civil war in Eastern Burma arguably had some rooting in broken promises of an independent Karen state by British officers and a hasty path to independence that gave little thought to ethnic tensions stoked by the war. I found it shameful that this part of our shared history was so ever-present in people’s minds there but completely unknown at home. I decided that I wanted to change that and so began developing an idea for a documentary that would afford the veterans the opportunity to tell their story before it was too late.
I was then extremely lucky to receive a production grant from One World Media, a brilliant organisation who support journalists in reporting from the developing world. This allowed me to turn my dream project into reality.
How much did you know about Burma and its’ contribution to the war before filming? What have you learnt?
I can safely say I knew absolutely nothing about the war in Burma, let alone the contribution made by Burmese soldier’s, before starting this project. The Burma Campaign barely features in our public consciousness when it comes to our understanding of World War 2 and this is a real shame. I think if more were known we would have a greater understanding of the gratitude we owe to men and women from across the commonwealth who fought and worked as part of the allied forces. I learnt that we still have a duty to expand our narrative of the war and a responsibility to confront the uncomfortable realities of our imperial history.
What did the Burmese interviewees think of the film?
The Burmese interviewees were incredibly supportive of appearing in the film. For many it was a chance to reminisce on an incredible time in their lives. The British had a huge impact on the country during colonial rule and when they hastily left the door to that chapter was firmly shut.
Burma entered more than half a century of isolation. I was given extremely warm welcomes by the veterans and they appeared keen to share their stories and remind a British audience of the deep connection they still feel to them. Many had endured real hardship either during their service or following the war but were still hugely welcoming and happy to share their experiences.
Were there interviews conducted that didn’t make it into your film?
Beyond the difficulty of finding the veterans, the biggest challenge was finding veterans that retained decent memories of the war and were in good enough health to communicate their experiences. As a result, I criss-crossed the country interviewing as many veterans as I could – in total around 30 veterans in about as many days. I felt as much as anything that to record their testimony, while we still have the chance, was valuable in itself. Some of the accounts were unfortunately just too jumbled or faded by time to be included in the edit. Essential to tracking down the veterans was working with an incredible charity, Help for Forgotten Allies, who have been trying to support as many veterans as they can with an unofficial stipend raised via donations.
Did all the interviewees have a similar experience?
No, the veterans had remarkably different experiences. This was dependent on their rank and regiment during the war, but also which ethnic group they affiliated with and where they lived in the country. When the British retreated from Burma in the face of a brutal Japanese onslaught in
1942 some of the veterans were dismissed in the chaos and told to return home, some made the hellish 700-mile journey to India by foot. During Japanese occupation some of the veterans conducted incredibly daring and dangerous missions deep behind enemy lines, parachuting in to recruit levies (irregular infantry) from friendly villages and engage in fierce guerrilla combat.
Others regrouped in India before leading a fresh assault on the country following Japan’s attempted invasion of India. And some even allied with the Imperial Japanese Army in the hope that it would bring swift independence to the country before reverting to support the British in the final stages of the war. This discrepancy in war-time allegiances helped sow the seeds for ethnic conflict that would continue long after World War 2 ended.
Visit our film festival page for screening times and the full festival programme.