Moving to Mars

Moving to Mars tells the story of two families: exiled from Burma, and now heading for a new life in the UK. After fifteen years in a rural refugee camp, their new home will be Sheffield, a bustling British city. The film follows them on their life-changing journey.

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 for almost twenty years. A UN relocation 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 their 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’s Karen tribe - an ethnic group much persecuted by the ruling military junta. Forced from their homes by military aggression, they’ve lived in Mae La Camp - a restrictive 3km enclosure on the Thai-Burma border - for almost twenty years. Although officially a ‘temporary’ shelter area, the camp has grown to accommodate almost 40,000 refugees. Conditions are basic, facilities limited and overcrowded, and the refugees face a life of un-ending confinement, unable to return to Burma, nor enter Thailand or find work, and surviving on rations and 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, USA, Australia and Norway have all accepted groups of Karen refugees, and now the UK is joining that group. 152 refugees from Mae La are set for new lives in the city of Sheffield – and these two families are among that number.

The 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-read and speak English, but were forced to flee their home in Rangoon after Thaw Htoo’s brother joined the Karen rebel forces. Jo Kae 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 this life-changing journey.

The film follows the families as they prepare to leave Mae La, and as they leave 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 England. Staying with them over the course of their first year in Sheffield, it 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, customs and behaviour. The children initially find it difficult 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.

Status

Completed 2009

  • The Grierson Awards

Production team