The whole world turns on oil, but most of us give little thought to where it comes from to the extent that we never really think of oil at all aside from that which it powers. Saeed Taji Farouky’s elegantly lensed observational documentary A Thousand Fires follows a small family in Myanmar who support themselves through unregulated oil digging, operating the kind of hand cranked wells one might associate with 19th century prospecting and getting barely a barrel a day but still fetching more than they might be able to get through farming. Yet this intrusion of modernity continues to disrupt their otherwise traditional existence as they ponder better lives for their children that will necessarily take them far away from their parents and their home. 

As they later reveal Thein Shwe and Htwe Tin once made their money through farming but now they only draw oil. You might think it would be a less intensive occupation, but the rigs require constant supervision and the machinery often breaks either needing immediate repair or resulting in a day’s lost work. Yet Thein Shwe is worried most about his oldest son, Zin Ko Aung, who is wilful and rebellious rarely helping his parents out to the extent the he worries if his son would even be able to start the engine for the well if no one were available to do it for him. 

His mother meanwhile makes slightly passive aggressive comments about a young woman his age who finished high school and now has a good job as the manager of a textile factory in the city. It might not be that there is no way out for him, but the parents worry that as he seems to have rejected both education and inheriting the oil wells he will be left with nothing at all. Their daughter, by contrast, is currently staying with them along with their baby granddaughter having married and moved to another town. Perhaps a part of them knows that in order to give their children better lives they must effectively send them away while worrying if they’ll be alright, if their sacrifices will have been worth it and these other lives are indeed better than theirs. 

To quell some of this anxiety we see them consult a fortune teller to find out if Zin Ko Aung will achieve success only to be told that he’d be better off if they changed his name from the one they gave him at birth to the one the fortune teller suggests. Capitalising on his talent for football they send him to the city to apprentice with a youth team for a year with no way of knowing if it’ll pay off and Zin Ko Aung will be able to make it as a sportsman, as his sister jokes becoming the first famous person from their village able to support the family with his newfound riches. The family also take part in several traditional festivals, praying for a “prosperous life” while eerily paying homage to a god of oil by “feeding the dragon” pouring liquid into a greyish swamp which bubbles and snorts as if burping in gratitude. 

Then again another passerby reveals that a Buddhist priest in their area cleared a hole and set fire to it causing an explosion that rocked the mountain. In an ironic touch, we witness a festival in which young children have their heads shaved in preparation for being ordained as monks before cutting directly Zin Ko Aung enjoying his new city life by getting a fancy haircut drenched in a red smock which strangely resembles religious robes. Another fortune teller the couple visit in the city warns Thein Shwe that his lifeline is short and he must be careful to remember his religion, while adding at that no matter one’s good intentions the only place you’ll find an honest man is in a cemetery.  Simultaneously he tells Htwe Tin that she is the leader of her family and admonishes her that women are overly materialistic and simply want too much. In any case all she seems to want is for her son to find his way even if he has to leave his family to do so. Poignantly as the film ends the couple are left alone, their son-in-law arriving to take their daughter home and their son away in the city while all they’re left with is more of the same dredging oil up from beneath soil and feeding the ever hungry dragon of the contemporary society that barely knows of their existence. 

A Thousand Fires screens in New York March 19 as part of Museum of the Moving Image’s First Look 2022

Trailer (English subtitles)

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