Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country Dir. Anders Østergaard

[Magic Hour Films; 2008]

9/26/07 1:55 AM: NEWS just in

Monks being attacked by security personnel and police … at the foot of Shwedagon (Pagoda)

I was anxiously watching my computer screen when I received this message via Gchat from a friend I met earlier that year while doing research on the Thai-Burma border. For weeks, protests had been mounting inside Burma, and in the past few days marches had swollen to 100,000 participants. Anyone familiar with the ruling military’s brutal methods feared violent retaliation, and we were depending on a small number of activists and citizen journalists armed with mobile phones and digital cameras to keep us informed of the events.

2:32 AM My source tells me that shots have been heard over the phone …

Tear gas fired into monk procession - now a fully fledged riot … Gunshots confirmed - 2 monks suffer bullet wounds

That’s how I learned of the tragic turn of events that day in September – via Gchat messages relating a phone call placed in Rangoon to Thailand. Within the hour, major news organizations posted articles confirming that the military had turned teargas, clubs, and guns against the peaceful protesters, led by Buddhist clergy, who were demanding political dialogue in one of the most closed and repressive societies of the 21st century.

Burma VJ plunges the audience directly into the center of this conflict thanks to the dedication of a small band of undercover reporters. These videojournalists -- VJs, as they are identified in the film's title -- are willing to risk to their lives for their cause. In Burma, it is illegal to film such political events or circumvent internet restrictions to send the footage abroad. By daring to break the law and report on the protests of September 2007, they informed the world of the mounting drama inside the country.

Offering a rare glimpse inside the country, Burma VJ uses footage shot largely by these undercover reporters to recount in riveting detail these dramatic events. The last major protests, led by students in 1988, were brutally repressed. Between 3,000 and 10,000 peaceful demonstrators were killed. Two decades later, this terrifying legacy influences a new generation of protesters. As one VJ explains, “I don’t want to wait another 20 years.”

Skillfully directed by Danish filmmaker Anders Østergaard, the film serves as a powerful testimonial, documenting the largest protests seen in the country within a generation. Although some of the footage aired previously during the protests, Østergaard seamlessly combines this footage with reenactments made with the help of the VJs themselves, creating a compelling storyline that is told from start to finish in the protagonists’ voices. Østergaard also makes clever use of images that other directors might consider outtakes to provide an intimate glimpse inside the VJs' daily work. Some of the most powerful moments occur while the camera is hidden in a bag or being jostled away from the marchers. Reenacted phone calls and scenes highlight the frustrations of a producer in Thailand who can hear but not participate in the protests.

Up until the protests of 2007, the Southeast Asian nation of Burma/Myanmar was little known for a reason. Since 1962, the country has been ruled by a military dictatorship that has highly repressed freedom of press, speech, and assembly, while waging a war against ethnic minority groups. Burma ranks 170 of 173 on Reporters Without Borders annual Press Freedom report.

A tense scene unfolds near the beginning of the film. It is the first day that monks have taken to the streets, marching at a brisk pace down a road in Central Rangoon, Burma's financial capitol. The scene unfolds through the lenses of VJs working to document the march for broadcast from the dissident television channel Democratic Voice of Burma. The monks in the video are calling for political dialogue between the ruling military and opposition political parties, a dangerous act.

The VJs finally catch up to the front of the march and walk among the monks, who are clearly displeased about being filmed. One of the monks puts his hand in front of the camera, explaining that they don’t want trouble, while the cameramen attempt to explain that they are journalists for DVB. The film’s narrator, Joshua, a 27-year-old VJ, explains that monks are afraid the cameramen are from military intelligence. Only a few moments later, the real military intelligence agents run at the cameras, attempting to apprehend the footage and arrest the shooters. The camera shakes as the monks quickly form a circle around the VJs to protect them. It is absolutely riveting to watch as the monks automatically put their disciplined training to use, shielding the cameramen, and continuing with the march. Following that incident, Joshua explains, the monks allowed the VJs complete access to the unfolding protests.

The incident is, not unlike the film, bittersweet. The VJs’ documentation was prolific and their distribution successful -- their footage was shown on CNN, and their images filled the broadsheets of foreign papers with images of saffron-garbed monks. Then the regime, facing mounting international pressure, pulled the plug on all internet and mobile phone communications for five full days.

Although the movement was crushed by the military’s force, the communications blackout failed. People within Burma and around the world watched the images and tapes that had escaped the government’s censors. Burma VJ, poignant and distressing, is a powerful reflection on this that pays tribute to the VJs' courageous efforts.

Joshua and his fellow undercover reporters are the heart and soul of the film. Their footage fills the frame, their narration gives life to a political crisis in a faraway land. Beyond providing documentation and context for a momentous time in Burmese history, Burma VJ places the audience squarely with individuals participating in the showdown of their lives, from the editing board to the camera bag.

To protect the safety of the film’s subjects, we never see their faces -- a silhouette here, the back of a head and a white shirt there -- yet the strong voice of the film’s central character develops nonetheless. The audience may not see Joshua's eyes, but through his vantage, we get a viewpoint that feels raw and unfiltered, placing us amidst the action.

At times throughout the film, the footage is sped up, slowed down, or rewound, heightening the feeling of being in the editing studio with the VJs. As the film ends, scenes of images in reverse recount, briefly, the major events of the film. It is in these moments in reverse that the hope and tragedy of the Burmese story registers with the greatest poignancy. Watching the monks slowly raising their alms bowls or scenes of tens of thousands filling the streets, it is impossible not to wonder what might have been. Next time around, what will tip the balance against a regime willing to kill its own citizens? Burma VJ postulates no easy answers but leaves no doubt that its brave protagonists will continue to risk everything to play their role of David against Goliath.

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