“I feel the world is forgetting about us. By being a video
reporter, at least I can show that Burma is still here.”
– The leader of the Democratic Voice of Burma, known as ‘Joshua’
In 2007, Danish filmmaker Anders Østergaard set out to make a short documentary about one of the members of the Democratic Voice of Burma, an underground network of video journalists (VJs) who record the brutality and repression of the military dictatorship that has ruled their country since the 1960s. At the time, he had no way of knowing that something big was about to happen, but it turns out the country was on the verge of a historic uprising, unprecedented for 20 years.
Spurred on by the rising cost of fuel, ordinary Burmese citizens began peaceful protests in the streets soon after Østergaard began work. Thousands of Buddhist monks joined the protests and as the government’s response turned harsh, the protests continued to grow in size until the massive demonstrations numbered 100,000 in some cities. With the government banning foreign journalists and shutting down the Internet, the only footage available to the outside world was captured on handicams by the network Østergaard had set out to document.
For the first time, the West was given a front row seat to the tactics of the Burmese government. The VJs where there as the shootings started, as peaceful monks were rounded up into detention camps and as some of them began to turn up dead. With curfews enforced by soldiers filling the streets, the protests were ultimately quelled, but not before the world got a good look at what was really happening in a country few could even identify on a map.
In order to present the footage in a coherent, meaningful way, Østergaard took the controversial step of staging interactions between the VJs and their leader known only as “Joshua.” He worked closely with the participants in order to be as truthful as possible, but documentary purists will probably cry foul. As is usually the case with purists of any kind, they’re missing the forest for the trees and the point for the principle. It’s the footage the VJs risked their lives to smuggle out that is the star here and much of what they got is remarkable. There are some amazing scenes as ordinary Burmese citizens spontaneously filled the streets in a country where dissension can lead to imprisonment or death. They asked for freedoms we take for granted and they risked their lives to get it.
It’s sad and frustrating when the uprising is finally put down, but there’s also the hopeful sense that things are changing. The people have been given a taste of their own power if they band together and, thanks to modern technology and the dedication of 30 or so young men, their voices are amplified so that the whole world can hear them. One wonders how history would’ve turned out differently if small portable video cameras and the Internet had been available to the citizens of Rwanda in the 1990s, Cambodian in the 1970s or Germany in the 1940s. We’ll never know about the past, but we can hope for the future.
Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country. USA 2008 (released in theaters in 2009). Directed by Anders Høgsbro Østergaard. Screenply by Jan Krogsgaard. Cinematography by the Burma VJs and Simon Plum. Music score composed by Conny Malmqvist. Edited by Janus Billeskov Jansen and Thomas Papapetros. 1 hour 25 minutes. Not rated by the MPAA. 3.5 stars (out of 5)