by Jessica Mosby
- USA -
Burma (also known as Myanmar) is a closed country, literally. Since the 1962 military coup, few outsiders have even entered the Southeast Asian country. News reports are scarce and often unreliable because the news is almost exclusively dispensed by the military dictatorship, which cuts off internet access and cell phone networks during periods of social unrest – further isolating the country’s 50 million citizens. A documentary film about Burma filmed by native Burmese seems as unlikely as it would be dangerous.
Burma VJ does not have a traditional narrative structure; the film is mostly raw footage filmed by shaky handheld cameras later woven together with accompanying narration. The footage is so powerful that cinematic flourishes are almost unnecessary. And while the film never shows any of the VJs faces, this anonymity creates an ominous tone, especially as their fates’ become more and more precarious.
The film follows the difficult plight of a young VJ, known only by the pseudonym “Joshua,” as he secretly films the daily existence of his fellow countrymen. Joshua is one of 30 underground journalists working for the Democratic Voice of Burma. To avoid being arrested, the VJs hide their cameras in bags (sometimes even when filming), refer to one another by assumed names, shoot from secret locations hidden from street view, and generally conduct themselves as a guerilla unit.
Although Joshua’s face is never revealed, and he and his fellow VJs are only filmed in the shadows, their commitment to democracy comes through loud and clear. He says, “I feel the world is forgetting about us. That’s why I decided to become a video reporter.” He openly discusses the challenges and risks of being a VJ, and expresses his genuine commitment to protesting for an end to the military dictatorship.Burma’s history is marked by government violence against dissidents. In 1988 students led an uprising against the government. Over 3,000 people were killed by the military, but the protests did force the dictatorship to hold elections. The National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, then won 82% of parliamentary seats. This success was short-lived; the military never relinquished power, and Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested and jailed (she is currently under house arrest). Since 1992, the military’s power has dramatically increased while the lives of the Burmese have rapidly deteriorated.
In the fall of 2007, the country’s economy was in shambles as prices on basic goods had inflated exponentially. Citizens took to the streets in peaceful protest, and were soon joined by the sangha, or Buddhist clergy. The number of protestors was building daily, and the VJs filmed the escalating unrest. After almost a month of demonstrations, the military attempted to crush the upheaval with violence. Protestors were shot in the middle of the street, monasteries were raided, and Buddhist monks were beaten and arrested. This would later become known as the “Saffron Revolution,” in reference to the color of the monks’ robes.
The world would have known little about these monumental events if not for the courageous and relentless VJs who put their own lives at risk by filming and then smuggling the footage out of the country. The scenes captured in Burma VJ are as awe-inspiring as they are gruesome. Østergaard’s direction is able to capture the fervor of the protestors and the corresponding brutality of the government. Thousands of students, monks, and dissatisfied citizens confront the dictatorship head-on, and the violence they face at the hands of the military is nothing short of shocking.
Burma VJ is in many ways a difficult film to watch. The violence against protestors, particularly the monks, is not for the faint of heart. But the sheer fact that such a film exists – and that everyday citizens are risking their lives to tell their stories – is a testament to the power of the revolutionary spirit and the will to create change.
About the Author
Jessica Mosby is a writer and critic living in Oakland, California. In the rare moments when she's not traveling across the United States for work, Jessica enjoys listening to public radio, buying organic food at local farmers markets, trolling junk stores, and collecting owl-themed tchotchke.