Foreign journalists are not allowed into the country of Burma whose citizens are denied basic human rights by the military generals who keep a stranglehold on the country. In 2007, when the price of fuel rose sharply, severely impacting the lives of all, protest broke out for the first time in twenty years. The Democratic Voice of Burma, a group of undercover video journalists who capture video of what is happening in their country and then smuggle the footage out under threat of imprisonment and torture, were there to record this extraordinary uprising, made all the more momentous when thousands of usually apolitical Buddhist monks took up the cause. Danish documentarian Anders Østergaard combines their footage with some of his own restagings to tell the story of the "Burma VJ."
This trenchant piece of work might sound on the surface like watching a CNN broadcast in a movie theater, but Østergaard has formed his film like a political thriller and the bravery of both the journalists he hangs the story on and the protestors and monks themselves is both astonishing and moving. The Danish director has been criticized for restaging scenes, but all he has done is providing bridging pieces which explain how the DVB is able to operate through the voice and actions of one twenty-seven year old VJ, Joshua, whose face we never see but who we nonetheless get to know and admire. Originally Joshua was to be the focus of the film, but the 2007 Saffron Revolution happened as the film was being made. All of the footage of this incredible event was shot by the DVB.
In voiceover, Joshua explains how he remembers the hopefulness of 1988 as a small child, when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of assassinated independence hero General Aung San, led the National League of Democracy to victory after the Burmese protested military rule. She never got to lead the country, however. Instead she was arrested and has been kept in her home under heavy guard. We see the inside of Joshua's bag, which is how he must shoot his small Sony video camera, and we see the fear and suspicion of ordinary citizens who are afraid to speak out lest Joshua turn out to be military intelligence. One of Joshua's colleagues, Ko Maung, continues to work for the DVB after spending twelve years in prison. When the uprising begins to happen, and especially when the monks come out in force, Joshua is amazed to see their video being broadcast on the BBC and CNN (the footage is smuggled to Norway where it is rebroadcast back into Burma; journalists take time out in Thailand to avoid becoming too hot and maintain communications via computer chat and cell phone). As hope rises, the monks go to visit Aung San Suu Kyi and, incredibly, a general allows her to come out of her house to speak with them. Then things take a turn. Gatherings of more than five are expressly outlawed and curfews are enforced. People continue to gather, as do the monks. Then the unthinkable happens - the military turns on the monks themselves, ripping their robes are they are herded into trucks, beating them. Shots are fired into crowds and a Japanese journalist, Kenji Nagai, is killed at point blank range (his murder is caught on tape and broadcast throughout the world). A VJ discovers the corpse of a beaten monk in a river and his video images evoke a helpless rage and deep-seated sorrow.
Østergaard and his editors pack a lot of emotional punch in retelling this story, from the incredible highs of the people making themselves heard to the devastation when they are quashed. There is a chilling moment near the end, when Joshua calls Ko Maung's cell phone. It is answered, but no one says anything. Still, the Democratic Voice of Burma have been heard globally and their numbers grow. "Burma VJ" is the very face of bravery in the face of oppression and Østergaard's work gives these journalists another outlet and their own spotlight. It is an incredible story, well told, through a most distinguished media voice.
Burma has suffered under the yoke of oppression led by a junta by the generals that have ruled the country with an iron fist for over 40 years. The suffering of the masses has reached a fever pitch, bringing about the September 2007 uprising against the regime led by the nation’s Buddhist monks. Journalists, outlawed by the military, secretly videotape the rebellion at great risk to life and limb to bring news of the hated oppression to the world in “Burma VJ.”
Danish documaker Anders Ostergaard assembled copious video footage from underground Burmese journalists to chronicle the rise and fall of a short-lived revolution that hoped to break the decades long stranglehold by the generals on the people of Burma. These journos, named the Democratic Voice of Burma, brought out their smuggled video cameras – possession of one could end in immediate arrest by the government agents – to capture the hopeful and, ultimately, hopeless struggle by the people, led by the nation’s Buddhist monks, to remove the generals’ iron-fisted rule.
This is a one-sided documentary, showing the popular uprising of the Burmese people, only because the ruling generals did not bother to respond. This makes sense since journalism is against the law in Burma and any attempt to interview government representatives would have ended in the reporters’ arrest.
“Burma VJ” is shot, by necessity, guerilla-style with clandestine cameras capturing the highs and lows of the 2007 protest. The unity of the monks and the Burmese people gives rise to the hope that change is possible. When the government’s troops are ordered to crack down on the protesters, including the revered and peaceful monks, things turn deadly and heart wrenching. The non-violent Buddhist holy men suffer the same plight as the people and are also the subject of murder by soldiers and police.
Ostergaard assembles his varied, fascinating material and presents it to the world. The unknown plight of Burma and its people is brought to international attention at great risk to those in the country trying to bring their story to light. Do not expect slick filmmaking in this somber, sobering documentary, but this is not the film’s raison d’etre. Bringing the story to worldwide light is and I hope it works. I give it an A-.
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