Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country

The Saffron Stand

A Burmese man, stood in front of a government building in the capital Rangoon, unfolds and holds a white sheet of paper above his head. The paper is scrawled with writing.

As the protestor stands defiantly, we are given a point of view shot from a car across the street. A man unzips a small, basic handycam and begins to film the solitary protestor. The image shifts and shakes as the cameraman’s hands tremble.

“When I first start filming,” the narrator says, “I cannot help but be scared, but soon I begin to feel calm, and then it is only the subject.”

Barely a minute passes before two plain clothed men descend on the protestor. They take the paper from his hands, grab him at the elbows and roughly bundle him into a waiting car, where he is driven away to God knows where. If the cameraman was spotted, he would also have been escorted away.

So is the state of Burmese democracy, revealed by the acclaimed documentary Burma VJ which premiered in Britain last night. The premiere was sponsored by the Co-Operative, who deserve credit for their involvement in such a project.

The scene left a bittersweet taste for me personally. I own the same camera as that of the video journalist, and in comparison I hardly use it. The scene, and the camera itself, seemed to embody the difference between an aspiring journalist and film-maker in the liberated West and his equivalent in the oppressed East, that of someone willing to risk prison and torture in order to express reality, and someone who regards the right to expression as such an absolute given it almost serves as a discourager.

Burma VJ is an exemplary piece of documentary film-making, collating hours of footage from the 30 or so video journalists who operate illegally for the Democratic Voice of Burma, an exiled media organisation based in Norway and Thailand. The footage the VJs manage to secretly shoot is smuggled out of the country, digitalised in Thailand, sent to Norway and beamed by satellite back into Burma.

Burma VJ focuses on the extraordinary six week period in August/September 2007 when the Burmese people, supported by the country’s 400,000 monks, stood in peaceful protest against the military junta, only to be met with an iron fist of violence. The sight of Saffron monks being shot at by the country’s military must surely be one of the most iconic images of modern times. You can’t get a lot more fascist than that.

The film aligns itself with the perspective of ‘Joshua,’ a 27 year-old member of the DVB who is suddenly thrown into the role as tactical leader of the group of reporters. From his position in Thailand, he and we vicariously experience the footage sent to him from those operating in the field. The sense of occasion is palpable as he recieves increasingly revelatory pictures expressing the strength of the Burmese people and the brutality of the regime they oppose.

The images captured by the VJs, and first viewed by Joshua, were picked up by virtually every major news network in the world, and were viewed by millions upon millions of people. For a brief period of time there existed a profound sense of hope that the rusted manacles of the junta could and would be broken, allied with the pernicious fear of how it would respond to such an overt challenge to the status quo.

What director Anders Østergaard has done so well here is to collate and express the footage in a single, coherent form. Six weeks of disparate developments in an ongoing news cycle is captured in a two-hour cinematic experience which is, at times, breathtaking in its authenticity and intimacy.

From the first, solitary protests, to talk of politics and revolution on the streets of Rangoon, to small groups of demonstrators unifying and clapping each others presence. The moment when the Saffron monks emerged from their temples to take to the streets in support of the people, the first time they had done so for over a millenia, moving gracefully past the road blocks and towards Aung San Suu Kyi’s fortified house. The ever-presence of a nervous military as they await orders on how, or when, to retaliate.

“Let us pray, to reduce our fear of death,” cries one protestor as the Junta begin to advance.

This mosaic of images became a tangible and immediate reality to anyone with access to a television, and is now chrysalised in filmic form.

The thing that most upsets regimes like that of Burma, or for that matter autocracies, intolerant theocracies and organised terrorists all over the world, is the acceptance of more than one idea and the expression of autonomous right. For this to happen, as they are very much aware, an ongoing exchange of information is a categorical imperative.

What digitalisation has provided is a cheap, accessible and universal ability to engage in this ongoing dialectic and communicate to a potentially mass audience, as the Burma VJs so dramatically and courageously articulated.

We are seeing it on a more and more regular basis; the elections in Zimbabwe and Kenya, Georgia, India, the Gaza crisis, the recent sham elections in Iran (the modernism of which is characterised by Martin Amis). We are experiencing what David Miliband terms the “civilian surge,” and it shows little sign of abating.

Yet it is true that a third of the world’s population live under oppressive regimes, it is true that Aung San Suu Kyi is still under perpetual house arrest, and that almost every architect of Burma VJ is incarcerated somewhere in Burma without hope of trial.

But it is imperative to retain the hope that the pen (or maybe the camera) is mightier than the sword, and to do that films like Burma VJ must be seen, acknowledged, and acted upon.

Burma VJ goes on general release on July 14th. To sign the petition to free the VJs,  visit http://burmavjmovie.com.


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