Monday, January 25, 2010

Movie Review: Burma VJ

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country *** ½
Directed By:
Anders Østergaard.

Myanmar, known as Burma to most of the rest of the outside world, has been ruled by a military government for most of its recent history. Protests in the late 1980s, led to calls for democracy, which were carried out in 1990 when the political party led by Aung San Suu Kyi roundly won the election in a landslide. Instead of being the dawning of a new age of democracy for the embattled Asian country, the military regime, known as SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council) cracked down even harder – placing Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, and continuing on as if nothing had changed. And for a while nothing did. But in 2007, the protests started again.

Burma VJ (VJ stand for video journalists) documents those protests in the months of August and September 2007 through the eyes of the journalists who work for the illegal television station known as the Democratic Voice of Burma, who were on the ground for the whole things. The movie is essentially the footage they captured – grainy, sometimes blurry, always handheld and shaky images of the protests and the eventual crackdown that came from the government. In Burma, these reporters are risking their lives to take these images. The reason they are so shaky and handheld is because if the police find them shooting the images at all they will at the very least be arrested, if not shot (like what happened to one Japanese journalist during these protests). The government has issued a ban on all foreign journalists, and control what the media outlets in Burma can show on television. But in this age of technology, they cannot stop the images taken by the Democratic Voice of Burma reporters from reaching the outside world, and in fact the people of Burma themselves. These cameras can easily export these images via the internet to everyone who wants to see them. These protests got worldwide attention in 2007, and while nothing has really changed in the almost three years since, things are in motion. The government cannot suppress the truth forever.

The film is directed by Anders Ostergaard, a Danish filmmaker, and narrated by “Joshua”, who works for the Democratic Voice of Burma, but whose real name and identity are shielded from the camera for his own safety. During the protests, he reluctantly fled Burma for Thailand, but received all the images his reporters shot, and received constant updates by phone. Although he would have preferred to be on the ground shooting, he played a vital role – getting the images out to the world, and back inside Burma. The protests start out small, but word spreads. Soon the normally neutral Buddhist monks have taken the lead the protests. The government tries to crackdown on these protests, making it illegal for more than five people to gather in one place, and imposing a curfew on the people. But it doesn’t work. When they finally send out soldiers, the VJs capture the horrific footage of soldiers firing into crowds of their own people. As Joshua says, they need the soldiers to turn against their leaders if the revolution is actually going to work. So far, they haven’t.

Burma VJ is an important movie, as it shows what happened in Burma to the world – something that the government tried to stop at all costs. It is also a movie about the power of technology, and how difficult it is now to suppress the truth. Governments the world over, even in democracies, tries to suppress some footage from getting out to their own people in the hopes of “protecting them”. (Remember, that no footage is allowed of any soldiers casket coming home from Iraq to air on network television – unless of course it fits the government’s needs). While the protests failed to effect real change in Burma, they were a necessary first step. It’s up to the Burmese people now to take to the next level – and they are. Sooner or later, the regime will fall. And the reporters in Burma VJ will be one of the major reasons when they do.

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