Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

Assembled from footage shot surreptitiously on handycams, "Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country" provides a frightening glimpse into a repressive regime. Focusing on a series of demonstrations led by monks in 2007, the film is a testament to the mostly anonymous Burmese journalists who risked their lives to show the world what was happening. "Burma VJ" will attract concerned viewers when it opens at New York's Film Forum, but it will reach a wider audience on cable, where it will be spotlighted by HBO Documentary Films.

A brief opening montage covers 40 years of dissent against the Burmese military junta, notably failed demonstrations in 1988 that resulted in thousands of deaths and the house arrest of Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The current crisis began in August 2007, when authorities erased subsidies, more than doubling the price of fuel. Spontaneous demonstrations erupted almost overnight. By September, daily marches throughout the country were being led by members of the Buddhist clergy.

With the media in the control of the junta, accurate information about the uprising was almost impossible to find. The Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a sort of pirate television network, became a clearinghouse for footage of demonstrators shot with hidden cameras. While visually rough, this early material captures the giddy excitement of citizens testing the bounds of the junta.

By coincidence, Danish director Anders Ostergaard was preparing a documentary about DVB in general and "Joshua," a pseudonym for one of its documentarians, in particular. Forced to flee to Thailand as the uprising gathered steam, Joshua could coordinate the uploading of footage to a communications satellite in Oslo. Ostergaard then distributed the material to news agencies around the world.

In preparing "Burma VJ," Ostergaard decided to reconstruct some scenes with scripted dialogue -- in part to explain events, but also to protect the participants. This material, shot in darkened offices and apartments, feels both accurate and necessary.

The junta did not start retaliating in earnest until September, when thousands of monks were marching in Rangoon, Mandalay and other cities. The clampdown included a curfew, the arrest and imprisonment of hundreds of monks and the barricading of a landmark pagoda. DVB journalists scrambled both to cover events and to evade detection. Their footage becomes darker and more furtive, but they were still on the front lines with marchers.

Focusing almost exclusively on demonstrations, "Burma VJ" doesn't have the time or material to provide much political or social context. Telling details pop up almost incidentally; how soldiers aiming assault weapons have no shoes, for example, or how passengers on a bus are too afraid to make eye contact with anyone.

"Burma VJ" essentially ends with the failure of the uprising, although the bad news from Burma (called Myanmar by the junta) continues. A cyclone in 2008 caused horrific damage, exacerbated by the government's inadequate response. Suu Kyi is currently facing trial on trumped-up charges for breaking the terms of her house arrest. The military still controls the country. And at least three DVB journalists whose material was used in "Burma VJ" have been arrested.

Opens: May 20, 2009 (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
Production: A Magic Hour Films production, in association with WG Film, Mediamente, Kamoli Films, with the participation of SVT, DR TV, Channel 4, NRK, Danish Film Institute, Danida
Director: Anders Ostergaard
Writers: Anders Ostergaard, Jan Krogsgaard
Producer: Lise Lense-Moller
Assistant producer: Cecilia Valsted
Directors of photography: Simon Plum, Burmese VJs
Music: Conny Malmqvist
Editors: Janus Billeskov Jansen, Thomas Papapetros
In Burmese with English subtitles
No rating, 89 minutes