By Violet Cho: Pacific Media Centre
REVIEW: A dramatic film exposing the struggle of underground Burmese video journalists who chronicled the monk-led Saffron Revolution has featured in this month’s New Zealand world cinema showcase.
Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country is a mix of original footage of the popular and peaceful protests in September 2007 shot by Burmese video journalists, international media footage and dramatic reenactments filmed from the safety of Thailand.
The military junta brutally crushed the protests and a Japanese journalist was among more than 30 people shot dead.
The footage is strung together through the narration of Joshua, a young and enthusiastic journalist who flees Burma soon after the protests start, after getting some sensitive footage and attracting the attention of police intelligence.
He was investigated but fortunately the police did not realise who he was.
The film, shown at Auckland’s Academy cinema, follows Joshua and his group of young video journalists as they film the oppression by the military junta inside Burma and send it to the exiled Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), based in Thailand, and Norway.
It is the only Burmese independent satellite TV. It is broadcast back into Burma, providing a key source of information for citizens who otherwise have to rely on a mediascape restricted by heavy government censorship.
From Thailand, Joshua continues to coordinate a small group of video journalists who were doing daily documentation of the event. They were one of the key sources of footage for international broadcasters , such as BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera - who were denied access to Burma.
The atmosphere of the film is raw – with lots of handheld cameras and quick editing techniques, designed to give viewers a feel for what it is like being a video journalist in a closed country in crisis.
While Joshua is the main character of the film, we do not see his face – he is only shown from behind. This is for his security, so he can go back to Burma and continue working for media.
Apart from documenting journalists, the film effectively shows how average Burmese people are suffering from economic crisis and military mismanagement and how this was important to push people onto the streets, risking their lives in doing so.
Burma VJ was directed by Danish documentary filmmaker Anders Østergaard and has received international success, being shown at international film festivals. It won an award at Amsterdam Film Festival last December.
As a Burmese exiled journalist, I don’t feel like the film is for me – I was in Thailand reporting about the Saffron Revolution at that time, making daily phone calls so it is an all too familiar story.
I am also less interested in the views of journalists from exile like me, sitting in an office trying to comprehend events.
I would have liked to have seen more from the perspective of those working from Rangoon during that time, as they are working in the battleground.
It reminds me of a journalist friend I met in Thailand a month after the crackdown and was reporting from Rangoon secretly for exiled media.
When the government soldiers tried to crack down and shoot protesters - she was there watching soldiers shoot people and taking photos of it.
She wept when she told me about that. She also had to run for her life.
Out of fear of being arrested, she hid under a car for about two hours, because at that time carrying a camera in Burma was a serious crime.
I would like to see more from the standpoint of people like her.
Violet Cho is the Asian Journalism Fellow at the Pacific Media Centre. Burma VJ has also screened in Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin.
Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, directed by Anders Østergaard. 84min.
More on BurmaVJ at Hotdocs