FILM REVIEW: Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country

Charlie Bass May 28, 2009

FILM REVIEW: Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country

By Charlie Bass

The shaky handheld camera has long been a popular shortcut tool of non-fiction films (and fiction ones not trying to appear as such) to help convey immediacy, as the increased lack of stability in the image can lend a greater sense of danger or consequence to even the most mundane, generic of scenes. But in Anders Ostergaard’s tense and fascinating documentary, Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, this danger is very real both in front of and behind the camera.

Almost entirely assembled from hand-held footage smuggled out of the country during numerous anti-government protests in the fall of 2007, the film simultaneously weaves its unforced, politically-focused urgency through both content and form, so that we’re not just fearful for the protesters, but also for those reporting this to us through the footage itself.

As the film opens, the Burmese military regime has almost completely shut out the country from communication with the outside world, controlling the flow of media from print to TV to Web. Partially in response to a sharp rise in fuel prices (in turn, affecting the price of food and much else), student and Buddhist monk-led protests against the regime begin to flourish while a group of underground journalists known as the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) take great risks to document the uprising. The DVB, who begin simply documenting people talking about the regime, soon find themselves on the front lines, secretly filming the violence perpetrated on students and monks by the military during the protests. Narrowly avoiding capture, these video journalists get their footage out to their mysterious ringleader “Joshua” in Thailand, who in turn distributes it to major media outlets.

There’s something both surreal and inspiring to see footage shown on BBC News and then seeing the same footage in the terrifying circumstances under which it was originally shot. Such sequences, as one where a hidden camera captures another reporter being shot simply for possessing a camera, restore the risk at the heart of this kind of reporting so often lost in a broadcast context. Just as crucially, the film serves as a testament to new media reporting, as the videos smuggled out become the key sources of information about the protests outside Burma. Beyond the BBC, the videos were distributed on the web via blogs across the world, providing a strong example of alternative distribution methods highlighting a country in crisis.

Constructing his film with considerable skill, Ostergaard has a deep sense for how the framing of media can shape political consciousness, and is adept enough at playing images off each other to highlight this idea (not surprisingly, the film won a documentary editing award at Sundance).

Yet, for all its media self-awareness, the film remains dedicated to showing the genuine heroism of the protestors and the DVB, as well as revealing the devastating impact of a country entirely subject to military rule. Alternately an historical document, a suspense thriller, a testament to alternative media, and a tragic political drama, this is the rare documentary that satisfies on multiple levels.

Burma VJ is currently playing at Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street.

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