One of the problems with 24-hour, constantly rolling news media is that current affairs are always in flux. By their very nature, the headlines are here today, and gone tomorrow, making way for new stories of importance – a conflict, some snow, a radio show joke gone awry. Events that seemed so engrossing one week have passed on by the next, creating, for those who have a very passive relationship with the news (a large group, probably second only to those who have no awareness of goings-on whatsoever), a landscape full of flashpoints, history defined by punctuation and not narrative.
For a number of weeks in the final quarter of 2007, Burma (or Myanmar, a politically-charged distinction that caused great debate at the time), a south-east Asian post-colonial power, was catapulted into the international spotlight by a number of large demonstrations against its military-led government, protests that focused attentions on the population’s unrest, before they were dispersed with intimidation and violence. Burma VJ is an important film. Not only is it a document of this turbulent period, but it offers insight into the empowerment offered by new media, as the film ties together footage from Burma shot by a team of undercover journalists, whose use of lightweight digital cameras, mobile phones and the Internet made it possible for reportage from the locked down country to be beamed both inside the country and throughout the world.
Initially planned to be a short piece on the life of one such video journalist called Joshua, the film stumbles into history unawares, as unrest rises and their subject – afraid of surveillance from government agents – must flee to Thailand for safety.
As opposed to killing the project, this gives the finished film a working structure, alternating between (at times reconstructed) scenes of the Thailand office and footage of escalating action in Burma. While Joshua’s segments, and narration, tie the proceedings together in a consistent and accessible way, this is not a fully informative overview of the situation.
Instead, the Danish production team (led by director Anders Østergaard, and entirely invisible) gives over plenty of the running time to the VJs. Their handheld material creates endless wells of tension, vitality and authority, and their images are arresting and enlightening.
An oppressed population, initially unwilling to even be seen on camera, soon blossom as marches expand and evolve.
Eventually, as the influential Buddhist monk community mobilise and offer leadership, it seems that the government can’t ignore the vox populi any longer. That the military react with tear gas and gunshots, as opposed to acceptance and dialogue, is a bitter end to such peaceful action.
Thanks to its intimate, in-the-thick-of-it aesthetic, Burma VJ makes the rise and fall of this unrest immediate, engrossing and poetic. Moments and images are given significant impact – from a rooftop full of cheering supporters, to the eventual, startlingly violent response. It puts other films – which either fetishise politics as popcorn entertainment, or patronise through pretentious preciousness – to utter shame.
On the one hand, Burma VJ tells the sad story of a charged uprising brought down by the atrocity of an evil regime. On the other, it is both a fierce rallying cry for resourceful, uncompromising new media journalism, and a sermon on the power of digital technology and the Internet.
Most importantly, however, it balances these concerns well: it is journalism, history and activism, delivered without the guilt trips and moralistic high horses of Western voices. It is completely empowered, and completely moving.
Extras A handful of interviews fill out the disc, with the most notable being with director Anders Østergaard and producer Lise Lense-Møller, who both speak with great insight about the film’s production, and the dilemma of using reconstructions and other ‘acted’ sequences in creative documentary filmmaking, with Østergaard declaring that documentary filmmakers must use extensive research and, if necessary, elements of reconstruction to elevate their work above the restrictions of journalism.
Also included are an interview and an introduction for the film from Richard Gere, who is earnest, but a little superfluous in his discussion of Buddhism and Asian politics, which seem to jar with the film’s presentation of an internal, Burmese perspective on the events.
Burma VJ will be released on February 1 and can be pre-ordered from the Den Of Geek Store.