Movie Review: ‘Burma VJ': Documentary on Brutal Repression of Protesters in 2007

"Burma VJ" shows monks protesting and guerrilla journalists springing up. (Oscilloscope Laboratories)
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By Desson Thomson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, July 31, 2009

It was pitchforks at the Bastille, muskets at Concord, Mass., and rocks at the Intifada. But in this age of instant dissemination, the cellphone video has become the revolutionary weapon of choice.

We see this most palpably in "Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country," a documentary that uses a mixture of real and fictional footage to revisit Burma's brutal reprisals against its own people in 2007. In August and September of that year, many Burmese rose in protest against the government's sudden hiking of gasoline prices. Those public demonstrations were spontaneous and scattered. And the government dealt harshly with them. But when Burmese monks -- considered sacrosanct in this culture -- joined the growing ranks, the conflict was drawn more sharply. The stakes got higher for both sides. And the cellphones started recording.

"I decided that whatever happened to me, I would do it," says "Joshua," the narrator of Anders Ostergaard's movie, justifying the dangerous decision to film as much as he could, and show it to the world. Joshua is the movie's only fictional element, a composite character meant to represent all the unnamed people who risked their lives to hold their government morally accountable.

Filmed by members of the Democratic Voice of Burma, a collective of underground video journalists (the VJ in the title), these scenes were smuggled to the outside world, processed in a studio in Oslo, transmitted around the world and -- significantly -- shown to the people of Burma (renamed Myanmar by the ruling junta).

"Joshua" may be made up, but the footage we see is indisputably real. Some of it is poignantly subtle, like the taxi driver who states he'll support this growing revolution if it takes off. In the context of these dangerous times, when government informers are everywhere, such a public declaration amounts to bravado. More obviously courageous is the spectacle of emboldened, head-shaven monks in red robes as they defy curfew orders and march in numbers through the streets as armed troops mass.

There is, of course, bravery from the unseen people behind the lens who could be killed merely for owning recording devices. Thanks to them, we can patch together the heartbreaking chronicle of popular demonstration and government brutality during those significant months. Fragmentary images -- filmed surreptitiously from hidden vantage points or concealed within clothes -- show palpable fear in the streets. They show beatings. And we realize we are sitting in the jittery eye of an evil, gathering storm.

The movie also provides a momentary, grainy glimpse of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize-winning, pro-democracy activist. There she is, standing in the doorway of the house that has famously become her prison on and off since 1989. She is expressing solidarity for the demonstrators who have just marched to her home. It's a moving scene because we know that even today she faces indefinite home detention. The following day, the violence begins in earnest, and the video journalists -- nameless but unified in their determination -- are there to film it.

Of course, we have seen this kind of electronic activism more recently in Iran. But for the cellphone journalists of Tehran, we'd know little about the popular uprising that followed the country's disputed election. And we'd know nothing of Neda, the young woman whose videotaped -- and eternally replayed -- death has become the movement's most iconic moment.

As we watch "Burma VJ," and other documentaries like it, we can sense the beginnings of a paradigm shift in the way history is written, and the way the meekest can become empowered. Citizens no longer need to tell their sad stories to their children and grandchildren over a generation. They can inform the world immediately. Thanks to the new guerrilla narrative, the world has a constant flow of images to file in its collective consciousness. And that camera-testable accountability slowly becomes a global civic right that fulfills the noblest purpose of journalism -- to bring truth to power.

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country (84 minutes, at Landmark's E Street) is not rated and contains real images of brutal repression. In Burmese and accented English with subtitles.

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