By Irfan Shariff
Northwest Asian Weekly
Burma is sometimes a forgotten country. Officially called Myanmar by the country’s military junta, in late 2007, more than 100,000 people took to the streets of Rangoon in protest of the ruling regime. Called the “Saffron Revolution” because of the color of the robes donned by the monks who initiated the stand, the protest was quickly suppressed with brute force.
“Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country” is a documentary by Danish director Anders Østergaard. It shows how an event that took center stage in world news for a brief period is now on the brink of forgotten history.
The film recounts the story of “Joshua” (a pseudonym) and his team of video journalists, or VJs, working for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB).
Joshua lives in the shadows, both figuratively and literally, as his face is always shadowed so his true identity is not revealed.
The documentary begins with 27-year-old Joshua remembering 1988, the year when university students tried to stage an uprising. In the end, the 1988 protests were crushed when 3,000 civilians were killed by the military, a devastating defeat that diminished uprisings until 2007. Joshua says that he was too young to participate at the time.
The film actively portrays the state of fear that the Burmese civilians live in, where an uprising of more than 100,000 people can quickly be forgotten and almost entirely covered up. Any media story not sanctioned by the government is considered slanderous propaganda.
Because of this, Joshua and about 30 other journalists, collectively part of the DVB, created a national news station in exile. The DVB is produced in Oslo, Norway, and is broadcasted throughout the world. Most importantly, it is broadcasted back to the Burmese people, so that they know what is being hidden from them.
Joshua’s English is very proficient. Even with subtitles, he seems to have been exposed to the outside world. Early on in his narrative, he mentions the need for his people to be aware of what is truly happening in their country. People like him, those who can blend into the surroundings of places like Rangoon, constitute the DVB.
For a while, Joshua was a field recorder until an encounter with secret police left his producers concerned about his safety. Joshua fled to Thailand where he was promoted to lead operations in Burma remotely. Although he desires to be on the ground with his team, he cannot risk his life.
This situation eerily portrays the way the audience — and more accurately, the world — may have viewed the events of the Saffron Revolution. While his team records the events in Burma, Joshua’s anxiety and safety reflects the audiences’ experience — always at a safe distance. As the world watched peaceful monks, who are normally not a political force, fight for the needs of their country, the world also watched them disappear — they were killed.
One of the most remarkable aspects of the documentary film is that it uses live footage to tell a continuous story. Instead of treating the event as the past, it makes the audience feel like it is living the event in real-time, a common attribute of Østergaard’s films.
The film is an excellent portrayal of recent events told in a unique way, through uncommon means. “Burma VJ” sheds light on the history of people who are displeased yet too scared to speak out. Østergaard is trying to awaken the world to the plight of the Burmese.
Unfortunately, the film itself may not be enough to stir another revolution. The safety net cast around the audience is too strong. ♦
Burma VJ opens Aug. 28 at the Northwest Film Forum, 1515 12th Avenue. For show times, visit www.nwfilmforum.org. For more information on the film, visit www.burmavjmovie.com.
Irfan Shariff can be reached at email@example.com.