Burma’s Oscar Moment

Forget Avatar, The Hurt Locker, and all the rest for a minute. Here's the story of the film that deserves to win big.

Mark Von Holden/Getty Images
Mark Von Holden/Getty Images

Over the next few days we’re going to be hearing a lot about big blue aliens and George Clooney and bomb-disposal experts in the Iraq war. But there’s another film you should be rooting for when they hand out the little gold statues on March 7.

Burma VJ hasn’t been in the headlines much. It has been making its way around the global film-festival circuit, garnering its share of awards. Still, its U.S. box office receipts to date are measured in tens of thousands of dollars, not hundreds of millions.

Let’s hope that’s about to change. The film is up for best documentary feature, and to be honest, I can’t imagine what could possibly compete. You certainly can’t beat the story line. In August 2007 a few thousand red-robed Buddhist monks took to the streets of Rangoon, Burma’s biggest city, to join a nascent protest against the military dictatorship that has been crushing the life out of their country for nearly the past 50 years. Burmese culture is deeply rooted in traditional Buddhist belief, so the monks’ sally represented a particularly potent challenge to the regime. What would happen next?

Ordinary Burmese have risen up before. A student-led nationwide protest back in 1988 had the generals on the run — until the Burmese Army retaliated with a bloodbath that took thousands of lives. (The exact number will probably never be known.) When the government grudgingly responded to popular pressure by allowing an election in 1990, Burmese voters handed a solid victory to the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta suppressed the results, threw Aung San Suu Kyi back into house arrest, and forced the country, at gunpoint, back into decades of stagnation.

News of the 1988 uprising trickled to the outside world in a few snippets of grainy film and a clutch of photographs, all precariously hand-delivered over the border to neighboring countries. The events of 2007 would turn out differently. As the monks’ revolt that autumn took off, every moment was being filmed by a small squad of guerrilla video journalists — the "VJs" of the film’s title — working for an opposition group, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), that had spent years training them for just such an occasion. The camera-wielding activists used cell phones and the Web to smuggle out their footage almost as fast as they shot it. The images they recorded didn’t only generate international interest by keeping the outside world apprised of events; their video was also beamed back into Burma via satellite, thus adding fuel to the protests.

This is the story told by Burma VJ. Although the Danish filmmakers who crafted the documentary rely primarily on original footage shot by the DVB’s on-scene journalists, they don’t stop there. We watch events unfold through the vantage point of Joshua, a DVB cameraman who has been forced to leave Burma because he has attracted the attention of government goons. When the monks’ protest begins, he’s coordinating coverage from Thailand, keeping up with his colleagues back home by online chat and mobile phone. Like us, he’s at once involved and remote — a device that turns the unfolding story into an arresting mix of cinéma vérité and political thriller.

"I feel I want to fight for democracy," Joshua informs us in a voice-over near the start of the film. "But I think we had better make a longer plan. We cannot go out into the streets again and get shot because we have no more people to die." The protesters of 1988, he muses, "were so brave, but sometimes I feel like they died for nothing." He wants, he says, to remind the world that "Burma is still here."

That’s exactly what Burma VJ manages to do. The generals have kept their hold on Burmese society through the depressingly familiar mix of fear, force, and propaganda — and there are the handycams of the DVB reporters, cutting through it all. We exult as ordinary citizens overcome their nervousness and join the monk-led processions. We cheer as the crowd swarms in to protect the VJs from the white-shirted government thugs who try to drag them off to jail. We marvel at the demonstrators’ unforgettable chant: "May all beings living to the East be free; all beings in the universe be free, free from fear, free from all distress!" And we choke up, with Joshua, when the monks finally dare to march down the road past the home of a certain Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The VJs aren’t there, so all we manage to see is a blurry snapshot of Aung San Suu Kyi standing in her gateway, almost unrecognizable as she greets the monks. "It’s not a great photo," Joshua muses. "You can only see a small lady. But we couldn’t see her for a long time."

Images, in short, aren’t just about their literal meanings; they’re also powerful conduits of emotion. And, yes, they can also lie — as we see at the very beginning of the film, as Joshua contemplates government television broadcasts that depict a country happily united under its heroic leaders. No question, the film reminds us of the overwhelming power of the unadulterated image, such as the video footage of a monk’s corpse floating in a creek on Rangoon’s outskirts, just after the moment when the regime finally decides to crack down on the monasteries. Yet Burma VJ also touches upon the ambiguities that linger behind even the clearest images.

For example: Is the aspiration to objectivity a luxury of people who live in healthy societies? The VJs in the film don’t even pretend to be the usual journalistic bystanders. They’re perfectly happy to step in and strategize with the demonstrators. We even see one journalist literally issuing marching orders: He recommends a more effective route to a monk who’s leading a procession, and the monk happily complies. The fact is that there are no easy choices when you’re trying to defy a regime as vicious as the one that rules Burma. Just to take one example: The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions accuses the country’s military rulers of forcing hundreds of thousands of people — men and women, children and the elderly — to work against their will on government projects: "Refusal to work may lead to being detained, tortured, raped, or killed."

Here’s a cell-phone dialogue between Joshua and one of the activists on the other side of the border:

"People have to get arrested. They have to die. Monks, too."

"Don’t say that."

"Our country is different from the rest of the world."

"I don’t understand politics. But I don’t want to see monks and people dying. I can’t stand it anymore."

"Be strong, my dear."

That conversation, like many others in the film, is a reconstruction. Jan Krogsgaard, one of the Danish filmmakers behind Burma VJ, explains that certain key moments in the narrative weren’t actually captured by the DVB journalists, so scenes were shot to fill in the gaps. He insists that the makers of the film were careful not to stray too far from the bounds of authenticity; some of the phone conversations in the film are based on the saved texts of online chats, for example. In some cases identities had to be protected. Director Anders Ostergaard even used actors in two episodes that are seamlessly presented as part of the DVB journalists’ original on-location footage — a sleight of hand that has generated understandable controversy. Time correspondent Andrew Marshall has taken the filmmakers to task for mixing authentic footage with acted scenes. In an interview with me, Krogsgaard defended the reconstructions as "entirely legitimate," saying they depict events that actually occurred but weren’t caught on camera, such as a secret police raid on the DVB’s Rangoon headquarters as the government crackdown escalates. (There is a corresponding disclaimer at the beginning of the film.) This is an important discussion. But I don’t think it ultimately invalidates the film.

Burma VJ winds down just the way the story did in real life: The regime ultimately succeeded in tamping down the protests by arresting the rebellious monks en masse. Many of them remain in prison today. The rest of the world may have moved on, but Burma continues to suffer. At the end of February, the Burmese Supreme Court refused an appeal by Aung San Suu Kyi, who is struggling to be released in time for next year’s scheduled general election. The court’s move was criticized even by Singapore, which has often been reluctant to scold the generals. The outlook isn’t promising.

Even the small moral victories sometimes come at a depressing cost. As Krogsgaard told me, the regime has been known to use DVB footage as an aid in identifying and arresting members of the opposition: "It’s this unpleasant paradox — that every time you succeed, someone in Burma gets a harder time." For the moment, Burma is silent once again. But the DVB’s trainers haven’t given up. They’re hard at work, in Thailand and elsewhere, preparing the next generation of video journalists. It will take as long as it takes.

 Twitter: @ccaryl

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