Anders Østergaard: interview

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‘Burma VJ’ uses footage shot by clandestine cameramen to tell the story of Burma’s 2007 uprising, when Buddhist monks led protests against the country’s repressive government. Danish filmmaker Anders Østergaard tells us what led him to compile this footage into a film as exciting as it is informative - and about the drastic lengths to which those who shot it went to smuggle it out of the country.

When did you first learn about the Democratic Voice of Burma?
‘I wanted to make a film about Burma, but I realised that if I went into the country myself it would be a story about me and my difficulty in getting to talk to anybody or go anywhere. When I realised there were journalists working inside the country I was intrigued, firstly because they would be able to get footage I could never get, and secondly because of their own story: why would they do such a thing at a time, before the uprising, when it seemed totally unrewarding to risk your freedom?’

How did the DVB react to your proposal to make a documentary?

‘They were very forthcoming, and took us to Bangkok to meet 12 VJs (video journalists) who were out for camera training. But the beginning was difficult, because obviously these guys were very apprehensive. Then I came across Joshua, a DVB editor, who understood what we were trying to do and was keen to tell his story. So once I found him I knew I could make a film of some kind, but not on the scale it ended up being. It was an amazing thing, that we were already connected with these guys and suddenly they’re supplying the world with news about what was happening.’

How do the VJs operate within Burma?
‘They are very courageous, but also very smart. They have to be inventive not only about how to get things shot but also about how to get the footage out of the country, which is a big challenge. They also need a back-up crew who can fix cameras using rubber bands and gum. They have intricate systems to operate without attracting attention. They try to know as few people as possible. This group that I followed never talked to each other during the uprising. The only reason it works is that Joshua is in Thailand, in safety, co-ordinating from there. The amazing thing is that they developed all this themselves; they didn’t have any sort of guidebook.’

What was your role as director?
‘It was awkward just trying to understand the footage. Where was this taken, what does this say, where does this fit into the timeline? I had to do a lot of detective work. But I also saw it as a privilege, having the world’s best news crew covering this one event. Because it’s their achievement. My task is to give you an understanding of the uprising that’s both emotional and intellectual. That was my main concern: how to communicate this? I think I had an obligation to entertain, to keep the audience totally engulfed in the film. But I didn’t feel I had to manipulate anything. It’s dramatic in itself.’

How do you feel about the current situation in the country?
‘It’s bad. Nothing has changed, the government is still in power. But one optimistic note is that this uprising went on TV. They kill somebody, it goes on TV screens around the world. That makes them think twice. But it’s unlikely that they will fall because of a popular uprising. You need a combination of public pressure and pressure from foreign powers.’

Burma VJ’ opens on July 17. Read our review here.

Author: Tom Huddleston



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