The year 2009 has been a bleak one for American media, a saga of declining readership, plummeting ad revenue, and a steadily growing list of shuttered websites and bankrupt publications. But information is like electricity—you can’t quite assess its value until it’s nowhere to be found. In startling contrast with the implosion now under way in the Western world, Burma VJ takes audiences into a nation where the information pipeline has been dry for decades, and where a fearless band of citizen-journalists have risked their lives to restart the flow. These guerrilla reporters have put stock in the Tom Stoppard philosophy: “If your aim is to change the world, journalism is a more immediate short-term weapon.”
When Danish director Anders stergaard, 44, set out to make a documentary about a defiant Burmese journalist, he never expected to find himself capturing a revolution as it went viral. A local producer had suggested stergaard do a feature on the situation in the Asian country; as a foreign filmmaker, however, he knew his access would be limited. That was when he discovered the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an organization of renegade video journalists who rely on handheld cameras, laptop computers and satellite Internet connections to transmit news from a closed nation. “I thought it was deeply essential what he was doing,” stergaard says of “Joshua,” the pseudonymous VJ who serves as the film’s narrator. “He was going into the street with his camera, not hoping to achieve any kind of fame, because he had to stay anonymous. Joshua was doing it to feel alive and fight the oblivion—namely, the generals’ policy of making everyone forget their democratic past.”
The situation in Burma changed in August 2007, when the nation’s military leaders eliminated all fuel subsidies, outraging citizens who saw the cost of bus tickets quadruple. Small demonstrations took to the streets, quickly escalating when the nation’s revered monks joined the cause. Jumping between Joshua, who was forced to follow the news from exile in Thailand, and actual DVB footage of increasingly violent protests, stergaard reconstructs how a single video clip smuggled out of the country resulted in international coverage from CNN and the BBC, even eliciting a statement from President Bush at the United Nations. Not since 1962, when the rule of Burma shifted to a military junta (which renamed the state Myanmar in 1989), had the nation attracted such international attention.
During one hostile demonstration, stergaard isolates a rather absurd confrontation, as a group of government informers arrives to film the protestors and the video journalists; it’s a standoff of cameramen, holding their lenses as shields. Khin Maung Win, executive director of the DVB, says it’s easy to film demonstrations; the hard part is safely exporting the evidence. “Even before these mass demonstrations, we reached out to donors to make our own investments in the country,” Win says. “There are a handful of foreign journalists in Burma, but they cannot get the footage out, because they have no infrastructure. They rely on us.” Employing an intricate network of smugglers to bring their countrymen the news, the DVB regularly sneaks footage to Thailand and then on to Norway, where a TV signal is beamed back into Burma. It was thanks to these smuggled DVB reports that the world learned about both the 2007 uprising and the humanitarian crisis following last year’s devastating cyclone. “Two million people were homeless, and there was no rescue effort under way to find the 80,000 people who were missing,” Win says. “If we had not been there, would people have known anything about it?”
While the 2007 insurgence was eventually crushed by the military, stergaard says he sees success in this failure: Even if freedom was not ultimately attained, at least history will remember what happened there. In one memorable scene, Joshua holds a telephone up to a tape recorder, capturing the chaotic audio of the uprising’s last stand. “That’s the actual sound recording, the last whisper of the rebellion,” stergaard says about the sequence. “It seems so simple, but it’s a powerful moment, because unlike Burma’s last uprising [in 1988], this has been preserved. It proves to the people: This really happened.”
Reel to really harrowing
Three docs that don’t skirt danger
The Battle of Chile Patricio Guzmn’s three-part look at the coup that put Augusto Pinochet in power ends its second installment with a cameraman filming his own murder.
Gimme Shelter The Maysles brothers force Mick Jagger to rewatch a concertgoer at Altamont suffer a fatal stabbing from a Hells Angel—the moment that put an end to the ’60s utopian ideal.
Harlan County, U.S.A. Embedded in a union workers’ picket line, Barbara Kopple captures an attack from strikebreakers—and almost becomes the victim of a drive-by shooting.
Burma VJ is now playing at Film Forum. Find showtimes
See also Burma VJ Review