Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country
- Directed by Anders Ostergaard
- Classification: PG
Few documentary films are as timely as Burma VJ . Told almost entirely in the language of handheld video and cellphone cameras, it's the story of the 2007 monk- and student-led protests against one of the world's greatest thugocracies, the military junta that runs Myanmar, the nation formerly known as Burma.
It's timely because, next week, Aung San Suu Kyi - leader of the county's much-repressed democracy movement - will be sentenced for her recent conviction of harbouring an unlawful visitor.
That act was a violation of her house arrest, under which the Nobel Prize peace laureate, now 64, has been serving in Rangoon for 14 of the last 20 years, since leading a pro-democracy uprising. Observers expect her de facto imprisonment to be extended for another five years. In a statement released this week, Suu Kyi said the court's verdict "will constitute a judgment on the whole of the legal, justice and constitutional system in our country."
Although directed by Denmark's Anders Ostergaard, the true heroes of Burma VJ are the cadres of guerrilla video journalists - members of the Democratic Voice of Burma - who secretly filmed the junta's brutal suppression of the popular revolt in the fall of 2007.
With Internet traffic shut down and no independent media to air it, their footage had to be smuggled into Thailand, then sent to Norway, where it was disseminated to CNN, the BBC and other TV networks around the world. The fictional character of Joshua - a composite of several Burmese émigrés who actually ran the clandestine video cameras - narrates the drama.
But it's a very sad film to watch. Inspired by another domestic protest mounted two decades ago (and similarly squelched), the demonstrators begin with full awareness of the regime's brutality, but also with brave hopes. In Burmese society, monks are considered virtually sacrosanct. Their moral authority and leadership, the protesters naively believe, will confer a form of protection. Against the iron will of the Burmese military, it doesn't.
Instead, under cover of darkness, truckloads of soldiers descend on the monasteries, beating and arresting hundreds of monks and murdering one. A Japanese journalist filming the street protests is shot and killed, point blank. Others are rounded up and incarcerated. In a police state riddled with spies and informers, it's hard to know whom to trust.
As with the recent popular protests in Iran against the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Burmese saga demonstrates both the power - and the limits - of technology to create political change.
Risking their own lives at every march and demonstration, the filmmakers confirm once again Lord Acton's famous dictum that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and they expose the true face of a nasty regime. But it's heartbreaking to watch the courage of these young red-robed monks melt under the hail of Burmese army bullets. For now, at least, cameras are not enough.