Food for Thought- Screening Room: ‘Burma VJ’


Food For Thought is a regular feature profiling books, music, and movies with a human rights angle.

In  September 2007, Buddhist monks took to the streets of Rangoon to protest the totalitarian regime of Burma, a military junta that stifles dissent and has kept Aang Sun Suu Kyi-a politician whose National League for Democracy party swept the country’s 1990 elections-under house arrest for 14 of the past 20 years.

Largely forgotten on the international stage due to the short attention span of news cycles and, to a greater extent, the government’s strict policy against foreign journalists, most of the striking images of protester-filled streets and police brutality would not have made it outside of the country’s borders were it not for a small group of Burmese video journalists working for the Democratic Voice of Burma, a non-profit media group made up of Burmese expatriates in Norway who broadcast via shortwave radio into the country about the country’s military regime and suppression of political opposition.

Burma VJ, a nominee last year for Best Documentary at the Academy Awards, primarily follows “Joshua” a 27-year old video journalist for the DVB as circumstances throw him into the position of tactical leader for the group of videographers working within the country at great personal risk. Comprised almost entirely of footage shot by them, the film is an intense experience, dropping the audience into the middle of a number of tense, frightening, sometimes violent events.

What’s most interesting about the film is the editing skill it took to bring all this footage into a compelling, chronological narrative. Aided by narration by “Joshua”, Burma VJ follows these protests from their inception, with close up looks at the cruelty of government forces and the Burmese people’s refusal to be ignored. Especially awe inspiring are the videographers themselves, and their dedication to shoot as much as possible, risking imprisonment, torture, and (as they witness when a Japanese journalist is gunned down in front of them during a protest) death.

There is, however, one controversial element of the film that many found fault with, and it’s not hard to see why. In the name of building a followable narrative, certain events that were not caught on camera were recreated for the film with the participation of the parties involved, a fact that the film is very upfront about. It’s hard to know exactly what- certain quieter scenes (mostly involving “Joshua” at the home base for his tactical communication with other videographers) certainly do ring a little TOO introspective and scripted-but it’s a little disappointing for a film so clearly about the power and importance of spreading the truth to rely on recreated reality to shape the desired message.

Nevertheless, there’s no denying the power of seeing Burmese citizens marching through the streets, a true demonstration of the power of the people even in dire circumstances. There’s a clear point in Burma VJ when you realize that this oppressive military regime is losing the fear-induced power over its citizens, and its attempts to impose curfews and crack down on cameras demonstrate that the regime sees it as well. There’s no denying the power of the image, and, try as they might to pretend it isn’t so, the government knows that a camera in the hands of a DVB journalist might just be one of their biggest threats.

The situation in Burma currently doesn’t appear to be much better than it was in 2007. The news cycle has moved on once again, and we rarely hear much about it unless we go looking for it. But it’s because of the videographers like “Joshua” of the DVB that there’s something there to find.

Have you seen this film? Know of another that tackles this issue? What do you think? Have your say in the comments.

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