Televising the revolution

Burma VJFILM: Burma VJ:

In September of 2007, tens of thousands of Burmese citizens, including an estimated 5,000 Buddhist monks, stood up to the nation’s oppressive military regime. It was the country’s most significant protest in almost 20 years, the first major act of resistance since a 1988 student protest that resulted in the army opening fire on thousands of civilians.

The 2007 protests — and especially the actions of the usually apolitical monks — became international news, which must have been infuriating for a government that exercises strict control over its media. The only source of information available to citizens is the regime’s propaganda.

Or, at least, that would be the case if it weren’t for the Democratic Voice of Burma, an assemblage of Burmese citizens willing to risk their lives to document what’s been happening in their country. The brief, powerful documentary Burma VJ shows the video journalists in action, relying on a mix of actual footage and staged re-creations to chronicle the September uprising.

The result is as intense as you would think, given that the majority of the documentary is comprised of on-the-ground footage. It’s also not for the squeamish — a scene where a cameraman hides mere feet away from an advancing military is bad enough, and the footage captured throughout contains more than one death, including a Japanese national shot at point-blank range.

More than the chaos of the protests, though, Burma VJ is about the power of information. As much as we in the West have debated the merits of “citizen journalism,” with the traditional media old-guard decrying a lack of rigour while bloggers and vloggers cite their lightning-fast response time and democratic nature, the whole debate becomes moot in a country where freedom of the press has long been absent. In that case, a handful of concerned citizens with video cameras and a spotty Internet connection can become a major force for social change.

The doc is hardly crowd-pleasing — the 2007 protests didn’t end well, and director Anders Østergaard has no interest in sugar-coating the proceedings. But it’s not a complete downer, either. It ends with Østergaard’s subject, the leader of the now-scattered Democratic Voice of Burma, setting out to rebuild a network of journalists. Even in the face of overwhelming repression, he’s still determined to get Burma’s message to the world. Hopefully this film — which has received a Best Documentary Feature nomination for the 2010 Academy Awards — can help.

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