The opening shot of the Oscar-nominated documentary Burma VJ shows clandestine video footage of a single protester in 2007, standing at the gates of the United Nations building in Rangoon. He knows that within minutes, the authorities—often in the insidious form of plainclothes agents who swarm the city—will arrest him and send him to jail, where he’ll likely spend the rest of his life. His hope is that this small, courageous act of defiance will be the spark that leads to raging brushfires of protests, and the hidden camera is his most important ally, provided that footage can be smuggled out of Burma (or Myanmar, as the military junta named it) and broadcast for his countrymen and all the world to see. Among many other things, Burma VJ is a testament to how new media has become a serious threat to oppressive regimes accustomed to controlling the flow of information. Just as Iran’s “Green Revolution” got an assist in 2009 from Twitter, YouTube, and other networking sites, the footage captured by video journalists—the “VJ” of the title—in Burma slips through the vast sieve of the Internet and pirate satellite stations.
Using an underground reporter and activist named “Joshua” as his point person, director Anders Østergaard tracks the gradual escalation of the 2007 uprising and the brutal, horrifying government crackdown that eventually brought it to an end. The parallels to 2009 Iran are uncanny: rallies around a popularly elected politician (in this case Aung San Suu Kyi, whose landslide win in 1990 earned her a house arrest that has persisted to varying degrees to this day), massive web-fueled street demonstrations, and a regime that squelches dissent by murdering its own people. With “Joshua” serving as narrator, the street scenes in Burma VJ—all captured surreptitiously by activists risking imprisonment (or worse), and piped through a network leading to the Democratic Voice Of Burma channel in Oslo, Norway—show the organic way a movement takes form. From spontaneous chants in marketplaces to the organized marching of Buddhist monks to shots of a Japanese videographer gunned down in the streets, it’s a remarkable ground-level view of history in the making.
Of course, the natural consequence of ground-level filmmaking is the absence of perspective, and Burma VJ isn’t entirely immune to this problem. Østergaard relies on printed titles to provide some minimal context, but doesn’t offer much insight into how the flow of information works between “Joshua” and his network of VJs, or how (and how deeply) their footage infiltrates Burmese homes. He also relies on staged reenactments that are never labeled as such, which leads to the queasy problem of being unable to tell truth from fiction. And with the junta branding DVB reporters as treasonous agents of misinformation, the truth of this footage should be unambiguous.
Key features: A terrific extras package includes an illuminating back-and-forth between Østergaard and critic John Anderson on the commentary track, an interview with “Joshua,” stories from a handful of Burmese monks about their participation in the uprising, and a half-hour doc about a refugee camp on the Thailand/Burma border. And Richard Gere has something to say, too.