Friday, January 24, 2014

Burma VJ

Dead Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai, camera still in hand

Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi

BURMA VJ                 B+             
Norway  Sweden  Denmark  Great Britain  (84 mi)  2008  d:  Anders Østergaard         Official site 

In a repressive regime run by the military Generals, all citizens in Burma are guilty of crimes against the state simply by carrying cameras or videorecorders, which are the exclusive domain of the secret police, who incessantly film any demonstrations in order to identify dissidents and follow up with a flurry of arrests.  With no foreign media allowed in the country and no privately owned media, freedom of expression simply does not exist, as journalists routinely regurgitate government propaganda.  At the bottom of a list of countries along with North Korea and Eritrea, Burma is as completely closed off as a country can get to the outside world.  Underground video journalists known as VJ’s secretly record street scenes, especially any sign of police skirmishes or demonstrators who are usually quickly arrested within minutes, and then smuggle the footage out of the country to safe Internet outlets in both Bangkok and Copenhagen, oftentimes seen later in BBC News broadcasts.  Harassment, psychological pressure, intimidation and round-the-clock surveillance to ordinary citizens are routine, while any violators will be arrested, beaten, imprisoned, subject to torture, and potentially killed. The narration makes reference to Burmese student demonstrations in 1988, the year before the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, when the nation took to the streets to express their desire for democracy instead of a continuing police state, where there was a palpable feel that things would change for the better.  But in one day the police shot 3000 protesters putting an end to that dream, literally firing straight into the crowds hitting anything in sight.  That effectively ended any voice of dissent in Burma, where pro-democracy and subsequent Nobel Peace prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi has been living under house arrest for several decades. 

This film largely consists of video footage shot on the streets along with a neverending chain of phone calls from various members of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an underground group of VJ’s who report activities to one another, share Internet feeds, and communicate where someone may need to be in order to capture some footage.  These phone calls are the weak link in the film, as they are a constant voice throughout the film, right alongside the narrator known anonymously as Joshua, and their poor quality, with a mechanized sound to them, really cheapen the product.  While some of these calls may have been helpful, they are overemphasized to the point where they become a distraction, even though they do string together a narrative thread, even posing journalistic questions about whether their work is actually accomplishing anything.  The actual footage itself, the only evidence that any of this actually took place at all (as without it, the government would say it never happened), is not nearly as remarkable as exposing the conditions of what it’s like to live under such dire circumstances that make it a revolutionary act to secretly gather film evidence to be shared with the rest of the world.  Much of this leads to a revival of the spirit of 1988, including street demonstrations, initially sparked by a huge spike in fuel prices in 2007 which led to street protests in Rangoon.  And while there were a few unsuccessful protests that attempted to gain greater strength in numbers, they were quickly dispersed by the police. 

It was only when the Buddhist monks, all clad in the exact same orange cloth, decided to demonstrate in support of the poor in a synchronized march all across the country, where thousands of marchers could be filmed, where bystanders on the street could join in, and this went on for several days.  Initially the police underestimated the size of the marchers and the police units sent out were too small and ineffective to match the strength of the protesters, reaching over 100,000 strong, where the VJ journalists, initially suspected of being secret police because of their visible cameras, were eventually protected by the monks, pulling them inside their ranks.  But like 1988, the police eventually turned on this group as well, using tear gas and the cover of smoke to cover up their actions so that they could not be photographed.  But after shooting and killing a Japanese photo-journalist, they eventually turned on the monks, firing into the crowds and invading their monasteries, arresting some 200 to 500 monks, many of whom were beaten and tortured, some killed and left in the local rivers, and many never heard from again.  The government’s response was to shut down all Internet access, leaving the country in a perpetual state of backward hibernation, where it remains to this day with over 2100 political prisoners languishing in jail for nonspecific crimes.  While the footage itself is raw and sketchy at best, and unfortunately some of the film (without acknowledgment) has been re-enacted, especially the phone call sequences, nonetheless the film does an excellent job portraying the harrowing atmosphere of fear and dread of being forced to live underground, where many of the DVB contacts shown in the film were ultimately arrested or killed, and where any act of defiance in a police state leaves one subject to arrest, torture, and potential death.  Burma remains near the bottom of the list of the Reporters Without Borders world Press Freedom Index.


It’s significant that after nearly 21 years of house arrest, becoming one of the world’s most prominent political prisoners, Aung San Suu Kyi was finally released November 13, 2010.  In April 2012, in part due to unprecedented reforms known as the Burmese Spring, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s party swept nearly all the seats contested in a parliamentary election, while a large majority of seats in Burma’s lower house are controlled by the government party and the military.  Despite a continuing poor human rights record, there have been some noteworthy actions by the government toward reform, releasing several hundred prisoners since 2011.  While some laws have been amended, repressive laws remain.  For the first time in over a decade, however, Burma has jumped favorably upwards on the Press Freedom Index 2013 - Reporters Without Borders, continuing an upward ascent begun last year.  Previously, it had been in the bottom 15 every year since 2002, but now has reached its best-ever position.

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