There are very few movies or documentaries that show just how severe life is for civilians in Burma. It is only fitting that a group of committed local Burmese reporters from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) fill this void by capturing the footage of the 2007 uprising led by monks, otherwise known as the Saffron Revolution. In doing so, they are making the news for reporting the facts and risking their life to capture images that the BBC and CNN could only dream of covering in-country, as they are banned from setting foot in Burma.
Burma VJ is a documentary directed by Anders Østergaard and follows the experience of “Joshua” and his colleagues. Armed with a camcorder, he takes viewers through the streets of Rangoon and into his underground operation with flair and dignity, sharing his fears and insights as dissatisfaction with the military junta’s decision to double fuel prices gathers momentum.
The documentary’s strength is that it thrusts ordinary people into the spotlight as heroes over six weeks, starting with a furious solo demonstrator and following a trail to what eventually became a mass people’s movement, backed by Burma’s revered Buddhist monks.
While the Burmese constantly refer to the BBC and Voice of America (VOA) for spreading misinformation about the situation in Burma at all times, the truth is that they regard the DVB as the enemy, responsible for spreading misinformation, according to one police general. This footage is secretly captured on camera as part of a frustrated rant by a senior ranking armed forces officer. This represents a sign of agitation caused by international scrutiny, leading to much embarrassment to the junta.
DVB’s operation of distributing footage that bypasses Burma’s strict censorship laws exemplifies the difficulty of obtaining accurate news, transferred to the satellite television station in Oslo, and then re-sent worldwide, including within Burma. For a time it seems that the latest people power movement may just work and that the political winds of change may finally sweep through Burma.
The raw production retains a rough “on the streets” edge demonstrating the degree of nervousness possessed by individuals in a warzone risking their life to gain a crucial story. The Democratic Voice of Burma shows that the relationship between ‘people power’ movements and underground media is close-knit. Opposition groups can effectively inform the globe of what is really happening. To people like Joshua, a camcorder not only gives their profession a sense of purpose, in times of civil unrest is as lethal as a firearm in the hands of a soldier.
There are many touching scenes in the documentary which make the Saffron revolution an important event to commemorate. Thanks to reporters like Joshua, the world will not forget the harrowing vision of the military junta launching tear gas attacks and opening fire on Rangoon’s streets. In years to come, we will continue to talk about the footage where hundreds of soldiers gradually closed in on monks praying for reconciliation before being marched away to their gruesome fate. This scene, along with the brutal shooting of a Japanese cameraman by armed forces as he ran for his life, is as poignant as the lone student who confronted Chinese army tanks in the middle of Beijing’s streets in the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989.
For a number of days, as technology permitted, the world watched on helplessly as soldiers prepared themselves in a game of chess to slowly choke the life out of the monks who were praying for the souls of their murderers asking everybody to come together. The sight of monks endlessly gathering in numbers is as inspirational just as their eventual last few moments of being led away, shot and dumped on the streets (in one case, left floating in a river) is as sickening.
After the uprising is crushed, we are reminded that life goes on. “It is like something has been broken and cannot be repaired. But this (reporting) is my job,” says Joshua, indicating that this is not just a job; it is a livelihood.
In an era where quality journalism is being compromised for marketability, ratings and special effects, Burma VJ leads the way in showing that ethical reporters willing to risk their life, rather than reputation, are more likely to deliver a much-sought after truth.