BurmaVJ: Reporting From a Closed Country
Another Secret Worth Exposing by Alexander Tank
July, 28 2010
Generally, the Academy Awards ‘Documentary Feature’ category comprises an intriguing and often highly entertaining cross-section of the world’s most fascinating narratives. This year’s winner, The Cove, let viewers into a secretive world of animal abuses and the vying parties who respectively seek to conceal or expose the heinous, brutal crimes, in this case against wild bottlenose dolphins. Despite The Cove’s ultra-high production values and engaging, spy thriller plot lines, another film in this category deserved the international attention that only an Oscar can provide: the risk-taking political reportage and the breathtaking bravery of protesters in BurmaVJ by Anders Østergaard and Lise Lense-Møller.
Whether it’s called Burma or Myanmar, the oppressive military regime ironically named the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has quietly cultivated an environment of political repression since seizing power after violently crushing a student uprising in 1988. The gripping film is narrated by the founder of a street journalism collective, the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), appearing in the film under the alias “Joshua”. For most of the film, Joshua communicates with a team of street journalists armed with only video cameras and their remarkable courage. Cleverly concealing their cameras, their ultimate weapons to expose the military junta, the video journalists covertly document what has become known as the “Saffron Uprising” beginning in August of 2007 as a response to rapidly rising fuel costs brought on, after decades of oppression, by the government’s removal of protective subsidies.
The protests continue into the fall, and as students and demonstrators for the opposition are arrested and detained, throngs of Buddhist monks, voicing messages of peace and kindness in their billowing traditional saffron robes, join the non-violent effort to loosen the SPDC’s suffocating grasp on the lives of the Burmese people. With Nobel Prize winning democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi sequestered in a heavily guarded compound, the monks gradually escalate their protest and are quickly joined by students and the Burmese citizenry, all under the watchful eye of the junta’s generals via soldiers and plainclothes police in the streets. Over the course of days, a Buddhist monastery is raided by government agents and tens of monks are arrested in the bloody, repressive sweep. The mass of the uprising only increases as the daily protests gain momentum.
All the while, the DVB’s video journalists bravely capture the tumultuous and disturbing events on film. The internet, too, is a major player in the story as journalist leader Joshua works to disseminate the shocking images from a temporary outpost in neighboring Thailand. When a Japanese journalist is killed while filming the people’s peaceful revolt, that video is also leaked to the global media and the government’s taut cover of silence is temporarily broken, but the fight to spread the truth about the SPDC continues even under mortal threat to the video journalists and the protesters they capture on camera.
Despite its ramifications, with its documented human rights abuses and egregious military repression, BurmaVJ was passed over for an Academy Award in favor of a story about animal rights. This is perhaps the most telling aspect of 2009’s Oscar cycle: While important in its own right, a film about dolphins prevailed over a film about people whose lives and livelihoods are daily threatened by a violent and secretive military regime that actively engages in fervent censorship, keeping this unbelievably important secret from the rest of the world. Joshua and the DVB’s VJ’s, the Buddhist monks, and the Burmese people deserve for their story to be known and BurmaVJ is the ultimate conveyance for their ongoing struggle.
photo courtesy of lib.hku.hk