- RatedG /GenreDocumentary
Rating: 4 out of 5
The voice narrating the events in this documentary speaks of a pivotal point in his country’s history, about a time when “everybody” was in the streets, coming together to demonstrate for change.
Watching Burma VJ, a film put together with footage shot guerrilla-style and smuggled out to the wider world at great risk to life and limb, can be a bittersweet experience.
On one hand, it is easy to feel energised and inspired by the ‘people power’ on display. One of the most invigorating scenes is a pan of building rooftops in the city, crammed full of jubilant protestors.
First political activists, then the monks, then the common people rise up to show their displeasure at the oppressive hard-line military regime that has run Myanmar (some would say, to the ground) since 1962.
The up-close perspectives of the sequences, and the attendant anxiety of getting caught by government agents, makes one feel as if one were right there at the scene.
There is a frisson of excitement that permeates, as we view events through the hidden cameras of these ‘Burma VJs’, a small network of citizen journalists who risk their lives so that the world, primarily via Western media outlets such as CNN, can see what’s really happening in the closed country.
Such thrill and hope is invariably accompanied by an undercurrent of dread. Most people will know that this revolt in 2007 did not lead to a change in regime, and that many people were beaten, tortured and killed. Some disappeared without a trace.
But the power of this film, directed by Dane Anders Ostergaard, lies in the startling truth it portrays, the everyday drama of a precarious existence in this troubled territory, and the indomitable spirit of those who struggle to tell their story, such that it may one day lead to freedom.
Some may quibble with the fact that re-enactments have been done to illustrate the sequence of events from the view of a native VJ known only as Joshua.
But that would be missing the point.
The fact is: these things happened. People died. Hopes were raised, all too briefly, and ultimately quashed by military forces, some of whom looked just as frightened as the people they shot at. It may have been a stillborn revolution, but as Joshua says, the fight is not yet over.
What makes Burma VJ an excellent documentary is also the fact that it manages to put things in proper perspective, framing events against the past. As we watch the actions of 2007 unfold, we realise this is history repeating itself, after an uprising in 1988 (the ‘8888 uprising’) had resulted in thousands dead.
This time, even though scores of Buddhist monks intervened, and even though foreign journalists had walked among demonstrators to try and report proceedings, the military still came down hard.
In the end, the film seems to throw the gauntlet to the audience.
It shows underground reports of the devastation wrought by Cyclone Nargis in May 2008, and how pitiful the people of Myanmar are, with their ineffectual leadership doing little to help victims.
The world is now able to view what happens in Myanmar, thanks to her brave VJs, but why are things still the same? It’s a question that remains even as this documentary reaches out to a greater audience, and implores for ‘people power’ from the outside, to help redress this enduring injustice.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!"
-- Michael Corleone, The Godfather Part III