Burma remains one of the most repressive countries in the world. There are strict limits on basic freedoms of expression, association, and assembly. The intelligence and security services are omnipresent. Censorship is draconian. More than 2,100 political prisoners suffer in Burma’s squalid prisons. These prisoners include many members of the political opposition, courageous protestors who peacefully took to the streets in August and September 2007, and individuals who criticized the government for its poor response to Cyclone Nargis in May 2008.
“I feel the world is forgetting about us. That is why I decided to become a video reporter. At least I can try to show that Burma is still here.” Sadly, “Joshua”‘s fear of being forgotten looks as likely to be realized as ever. An undercover reporter, Joshua is never wholly visible in Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country (Burma VJ: Reporter i et lukket land). Rather, he appears in shadows or oblique camera angles, his head bowed and his back to the camera. And yet, the story he tells — with the help of likeminded, courageous hidden video camera operators — is urgent and vivid.
Anders Østergaard’s remarkable film has been nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar, Bruma VJ, and is scheduled for a special screening 25 February 24 at Stranger Than Fiction, followed by a Q&A with Khin Maung Win and Aye Chan Naing, the editor in chief and deputy executive editor of the Democratic Voice of Burma. The documentary shows, Joshua and other citizens of Burma (also known as Myanmar) live in daily dire circumstances. Their government is a military junta, in place and intermittently challenged for some four decades. In 1988, Aung San Suu Kyi was elected prime minister (with over 70% of the vote), but she has been under house arrest since then — a brief period of hope and protest that left over 3000 demonstrators dead. Leader of the political party, the National League for Democracy, and winner of 1991’s Nobel Peace Prize and 2008’s U.S. Congressional Gold Medal, she remains this tiny nation’s most renowned public figure, the face of its democracy movement. She is also rarely seen.
Aung San Suu Kyi embodies the problem of visibility that drives Burma VJ. She and the nation are “still here” (Joshua describes her as “still in our hearts”), but ever at risk of being forgotten, pushed off TV screens in other parts of the world by other news. She appears briefly in the film, a slight, blurred figure shot from a distance. She greets a group of Buddhist monks who have arrived at her door in September 2007. It’s a striking image, captured by an undercover camera during Burma’s most recent short-lived resistance movement, led by hundreds of monks and joined by thousands of citizens, including students and workers. Joshua is himself out of the country at the time, monitoring the work of his video reporters from Thailand.
These reporters are part of the television network Joshua helped to found, the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB). Hoping to reveal the brutality and poverty that shape Burmese existence, 27-year-old Joshua and his team keep their cameras undercover, in backpacks and pockets, then smuggle tape out of the country — either by hand or by internet uploads, so the images might be disseminated via international news organizations such as CNN and BBC.
In an effort to publicize DVB’s work, Østergaard’s film is made up mostly of this footage, shot on the street and narrated by Joshua, keeping track of events by cell phone and online. (“When I pick up the camera,” he says early on, “maybe my hands are shaking”). He is forced to leave the country when the uprising begins — though he points himself out in a brief clip from August (“That’s me in the white shirt with the black bag”), during a standoff with the police. “We are shooting this and the police are shooting us,” he says, “We record them and they record us.” Picked up with his camera, Joshua is forced to give up his own tape, but senses a potential change. The usual fear that keeps people silent — fear of being observed and arrested by plainclothes police or dragged off during the night — is briefly suspended: a taxi driver sees Joshua’s camera and calls him “very brave.” “This is not normal,” Joshua asserts, “Saying political things to a stranger.”
As it shows the resistance emerging and being re-repressed in 2007, the documentary is limited by definition. The footage of demonstrations in Rangoon is shot from long distance windows or balconies or too close, handheld, rushed, and largely illegible. “Our cause! Our cause!” chant marchers as the police approach with guns raised. Some clips make it to international TV, and Joshua is thrilled to see the movement on screens: “The monks have come to symbolize dissent,” he says, “A chance at an alternative Burma.”
The monks have inspired this hopefulness: “Monks are not supposed to do political things, but when the people are suffering and starving, sometimes they rise.” If the alternative Joshua imagines so briefly has not yet been realized, still, the film insists that the availability of video technologies — on cell phones as well as digital cameras — has increased the visibility of Burma’s ongoing crises. These include 2007’s demonstrations and the aftermath of 2008’s devastating cyclones, when the government refused help and also bungled its own efforts. Being visible in the eyes of the world is one important step toward becoming empowered, toward being able to enact lasting change.
But visibility remains a problem throughout Burma VJ. The film cuts between images of protest or brutality and Joshua in Thailand — on the phone as lines disconnect or typing on his keyboard, editing footage or trying to find his reporters — a strategy that tends to undercut the urgency of the action. When the film shows a dead monk floating in a river in Rangoon, it slows down to a heavy-handed step-effect, underscoring both the horror of the murder and the remarkable fact of the footage existing. “There are military people hunting for us,” Joshua explains, “We have to be very careful.” Even when DVB’s headquarters are raided by police and reporters are arrested or dispersed, he hopes to continue. “It is like something has been broken and cannot be repaired,” he says. “But I must go on with my job because we need to do it.” It’s a circular and inevitable logic: visibility = life.