Tuesday, June 9, 2009

SFF review: Burma VJ

Director: Anders Østergaard
Country: Denmark

"Those who are not afraid come to the front” – unknown protester

“All social changes come from the passions of individuals.” After nearly a decade of pessimistic ‘we’re all doomed’ documentaries of despair things might be changing for the better. Whilst many of the features at the 56th Sydney Film Festival have shown a distinct pattern of fatalistic discourse, this comment by a subject in Louie Psihoyos’ The Cove reflects the optimistic hope evident in many of the documentary films showing this year.

In Burma VJ: Reporting From A Closed Country it is more than simply the passion of one person, but the bravery of a group of undercover journalists who operate at all times under the threat of permanent incarceration or worse. They are all members of the Democratic Voice of Burma based in Rangoon where they do everything they can to capture footage of the country’s military dictatorship’s activities and smuggling their elicit goods to a headquarters in Norway. These are video journalists as freedom fighters, where high street camcorders replace rocket launchers and “stories are silent.”

Director Anders Østergaard cuts together footage of the 2007 rebellion led by Burma’s 400,000 Buddhist monks along with the dramatic recreations of DVB journalist Joshua’s (alias) experience hold up in Thailand at the time of the almost-revolution and whose role was to managed the flow of information to the outside world. It’s a problematic decision but for the most part you take Joshua at his word as he tells his comrades story.

What plays out in the film’s grainy home video footage is some of the most incredible scenes of revolt and repression ever captured charting it from beginning to end. The last time the people of Burma rose up against the military in 1988 some 3,000 people were killed in the streets and the film is soaked in fear and tension for the intrepid reporters. Aside the bravery of the reporters who must dodge secret police hiding in the crowds, the monks who march on the capital in their thousands and the student activists who march despite fear the military will fire on them, there is something heartbreakingly inspirational about the intangibles caught on camera here.

The DVB remind us of the role of good journalism in exposing atrocities (and believe me, you will see tragedy) and the truth behind the oppression of a people, with the simultaneous realism how negligent our own media has proved in recent times. Burma VJ is nail-bitingly tense, utterly engrossing and incredible galvanising. More than simply documenting this event the film offers hope in the indomitable nature of the human spirit that refuses to go quietly into the night no matter the consequences.


56th Sydney Film Festival runs until 14 June