Burma VJ

Voices are heard loudly in "Burma'' article page player in wide format.
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / June 19, 2009
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To watch the riveting documentary “Burma VJ’’ at the precise moment when the upheaval over Iran’s election is playing out in the news is a giddy, distressing deja vu experience. Here’s a film about the late-summer 2007 uprisings in Myanmar, one of the most brutally controlled countries on the planet, cobbled together from video and cellphone camera footage, tape recordings, and phone calls. The movie presents reportage as de facto resistance, bearing witness as an act of insurrection. The generals who rule the country share this view: If you are seen videotaping on the streets of Rangoon, you will disappear.

“Burma VJ’’ comes from the Dutch filmmaker Anders Ostergaard, but its subjects are the journalists of the Democratic Voice of Burma, anonymous local heroes whose faces we never seen for obvious fear of reprisals. “Joshua’’ is their leader, narrating the film in accented English and patiently re-creating the days and weeks during which he and his colleagues surreptitiously filmed the unrest. Their footage - a virus of dissent - replicated throughout the Internet, eventually popping out into the light of global media outlets like CNN and the BBC.

The events began with the Myanmar government doubling the price of gasoline overnight in August 2007, which led to sporadic protests that coalesced when the nation’s Buddhist monks decided to march en masse. Burma may be run by the military but culturally it’s a theocracy, and you do not mess with the monks. In their wake, emboldened, came the students, then the moderates, then everyone. Within days the streets of Rangoon were filled and the generals were faced with their fiercest popular resistance since 1988. Their worst fear seemed close to being realized: that the protesters would connect with activist Aung San Suu Kyi, an unseen and hugely potent figure after her 1990 election and subsequent years of house arrest.

In 1988, the tanks eventually came out and as many as 3,000 people were killed. The 2007 footage is astounding and inspiring but also unbearably suspenseful, because everyone’s waiting for the other boot to drop. At the same time the sheer numbers of the protesters is cause for elation, proof that the people’s will hasn’t been snuffed out in 40 years of dictatorship. “So many, so many. . .,’’ we hear a nearby voice murmur at one of the rallies, and it’s as if the national secret is out: We despise this life.

The DVB journalists poke their cameras out of backpacks and hide them under their arms, plunging into the thick of things. At first the monks worry they’re being filmed by government thugs, but when the real government thugs attack, the monks surround and protect the journalists. It’s a heady, surreal moment, church and free press welded together in defiance, and it energizes both the protests and the movie. Even as the news-gathering apparatus in the US and elsewhere falters under the weight of new technology and outdated business models, “Burma VJ’’ is a fresh reminder that reporters can and must serve as a necessary Paine in the rear.

The flashpoint was reached on Sept. 25, when the protesters marched past Aung San Suu Kyi’s house and the cameras captured the distant, pixelated figure of a woman waving to the crowds in solidarity. The next day, the reprisals began in earnest with beatings, shootings, and tear gas. The DVB reporters filmed what they could, including the point-blank shooting death of a Japanese journalist brave or foolish enough to stand in the streets taking pictures. Monks and students were arrested and never returned, and many of Joshua’s reporters were rounded up as well. The military junta understood: What the world cannot see or hear no longer exists.

“Burma VJ’’ retorts that eyes and ears are everywhere in our ever-tightening global communications mesh. Voices, too, and they get heard. The generals and the ayatollahs have every right to be scared.

Ty Burr can be reached at

BURMA VJ Directed by: Anders Ostergaard

At: Coolidge Corner

Running time: 84 minutes

Unrated (as PG-13: images of street violence and death)

In English and Burmese, with subtitles

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