2009, Movies

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country (2009, Anders Ostergaard)

Burma VJ is one of those journalism-as-documentary films that is out of date pretty quickly after it is made – the military regime that is depicted in this film has fallen and a new, less repressive and supposedly democratic regime has taken its place. But just because things have happened since this film was made, doesn’t make the film less valuable.

It’s the story of the Democratic Voice of Burma and its attempts to chronicle the 2007 protests against the military regime in Myanmar, even though independent journalism is pretty much illegal. The footage is from partially hidden cameras, or cameras in crowds, and a lot of it is shaky, as you might imagine. Though initially successful, the protests were soon repressed (as you can guess given that the regime lasted until 2011) and what starts out as being an inspiring depiction of “people power” soon turns into footage of brutality and a few deaths (including a Japanese journalist who had found his way into the country). It’s stirring stuff and worth watching if you are interested in protests, human rights or even just Myanmar.

But the film has its flaws, and not just because so much of the footage is compromised by shakiness, by backpacks – cameras are left on in backpacks to get audio – and other problems with filming illicitly.

  • First, there is some reconstructed footage. That was probably necessary, given that some of what is in the film may not have been recorded as it happened – “Joshua” managing his team – or they may have had only audio or what have you. I’m not sure that’s a problem, as they did admit it up front and it doesn’t take away from the actual footage they shot. (It’s very easy to tell the difference between the real footage, where the quality is not awesome, and the reconstruction, which is high quality.)
  • But the bigger issue for me is that of the meta shots, wherein the video journalists are shown looking at their own footage. I understand that this is a dangerous job they are doing and part of the story is that they do it, but I’m not sure filming people looking at digital video – or editing it – makes for compelling film-making, or really conveys what they had to cope with. It feels like something that could be told better in a fictional film but, in a film like this, it feels artsy and unnecessary.

Still, this is worthwhile viewing if you are interested in a portrait of Myanmar/Burma at a time when even filming in public was worthy of a lifetime in prison.


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