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  Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country

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Directed by: Anders Ostergaard

Produced by: Lisa Lense-Moeller

Written by: Anders Ostergaard

Distributor: Oscilloscope Pictures, HBO Documentary Films

     In an age when most of what we hear from filmmakers about technology is negative—from popular sci-fi entertainments like Eagle Eye to small foreign films like Sleep Dealer, the overarching message is that computers will be the end of us—it’s ironic that the realest film I’ve seen on the issue paints technology in a highly positive light. In fact, in Anders Ostergaard’s documentary, Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, digital cameras and the Internet are literally life-savers. The film follows an unseen Burmese activist, called Joshua for security reasons, who documents the struggles of those fighting against the country’s government for democracy.

     Joshua is a part of an elaborate network of citizen-journalists, all equipped with handheld cameras, called the Democratic Voice of Burma. They have become famous for daringly shooting footage of the protests in their country and smuggling it out to a headquarters in Norway via satellite and the Internet. Not only is the footage then broadcast to the world community, providing the only information on the events, but also back into Burma to those with satellite television. This is a dangerous job as the government will imprison anyone known to be filming for the democratic opposition. Early on in the film, Joshua is caught by the police with his camera and is set free after effectively playing dumb, but he must flee to Thailand and work as a compiler and assessor of footage for the fear that they might come after him.

    While Burma VJ educates the viewer on the recent events in Burma by showing chunks of footage that Joshua shot in the country and receives in Thailand, there is little background information provided. It admittedly would have been valuable had the film used the opportunity to detail the all-too-ignored political instability in Burma, but that isn’t director Ostergaard’s goal. Instead, Burma VJ becomes a piece about the power of modern day communication in bringing awareness to little-known causes. Because of the capabilities of home video technology, Joshua and his compatriots are able to show the world what’s happening in a place it could otherwise never see. Ten years ago, this could not have happened, period. Unless a ballsy foreign journalist snuck were to have snuck in and out Burma—a death-wish, as the film brutally illustrates—nobody would have heard anything about the protests.

     Many Westerners may still be unaware of the injustices in Burma, but the film’s depiction of the Democratic Voice’s methods offers reason to be optimistic that they soon will be. Unlike many news organizations here in the United States, Joshua and company fully embrace new methods of distribution to bring their footage to the largest amount of people possible. It’s astounding to watch Joshua type back and forth with reporters on Gmail’s chat feature, presumably via their Blackberrys, while violent attempts to dissolve protests are happening. In an age when Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that “the medium is the message” is truer than ever—think about how many politically-ambivalent teenagers were turned on to Barack Obama by videos on YouTube—one gets the feeling that the Democratic Voice of Burma’s message will reach at least the younger generations because of its distribution-style. Given that traditional media are paying attention to the organization as well—CNN is shown in the film many times—there’s hope for older, less tech-savvy folks, too. Burma VJ’s implications about how the viral nature of modern communications can be used to promote good are nothing short of fascinating.

     Beyond the rich ideas it offers, Burma VJ also has a passionate soul. It’s touching to watch and listen to people who risk their lives for the great tradition that is democracy. The conviction in Joshua’s voice-over, despite his clear fears, is unwavering. Then there’s the widely-published, but still powerful sight of thousands of Buddhist monks marching in the streets against the government, as seen through the cameras of Joshua’s team. This was not a practice condoned by their religion, but one that they felt was the right, necessary thing to do, regardless of doctrine. A perceptive display of the convergence of new technology and the oppressed Old World, Burma VJ is a moving and thought-provoking celebration of a vital quest for social justice.

-Danny Baldwin, Bucket Reviews

Review Published on: 5.29.2009

Screened on: 5.26.2009 on a DVD screener.


Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country is Not Rated and runs 84 minutes.

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