The confusion over whether to call it Burma instead of Myanmar, or vice-versa, is the perfect metaphor for the conflicted country and most people’s ignorance (us included!) of the nation’s suffering. The combination of ethnic diversity, a history of British Imperialism, and iron-fisted military rule, is a familiar formula when it comes to destabilized nations, and the South-East Asian country has been in continual internal conflict since the sun set on the British Empire. Burma VJ , a new doc by Danish filmmaker Anders Østergaard (which took home the World Cinema Documentary Editing Award at Sundance), doesn’t help put this history into any big picture perspective; rather, it’s a small picture whose purpose is to open new eyes on the here and now.
The “here” is a brutality that has been hidden by a North-Korean-esque media blackout, and would still be so if it weren’t for the subject of Østergaard’s pic: an underground network of videographers who covertly shoot, edit, and smuggle their revolutionary images out of the country. They do what CNN, the BBC, and the rest of the media gang can’t, won’t, and couldn’t do anyway, since this is a story told through the eyes of the Burmese people. Sort of.
Eyes, and who they belong to, is an interesting question in Burma VJ. We never see the people who are documenting events such as the protests in September 2007, when tens of thousands of civilians and monks took to the streets as part of the Saffron Revolution. And the film’s central figure, Joshua, remains hidden in the shadows as he discusses how and why The Democratic Voice of Burma are risking their lives to photograph the protests.
Many of these moments with Joshua, although they appear to be happening in real-time, are recreations by Østergaard, which throws a fun house mirror into the raw footage: Our eyes are looking through Østergaard’s eyes, as he portrays a man who sees the world through the eyes of his videographers’ cameras.
It’s an unintentional side effect of a film that is political at heart, but whose artfulness raises some fascinating questions and elevates it above a standard account of atrocity. We all watch the nightly news with a passive glaze, but the use of eerie music, the framing device created by Joshua’s ultimate exile in Thailand, and the poignant re-editing of a mountain of pixilated footage is much more captivating than Dan Rather. Burma VJ is less of a documentary than journalism with a soul.
Another factor that makes the classification of documentary awkward, is that the story is not finite, and in many ways the mere act of watching the film when it opens today is part of the plot. You’re not supposed to be seeing this footage, but now that you have, will it change history? This is a rare moment, where revolution, technology, and art are merging to potentially sway momentum away from a harsh military leadership that has provoked outcries from the U.S., the United Nations, and even Will Ferrell (yes, it’s that bad).
It’s interesting to note that the last Western journalist of note to bring the atrocities of Burma to the world stage was probably George Orwell, back when he was a foot soldier in the oppression. His experiences there inspired his greatest known works of fiction, but his journalism from the front lines of Imperialism is still some of the most clairvoyant prose on the futility of military rule. While this moment led to Orwell’s now classic paranoia of Big Brother’s cameras, it might just be cameras that bring down Burma’s current Big Brother.