June 16, 2010

Burma VJ

Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of 5): ****

Burma VJ, the Oscar-nominated documentary by Anders Østergaard has quite a unique angle: it's about a heroic act without a clear-cut victory at the end. It's not a self-contained story, and it's very much "to be continued." The problem that has been introduced has not been solved yet, and it's up to more and more brave souls to stand up and be counted. In 2007, the repressive military regime, under power in Burma since 1962, removed fuel subsidies, which resulted in freakishly high gas prices. The public balked, and there was an uprising against the government, led by local monks.

With the mainstream media banned and/or shut down, video journalists took it upon themselves to cover the event, shooting most of their footage clandestinely; they hid their tiny cameras in bags and with other disguises, pushing their way into crowds, and risking discovery and capture at every turn. There are no release forms, as no one will agree to an interview. Even more dangerously, they must smuggle their work out of the country for broadcasting.

The film is narrated by "Joshua," a video journalist forced into hiding after some of his footage made it to CNN. The director adds dramatic footage to go with the journalistic elements to bridge it together for the purposes of the documentary, though everything is on the up-and-up. No effort is made to disguise or deflect the re-created footage.

This is powerful, even inspirational, stuff to be sure, but the most interesting scene is one in which two reporters discuss the impact of their work; are they really changing anything? It's a good question, and one that this film takes one small step toward answering: its full title is sometimes shown as Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country.

The new DVD from Oscilloscope comes with some impressive bonus features, not the least of which is a brief liner notes essay by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu. There's also a brief message from Buddhist practitioner (and actor) Richard Gere, an interview with the mysterious "Joshua," and interviews with some of the monks involved in the uprising. There's a short, 30-minute documentary about a clinic in Thailand for Burmese refugees, begun in 1988 during the student uprising. We also get a commentary track with director Østergaard and film critic John Anderson, recorded together, in English.

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Posted by cphillips at June 16, 2010 3:07 PM
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