322nd Meeting - Tuesday, May 11th 2010
With Ashin Sopaka and Jan Krogsgaard introducing the film and answering questions
Present: David James, Mangkhoot Wonapong, Inderjeet Mani, Ken Dyer, James Bogle, Simone Buys, David Steane, Richard Nelson-Jones, Jay Rabin, Beth Nawyen, Sidhorn Sangdhanoo, a Thai person, Jennifer Dyson, Pierre Chaslin, Lorenz Ferrari, Stefan Mickel, Derrick Titmus, Alison Campbell, Suriya Smutkupt, Patricia Cheesman, Oliver Puginier, Louis Gabaude, Michael R. Boeder, Hans and Sangdao Bänziger, John Cadet, Angel Lipke, Jeff Warner … An audience of more than 80 (At least 50 people didn’t sign the attendance list. Too dark to see?)
New York Times Review by A. O. Scott. Published: May 20, 2009
Many of the images in “Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country” are shaky and blurred, captured with video cameras small enough to be quickly concealed in circumstances of danger and chaos. The lack of cinematic polish emphasizes the urgency of these pictures and the bravery of the anonymous camera operators — “VJ” stands for “video journalists” — who risked their safety, their freedom and their lives to record popular protests against the military government of Burma and the regime’s brutal response.
Directed by Anders Ostergaard, a Danish filmmaker, this documentary is largely a collage of those clandestine videos, recorded in August and September 2007 and narrated by a Burmese pro-democracy activist known as Joshua, whose face and identity are shrouded for his own protection. Joshua and his colleagues are haunted by memories of the early 1990s, when the military junta known as SLORC (an acronym for the State Law and Order Restoration Council) responded to its electoral defeat by Aung San Suu Kyi by cracking down ruthlessly on the citizens of the country that nearly everyone in this film pointedly calls Burma rather than Myanmar; the new name imposed on it by SLORC.
As public defiance of the regime grows through the late summer of 2007, Joshua hopes the result will be different. He is part of the Democratic Voice of Burma network of journalists who discreetly gathered information about Burmese life by interviewing ordinary people and recording their everyday activities. When small, apparently spontaneous demonstrations begin in the capital, the group’s cameras are there to witness the events, and as video circulates at home and abroad, the gatherings grow bigger and bolder.
reluctantly, Joshua flees to
“Burma VJ” is a rich, thought-provoking film not only because of the story it tells, which is by turns inspiring and devastatingly sad, but also because of the perspective it offers on the role that new communications technologies can play in political change. The viral videos of the Democratic Voice of Burma are like the hidden printing presses of earlier underground revolutionary movements, except that the portability of the cameras and the ease of Web and satellite-based distribution make them harder to suppress.
But not impossible. While much of the film offers the stirring drama of a population shaking off passivity and fear and standing up to tyranny, the denouement shows that old-fashioned police-state repression can still overpower a rebellion fueled by new media. The cameras are on hand to record the eventual crackdown in horrific detail — there is something indelibly and uniquely appalling about the sight of soldiers firing on crowds of their fellow citizens — but they cannot alter the terrible course of events. And so the narrative of “Burma VJ” takes on a somber, elegiac cast, as the potential for freedom flares up and is, in short order, snuffed out.
The story is
over, of course, as a glance at recent headlines suggests. The cruelty
paranoia of the
Directed by Anders Ostergaard;
written by Mr. Ostergaard and Jan Krogsgaard; directors of photography,
Plum and Burmese video journalists; edited by Janus Billeskov Jansen
Papapetros; music by Conny Malmqvist; produced by Lise Lense-Moller;
by Oscilloscope Laboratories and HBO Documentary Films. At Film Forum,
By Jan Krogsgaard
received the phone call we became nervous. The military regime in
Joshua and I
working together in his small office in Mae Sot, a Thai town on the
we had been examining video footage from the 2007 uprising in
But it was
happen. During a two-day deadly crack down
Joshua is a
man, at that time 27 years old. I came to know him during my work with
documentary movie “
an undercover video journalist (VJ) inside
the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an exiled Burmese TV-Station based
When the call
came Joshua was told to return to
was to go to
He decided to
move immediately, using the Water Festival as his cover. During this
carnival-like festival, a time for forgetting,
illegally overland to
I feel “hna
myaw tal,”, Joshua told me. It took us a while to translate
from Burmese into English; it means “something is broken
beyond repair”, an
expression I realized covered the entire atmosphere in
With this feeling rooted inside him Joshua returned to Rangoon without knowing if Aung Maung had been talking or not. But we also had reminded each other what they teach in the Buddhist monasteries: that one of the four causes of decline and decay is “omitting to repair that which has been damaged.”
is so much needed in
When we met two days later in the water-drenched city, only one hundred meters from where the Japanese video journalist Kenji Nagai was killed, Joshua was on high alert. He told me the cause for his alarm while we passed laughing kids who splashed water at us with buckets and hoses: sources from the prison said that the pain Aung Maung was suffering had become too much and he had been forced to speak. How much the military intelligence knew, or whether they were aware of the apartment, Joshua didn’t know. Our reality had changed uncontrollably.
would end up as so many others in Burma, spending years in solitary
confinement, not being allowed to read, write or speak, being
dark rooms where time and space dissolve. The only communicating voices
voices inside one’s own head.
As Joshua turned away, he said goodbye to me at a street corner. I knew I had no chance in this world to help him with what he was up against. Words that have followed me for years, expressed to me by a Burmese woman taking care of trafficked girls in Thailand came back to me -- “Jan, we are like people without protection trying to protect people without protection.” I could only wish Joshua good luck as I watched him melt into the celebrating dancing crowds with this lonely task ahead of him.
had to go back to
Over the past
Joshua and his colleague Aung Htun, the co-protagonist in Burma VJ,
have been touring the world with the movie telling about their work and
“I feel horrible, I know that several of the monks I interviewed during the military crackdown are in prison now. I have been told that they are jailed because of the interview they gave to me. It is like this – there is a high price for our success, and for our own people in prison. They might be beaten up more than normal, and their sentences can easily be extended. Sometimes I ask myself how far can I go and still be myself – truly be myself?