Burma VJ is a “documentary” about the September 2007 anti-government protests in Burma. Officially titled Burma VJ: Reporting From A Closed Country, it’s a compilation of footage taken by citizens of the civilian uprising and subsequent military retaliation. It’s held together by a narrator, Joshua, who is a member/leader of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) – a network of clandestine journalists dedicated to documenting political events. Some of the footage has live audio, but most of the movie is narrated after the fact, some by way of a barren room in Thailand where Joshua flees just before the turmoil. This makes the movie feel primarily like a pure documentary, as un-staged as film can be, even though some of the non-action parts are subtly reenacted. It’s a mostly innocuous combination – the complete opposite of the content. If the fluid animation of Waltz WIth Bashir was one way to make a political statement, the choppy video journalism of Burma VJ is the other.
The movie opens by setting the political stage. The government uses secret police and SWAT-style raids to quell any and all dissent. No foreign reporters are allowed in the country. When something like a rally takes place on the street, the military comes in, kidnaps everyone with a camera (handicams are the citizen’s response to the police baton), and forces the crowds to dispel. DVB’s main practice is filming injustice and smuggling it out of the country. Joshua often makes statements like “people must know the truth.” Late in 2007, the DVB was the sole source of in-country footage for Western media outlets like the BBC.
The fuel hits the fire in the movie when a prominent democratic figure gets kidnapped. The only group in the area powerful enough to combat the government, the Buddhist monks, decide it’s time to take action. The monks walk like phalanxes down the streets of Rangoon – a truly awesome force. Within days, their mere presence in public inspires tens of thousands of people to join them in the streets. In a bit of powerful irony, the monks are essentially declaring war, and they know it.
Hand-held cameras take us through the streets, the marches, the protests. They document beatings, murders, raids, kidnappings, all from the front lines. Anyone seen with a camera will certainly be kidnapped and likely killed, and yet, there they are.
Joshua says early on in the film, “I feel I want to fight for democracy. But I think we had better make a longer plan.” Democracy is more than voting. It means having rule of law, freedom of the press, minority representation. 2007 Burma is in the very early stages of what is sure to be a long process. Burma VJ is evidence of that. It is political theater, painfully real.
Now Playing at the Lumiere Theatre — Nyunt Than, President of the Burmese American Democratic Alliance, In Person on Friday, July 17 at the 7:20pm Show. Info.