Good documentaries shed light on a subject previously unknown to an audience, capturing their imaginations along the way.
Burma VJ does exactly that and more, compelling viewers to not only care and take an interest in the story of these individuals but to find out more about the issues raised after the film.
It’s not easy watching and will leave you slack-jawed with incredulity and sad beyond reproach, but it’s a necessary and poignant revelation about the atrocities of the Burmese government.
Burma VJ is narrated by “Joshua”, an undercover journalist who works for the Democratic Voice of Burma, an independent TV station. The images he gathers are illegal in Burma – possessing a video camera is punishable by up to 24 years in prison, so he must smuggle his images out of the country to Norway where they are transmitted back to Burma. Several of his compatriots have been arrested previously and tortured and it’s through his eyes and the eyes of his colleagues that we get to see the awful state of his country.
In response to an overnight doubling of fuel prices – the latest governmental policy imposed under a 20-year reign of tyranny – angry citizens begin to form in groups of protest. To even think about doing this in Burma requires great courage. In 1988, thousands of people gathered for pro-Democracy demonstrations and security forces shot 3000 people. This is a country where most live under constant fear, where their every move is watched and reported upon. And it’s real, not part of some horrific dystopian fiction but actually happening, right now at this minute.
Footage of the demonstrations and the escalating unrest and inevitable violent backlash from the armed forces is broken up by reconstructed phone calls between “Joshua” and the other reporters. The effect is to provide a kind of narrative structure and enables the audience to empathise more greatly with the situation on the ground, riding on each reporter’s shoulder like a kind of invisible passenger. Unfortunately this also blurs the line between what is real and what’s fabricated and risks undermining the first-hand accounts of the reporters which should always be kept in sharp focus.
Gathering outside the Democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s house (who has been detained there under house arrest since 1989), the protesters are forced back first with tear gas and then with hails of bullets.
It’s truly harrowing, compounded by the blatant lies of Burma’s leaders – we’re shown the chief of police denying the unrest is even happening.
Burma VJ creates awareness of a problem largely unknown to the Western world and the sheer scale of this Orwellian nightmare simply boggles the mind. Here’s a world government that refuses to even acknowledge that it’s committing atrocities, let alone atone for them.
This is gripping and frankly jaw-dropping footage and courageous film-making. It’s a film about courageous journalism and it’s a revelatory expose of one of the world’s most punishing regimes. Uncomfortable but imperative viewing.