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Monks, Tanks and Videotape

May 17, 2009

The New York Times
May 17, 2009

TORONTO -- HE lives in Thailand now, largely
because he doesn’t think he could hold up under
torture. "I’m not sure how much I could keep
secrets," said the slight, shaggy-haired,
27-year-old Burmese video journalist, who is
considered a public enemy by his country’s military junta.

Should his admission make him seem less than
courageous, consider "Burma VJ: Reporting from a
Closed Country." Directed by Anders Ostergaard of
Denmark and opening on Wednesday at Film Forum in
New York, the documentary chronicles the work of
the Burmese journalist and his team of guerrilla
cameramen during the “saffron revolution” of
2007, in which robed Buddhist monks joined street
protests against Myanmar’s military dictatorship.
Connected through cellphones and e-mail, shooting
clandestinely on minicams and smuggling footage
out of the country by courier, the Internet and
satellite hookups, the correspondents for the
Democratic Voice of Burma (a television station
in exile based in Oslo) not only exposed the
totalitarian character of the Myanmar authorities
to world scrutiny, they revealed the future of
war reporting. It’s no wonder that at the recent
Hot Docs film festival here, the journalist
appeared in a hat, oversize sunglasses and a
scarf, seldom looking up and not posing for pictures.

He is under orders from his bosses. "It is also
the position of management that he not go back to
Burma," said Khin Maung Win, the deputy executive
director of the Democratic Voice of Burma. At the
moment the journalist, whose safety depends on
his anonymity, is too busy accompanying the film,
which has traveled from the Sundance Film
Festival to New York, Washington and Toronto,
where on this day in early May he appeared with
Mr. Ostergaard and Khin Maung Win (on a panel
sponsored by Hot Docs and the Canadian
nongovernmental organization Rights & Democracy).
The next day he left for Ottawa to lobby the
Canadian Parliament for financial and political
support for the Democratic Voice of Burma.

"Burma VJ," distributed by Oscilloscope (owned by
Adam Yauch, one of the Beastie Boys), has also
been adopted by the current Czech leadership of
the European Union in its campaign for human
rights. “Vaclav Havel presented the film to
Hillary Clinton when Obama was in Prague,” a
slightly amused Mr. Ostergaard said. “I’ve just
been adjusting to what has been completely
unexpected. Mind you, I was going to make a
30-minute portrait of Joshua" -- the journalist’s
pseudonym -- "then all kinds of things happened."

What happened was the near-spontaneous uprising
of summer ’07, incited by a doubling of gas
prices, the arrest of the labor activist Su Su
Nway and a people fed up. In an early sequence of
the film a taxi driver says he’ll join whatever
demonstrations should erupt, and his candidness
is a tip-off. “This never happens,” the
journalist says. The sense is that a pressure
cooker is about to blow, which it does.

For Mr. Ostergaard it was total coincidence. He
had been approached by his producer, Lise
Lens-Moller, to make a film on Myanmar (the
former Burma), and had been put in touch with
Democratic Voice of Burma journalists in Bangkok,
where they were given camera and situation
training. Then events upended their plans.

As explained in an opening subtitle, "Burma VJ"
contains certain embellishments, a connective
tissue of sorts that sets up and links together
the V.J.-shot sequences of monks, marches, police
beatings and one point-blank murder of a Japanese
journalist. The street scenes are real; the
setups are not. While dramatically effective,
such techniques cause documentary purists to
recoil. But Mr. Ostergaard offers no apologies.

"I’m absolutely convinced there was no way to
tell this story without re-enactments," Mr.
Ostergaard said. "Not only visually but on the
soundtrack. The cellphone conversations obviously
weren’t recorded at the time. In fact, the V.J.’s
wouldn’t have conversations while they were
shooting. This is a cinematic distillation. But
the content is authentic in the sense that we
have the real guys telling each other what they told each other at the time."

Moviemaking philosophy aside, "Burma VJ" provides
powerful evidence of the new ways in which
oppression can be documented and world opinion
swayed. “Technology is on our side,” said
Micheline Lévesque, Asia specialist for Rights
and Democracy. She said reports on human-rights
violations, when done outside a country like
Myanmar, are routinely ignored by countries that
want to continue doing business with an
oppressive regime. It’s harder to argue with a
"Burma VJ" and the technology it champions, the
eventual influence of which may be enormous.
"Tibet is very interested," Ms. Lévesque said,
“and other movements in other countries are
looking to what’s happening in Burma to use in their own movements."

"Burma VJ" will eventually show on HBO ("It’s
free in Burma," said Khin Maung Win, smiling,
"because everyone gets it off the satellite
dish”), which will be both a boon to the Burmese
cause and also a window into a new political
world. “It’s as much a story about technology as
it is about courage,” said Sheila Nevins,
president of HBO’s documentary unit, for whom the
Burmese V.J.’s evoked Sophie Scholl and the
university students of the White Rose movement of
’40s Munich. "The only way they could get
information out was to make leaflets on a machine
and throw them all over the university,” she
said. “And of course they got caught. And
beheaded. But you go forward a hundred years, you
have a situation in film where two cellphones
talk to each other, and it’s impossible for a
military dictatorship to keep secrets.

"Can you imagine," Ms. Nevins added, "if someone
had smuggled a camera into a concentration camp?"
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