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Film review: 'Burma VJ'

By David Calleja - posted Thursday, 22 October 2009

There are very few movies or documentaries that show just how severe life is for civilians in Burma. It is only fitting that a group of committed local Burmese reporters from the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) fill this void by capturing the footage of the 2007 uprising led by monks, otherwise known as the Saffron Revolution. In doing so, they are making the news for reporting the facts and risking their life to capture images that the BBC and CNN could only dream of covering in-country, as they are banned from setting foot in Burma.

Burma VJ is a documentary directed by Anders Østergaard and follows the experience of “Joshua” and his colleagues. Armed with a camcorder, he takes viewers through the streets of Rangoon and into his underground operation with flair and dignity, sharing his fears and insights as dissatisfaction with the military junta’s decision to double fuel prices gathers momentum.

The documentary’s strength is that it thrusts ordinary people into the spotlight as heroes over six weeks, starting with a furious solo demonstrator and following a trail to what eventually became a mass people’s movement, backed by Burma’s revered Buddhist monks.


The Burmese junta’s suspicion of any negative reporting about its operations has meant a blanket ban on international media outlets entering the country. Yet the DVB secretly captures footage of one armed forces officer’s frustrated rant declaring the DVB as their number one enemy.

Bypassing Burma’s strict censorship laws, Joshua downloads footage from a home computer to the DVB’s satellite television station in Oslo, which is then re-sent worldwide to news agencies and beamed back into Burma, giving civilians their first glimpse of events as described by an independent medium rather than Burma’s state-run news.

The raw production retains a rough “on the streets” edge demonstrating the degree of nervousness possessed by individuals in a warzone risking their life to gain a crucial story.

There are many touching scenes in the documentary which make the Saffron Revolution an important event to commemorate. Thanks to reporters like Joshua the world will not forget harrowing vision of the military junta launching tear gas attacks and opening fire on Rangoon’s streets.

In years to come, we will continue to talk about the footage where hundreds of soldiers gradually closed in on monks praying for reconciliation before marching them away to their gruesome fate. This scene, along with the brutal shooting of a Japanese cameraman by armed forces as he ran for his life, is as poignant as the lone student who confronted Chinese army tanks in the middle of Beijing’s streets in the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989.

For a number of days, as technology permitted, the world watched on helplessly as soldiers prepared themselves to slowly choke the life out of the monks who were praying for the souls of their murderers while asking everybody to come together. The sight of monks gathering en masse is inspirational, while their eventual last few moments after being led away, shot and dumped on the streets (in one case, left floating in a river), is sickening.


After the uprising is crushed, we are reminded that life goes on. “It is like something has been broken and cannot be repaired. But this (reporting) is my job,” says Joshua. To people like Joshua, a camcorder not only gives their profession a sense of purpose, but also in times of civil unrest is as lethal as a firearm in the hands of a soldier.

In an era where quality journalism is being compromised for marketability, ratings and special effects, Burma VJ leads the way in showing that ethical reporters willing to risk their life, rather than reputation, are more likely to deliver a much-sought after truth.

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About the Author

David Calleja is a freelance writer who is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy Journal and Hack Writers. In 2008, he worked as a teacher and soccer coach in the Internally Displaced Persons camp based in Loi Tailang, Shan State, Burma. His writing focuses on human interest stories in Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. David has also worked as an English teacher in South Korea, China, Thailand and Cambodia. His video depicting the lives of families living on the grounds of Steung Meanchey Waste Dump in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, A Garbage Diet, can be viewed here.

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