Nor Long Remember
Anders Østergaard’s Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country has won non-fiction prizes at prestigious festivals but, given limited theatrical schedule here, will probably not revive public consciousness of that country’s long, current agony. The events it movingly and fortuitously recorded twenty months ago were a hot item at the time, but Buddhist monks’ courage, massive civilian support alongside them, and a government’s vile reaction, quickly gave place to the next media-moment celebrity, scandal, conflict, genocide or natural catastrophe.
Most people cannot locate Myanmar on the map, even if prodded that it was Burma before a 1989 junta change back to the original historical designation as old as Marco Polo. This despite Burma-Shave and the Burma Road, “Vinegar” Joe Stilwell, Chennault and his Flying Tigers, Kipling and Sinatra’s Mandalay (which neither visited), Objective, Burma!, Merrill’s Marauders and The Bridge on the River Kwai (for Japanese invasion supplies), and the token defiance of Western journalists in rejecting the dictators’ new-old name.
By whichever designation, the single-party “Socialist” Union of Myanmar or of Burma remains one of the most isolated, ostracized places on earth, acceptably so to the military men who by and large have reigned since 1962 and responded to major civil disruptions in 1974 and 1988 with increased repression, forced labor and currency manipulation. When the Aung San Suu Kyi-led National League for Democracy won 1990 general elections, results were nullified, she was placed under house arrest, and other opponents were jailed or eliminated.
Legal entrance into the country is restricted, as are the Internet and national and foreign media, and a European diplomat died while in custody for operating phones and faxes without permission. Director-writer Østergaard originally conceived of a short film portrait of a graphic reporter, video journalist, one of a few dozen such VJs of the Democratic Voice of Burma, clandestine activists risking freedom and life concealing Handycams to film abuses and smuggle the results to Oslo for broadcast back into the country and to the rest of the world whose journalists are barred. As “a small, intimate, psychological affair,” the half-hour was to be a study, not of politics or society, but of what impels these men and women to their dangerous work.
The whole changed with the mass demonstrations of September 2007, soon spearheaded by the country’s normally apolitical 400,000 Buddhist monks (and nuns). “Just a little boy” during the failed 1988 uprising, the central now twenty-seven-year-old is called “Joshua” for the film, just as most names except for those of public figures are changed, too, for protection.
Grainy, jumpy and bouncy, the images by him and his companions include tear gas and shots, beatings and bodies, the killing of a Japanese correspondent, barbed-wire barricades and armored vehicles, marching saffron-clad head-shaven monks and accompanying civilians, crowds applauding and lining streets, stairways and balconies in Rangoon (now Yangon, meaning “End of the Enemy” and no longer the capital).
The eighty-five minutes is not about what cinema can do, so the music is sparse, sporadic and good, and touristy golden fantasy Shwedagon Pagoda a mere backdrop. This is the record of a populist uprising cheered by a world which could not, or would not, intervene. Despite emotional seconds of tearful “Ma” Suu Kyi acknowledging marchers saluting her guarded house, some from the start predict a repeat of twenty years earlier, with only defenseless students left to be roughed up and dispersed.
Joshua wants to remain but for safety is sent to Thailand, to computer-coordinate receiving and sending information. He and other coworkers are not photographed directly or in unshadowed light, as, along with printed date-titles, cellphone and monitor conversations are used to structure developments and comment on them more intimately than the few included BBC or CNN telecasts.
These staged shots of Joshua are mortar cementing inspiring, chilling actuality footage. The outside has already forgotten these events, or at least ignores them in its hunger for the au courant immediate. Still, the factual outcome is no surprise, repression and fear continue to govern. On the other, individual level, scenes and voice communication indicate that the underground group and its equipment were seized in a secret police raid, its members dead or in hiding and not heard from again. New video-cameramen are being trained, perhaps the very ones who filmed end-credit 2008 cyclone victims.
(Released by HBO Documentary Films and Oscilloscope Pictures. Not rated by MPAA.)