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BURMA: Despite Loss at Oscars, Film A Testament to Courage

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Mar 11 2010 (IPS) - It may have not won an Oscar, but its having been a final contender for the prestigious statue at the U.S. Academy Awards on Mar. 7 has taken ‘Burma VJ’ to heights never achieved by previous films depicting the oppression and courage in military-ruled Burma.

‘Burma VJ’ was beaten by ‘The Cove’, a film about the brutal hunting of dolphins in a Japanese fishing town, for Best Documentary Feature of 2009 at the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awards held at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles, and watched by millions of television viewers across the world.

Yet Sunday’s disappointment for ‘Burma VJ’ comes on the back of the remarkable story behind a documentary that was released in May 2009 in a single theatre in the United States to little applause and few earnings.

It then blazed its way through the international film festival circuit, winning 40 awards by the night of the Oscars, including for a prize for documentary film editing at the Sundance Film Festival and the Vaclav Havel prize at the Czech Republic’s One World Festival.

“This film made the world aware of the brutality inside Burma,” Aung Zaw, editor of ‘The Irrawaddy’, a magazine on Burma produced by exiled journalists, says of the pulsating, edgy work of cinematography that captures the violent crackdown of anti-government protests led by unarmed Buddhist monks three years ago.

It is a film “about courage,” he told IPS, of not just the thousands of saffron- robed monks who rose up against the oppressive South-east Asian junta in September 2007 but also “the courage of the citizen journalists who were on the streets, filming this uprising to show the world about military oppression.”

The documentary by Danish filmmaker Anders Ostergaard tells the story through the voice of Joshua, one of the many video journalists (or VJs, as appearing in the film’s title) who have been working clandestinely for the Oslo-based broadcaster Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) in the country.

Joshua’s soft-voiced narrative draws the viewers into the brazen acts of defiance, as does the raw, in-your-face footage in ‘Burma VJ’. The unfolding scenes show chanting monks march through the city of Rangoon, the former capital, cheered on by hundreds of people, some marching behind them, some clapping from the sides of the streets, and many more encouraging them from balconies and windows of buildings.

The palpable anger toward the military dictatorship is understandable. The September 2007 show of public outrage came nearly 20 years after a pro- democracy uprising in August 1988 in Burma, also known as Myanmar, where over 3,000 protesters were killed in a brutal military crackdown.

A repeat was inevitable, and the tension mounts as the cameras pan to capture troops appearing on the streets. Then the final assault begins; no monks are spared.

Yet ‘Burma VJ’ also achieves its dramatic tension through another creative means of filmmaking. Based in Thailand after fleeing the crackdown at home, Joshua is constantly online with his DVB team on the ground, talking to them via mobile phones or chatting through the Internet, to discuss and direct coverage tactics.

Such moments, intended to get the best images for DVB’s audiences in the country and the world, reveal the bravery of the ‘undercover’ or citizen journalists who dared to expose themselves by holding out their small, hand- held cameras in pursuit of documenting the truth.

“Never underestimate the power of the handycam,” says one of the DVB’s video journalists, who goes by the name of Aung Htun. “It is the little eye of the oppressed people.”

“Our job was to capture this historic event,” he continues of his dangerous assignment during the ‘Saffron Revolution’, the footage of which was used in ‘Burma VJ’. “I never thought about risks, danger, as I worked.”

“Taking pictures in public has only been done by the military intelligence and the authorities. What we did raised suspicion, but we had to do it and win the trust of the public and the monks,” the slightly built 30-year-old, now in Bangkok, told IPS. “We knew something was happening in the mood of the people and some monks before September. And we knew we had to record it.”

While the footage of Aung Htun and four other DVB VJs were used in the film, the nearly 60 VJs in the country were making waves elsewhere during the 2008 protests. Their images broke through the cloak of secrecy imposed on the country by the junta.

Little wonder why a ranking police officer does not mince his words in the final scenes of ‘Burma VJ’. “DVB are the worst,” rages a visibly angry Maj Gen Khin Yi, Rangoon’s police chief, who then goes on to accuse the non-profit media outlet of being “the ones who broadcast most of the false news about us.”

Until the insight into Burma provided by ‘Burma VJ’, the only documentaries that had offered a window to the country’s suffering had been a British Broadcasting Corp production after the 1988 crackdown called ‘Inside Burma Land of Fear’, a mid-1990s film by Australian journalist John Pilger on fear, and the more recent ‘Orphans of the Storm’ about children who survived the powerful Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

“There is no doubt that ‘Burma VJ’ has had the most impact of any documentary made on Burma,” says David Scott Mathieson, Burma researcher for Human Rights Watch, the New York-based global rights lobby. “It captured the bravery and the ingenuity of the Burmese journalists working under trying conditions to get their story out.”

“The September 2007 protests were a defining moment of the undercover journalists, who have been working for years building up their networks,” he told IPS. “They continue to do so knowing the risks, a jail term from two to 20 years.”

DVB, in fact, has paid such a price. At least two of its known undercover reporters are languishing in Burmese jails, where at least 13 journalists and bloggers are imprisoned. Among them is 25-year-old Hla Hla Win, who was given a 20-year prison sentence at the end of 2009.

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