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Mission of Burma: Getting the Story Is the Story

By Kathy McDonald

DocuDays Los AngelesHiding in plain sight, the clandestine videographers of Burma VJ risk their lives to capture all-too-real and terrible footage: the severe repression of Burma's populace by the Southeast Asian country's 47-year-old military junta (officially renamed Myanmar in 1988 by the regime).

In August 2007, scores of Buddhist monks led peaceful protests in the capital city of Pyinmana; in reprisal, many were beaten, maimed and/or killed by government authorities. A Japanese photographer was also shot and killed; an image of that shocking moment made front pages worldwide. Unconfirmed numbers of Burmese were imprisoned. All this happened at street level, remarkably captured by a team of citizen journalists, armed with nothing more than Sony mini-cams and digital tape.

Danish director Anders Østergaard was approached to shoot a documentary in Burma, but he quickly realized the drama would be about getting the story, rather than about Burma itself. "We knew if we flew in ourselves, the film would be about problems we had in shooting; it would be about the crew somehow," Østergaard explains. "Once we realized that there were people inside, I thought they could get footage we would never get, and all their stories and circumstances would make for an interesting story and angle to the country."          

He soon learned how interesting and important that story would be. Sponsored by several Scandinavian aid groups, the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) trains and equips citizen journalists to shoot within Burma, which is effectively closed to Western news organizations. There is no independent or free press in Burma; the government controls all media. The DVB distributes its videos to news organizations like CNN and the BBC, and posts material on its website (

Østergaard initially met the DVB crew and the film's protagonist, Joshua (a pseudonym), before the 2007 uprising, when the group was on a training session in Bangkok, Thailand. At that time, Burma was quiet and totally suppressed. "We were thinking we might make a half-hour human interest story about Joshua or about life in his village or the general living conditions of Burma," recalls the director. "But there was a complete turnaround, and the story heated up when the spontaneous uprising by Buddhist monks began with marches through city streets." The DVB's videographers were in the center of the action, putting their lives at risk to capture footage that could potentially change the course of the nation.

At that key moment, a major twist appeared that seemed to derail the project: For his own safety, Joshua fled to Thailand. Although frustrated by his exit from the scene, Østergaard was able to use that distance dramatically, by dynamically structuring the film around Joshua's attempts to keep in touch with colleagues. Security concerns, and aesthetic problems connected to that, became the filmmakers' major challenges. 

"How we could get people to get in touch with these characters without seeing their faces was problem number one," explains Østergaard. Joshua's face and those of other VJs are always obscured; Joshua is often shot in relief or from behind as he converses or e-mails with the others from his secret safe house in Thailand. "The telephone conversations turned out to be quite dramatic, even intimate somehow," Østergaard continues. "I like how we dissolved the group into this collective psyche; the group is working together, calling each another, criss-crossing, merging into one protagonist."

Events unfold via a mix of vérité footage and re-enactments of Joshua's conversations with his compatriots. He also serves as narrator. Østergaard explains he prefers to use a character's voice for narration, as it draws in the audience. "You have a higher identification, not some abstract voice teaching you how things are. Characters are allowed to somehow color their language, to use broader expressions or verbal expressions, which will give you a better understanding; as the storyteller you need this color, this liberty." Rather than an objective and dry voiceover track, Joshua's narrative conveys facts and emotions at the same time as Burma VJ's hybrid of the political and the personal unfolds.

"There are so many levels going on," says David Courier, programmer at the Sundance Film Festival, where the film won the World Cinema Documentary Editing Prize; the film also earned the Joris Ivens and Movies that Matter Awards at IDFA. "The film plays like a thriller; it's an edge-of-your seat kind of story," he continues. "The fact that these people are putting their lives on the line to expose abuses in their country, risking their lives to get the truth out, which could save other lives, is incredibly emotional in a way, and downright scary to watch."  

According to Courier, the film tells an important story, and in comparison to Tibet's 50-year struggle for freedom, one that audiences may not know. Østergaard finds that people do have an idea of Burma's travails and "a vague memory of Aung San Suu Kyi, the lady with flowers in her hair, fighting the generals," he notes, adding that the film is definitely bringing the struggle to the world's stage, a political role for the filmmakers that is daunting.

Although he fears for reprisals against the three VJs imprisoned by the military dictators, the DVB recognizes it as a necessary risk, as the exposure gained from the film multiplies what they accomplished and has inspired others to videotape events such as the devastating Cyclone Nargis in 2008 and the government's inadequate efforts to aid its people.

Audience response to the film has been emotional, enthusiastic and overwhelming, according to Østergaard. Wherever the film plays, the Burmese fight for freedom resonates. "Because of the direct nature of this footage, you don't need a lot of cultural codes to break it or understand it," the director explains. "It goes straight into the heart somehow."


Burma VJ will be screening as part of DocuDays LA on Saturday, March 6 at 7:45 p.m. at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills and DocuDays NY on Sunday, March 7 at 2:45 p.m. at the Paley Center for Media.


Kathy A. McDonald is a Los Angeles-based writer and an IDA member.