Burma VJ Review

Director: Anders Ostergaard
Denmark, 2008, 85 mins., color

Burma VJ


“Armed with pocket-sized video cameras, a tenacious band of Burmese reporters face down death to expose the repressive regime controlling their country. In 2007, after decades of self-imposed silence, Burma became headline news across the globe when peaceful Buddhist monks led a massive rebellion. More than 100,000 people took to the streets protesting a cruel dictatorship that has held the country hostage for more than 40 years. Foreign news crews were banned, the Internet was shut down, and Burma was closed to the outside world. So how did we witness these events? Enter the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), aka the Burma VJs. Compiled from the shaky handheld footage of the DVB, acclaimed filmmaker Anders Ostergaard’s Burma VJ pulls us into the heat of the moment as the VJs themselves become the target of the Burmese government. Their tactical leader, code-named Joshua, oversees operations from a safe hiding place in Thailand. Via clandestine phone calls, Joshua dispenses his posse of video warriors, who covertly film the abuses in their country, then smuggle their footage across the border into Thailand. Joshua ships the footage to Norway, where it is broadcast back to Burma and the world via satellite. Burma VJ plays like a thriller, all the more scary because it is true.”

I’m definitely not doing Burma VJ justice in comparing it to Real TV or any of the numerous ‘Wildest (BLANK) Caught on Tape!” Fox shows, but it’s the best way to describe the visceral feeling of watching the raw footage that these underground Burmese journalists captured. The structure of the film is grounded by a series of re-created phone calls made by ‘Joshua’, the leader of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), as he hides out in an apartment. His group of rogue journalists are dedicated to capturing the deplorable human rights conditions of the repressive Burmese regime and exposing it to the world. This, of course, comes with great danger. The threat of life long imprisonment or even death looms over the heads of not only the people doing the filming, but the citizens caught revealing too much information to the camera. The footage is smuggled out of the country and released to the public via major news organizations. There’s an ongoing sense of urgency throughout the film that’s brought on by the simple fact that what you are seeing is illegal. The images are coming to you through means that are deemed unlawful, and at any moment, the cameraman that is providing you these images can be captured and imprisoned. On moment in the film is particularly tense as one of the vj’s hides behind a wall as soldiers begin clearing the streets. He’s simultaneously talking on the phone, telling Joshua how close he is to being captured. He lifts the camera over the wall and you see guards coming his way, and all you can think is ‘there’s no way they didn’t see that!’. All of this tension is complimented by the aesthetics of the shaky, low-fi undercover footage.

Thousands of people swarm the streets in a wide scale uprising against the Burmese dictatorship, resulting in some pretty crazy violent outbursts from the military. When the Buddhist Monks get involved, there’s almost a superhero quality to their presence. Although it’s not long before the realization sets in that even they aren’t untouchable. Chaos ensues and it’s all captured on video. Burmese VJ is a powerful film that gives you a rare inside look at one of the world’s most secretive and repressive countries. Definitely recommended if you’re a fan of the Vice Guide to Travel short films.