Saturday, July 12, 2014

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country (2008)

Director: Anders Ostergaard

This is one harrowing documentary. One that makes me appreciate a great many things that I often take for granted.

Burma VJ is a documentary focused on the 2007 protests in the streets of Rangoon, Burma (presently known as Myanmar) - a large country in Southeast Asia between Bangladesh and Thailand. Though conditions have since improved somewhat, through nearly every decade following World War II and up to the making of this film, Burma was ruled by one of the most oppressive military regimes in the world. It was almost on par with North Korea in terms of how little freedom of speech its citizens were allowed. The only method of getting their stories out was through guerrilla-style street reporting done undercover and at great risk to those video journalists (the V.J. in the title of the movie).

Patched together by the journalists and sympathetic groups based mostly in Oslo, Burma VJ depicts the struggle of the Burmese people to stand in the face of the totalitarian rule of the military and demand a truer form of democracy. It's a situation that we've seen unfold in may countries in the world, especially within the last ten years. Whether it's in Burma, Thailand, or any of the many countries involved in the Arab Spring, the fight of an oppressed citizenry over tyranny has become common enough that we in more privileged countries can often become jaded to it.

That's where a film like Burma VJ comes in.

One of the many images that the Burmese military
government does NOT want outsiders to see - the standoff
and violent reaction to pacifist monks who move for
social justice.
It's one thing to read about it (as I have a few times in National Geographic or the occasional newspaper story about Aung Sun Suu Kyi), but when you see the collage of video footage of the brutality and the average people who stood up it, it becomes all too real. When you see citizens grabbed by thugs and stuffed into waiting government vehicles less then three minutes after they try to criticize the government in public, you truly do start to understand what "police state" and "living in fear" truly mean.

The real meat of this film comes during a time in the protests when the Buddhist monks, usually completely removed from politics due to their beliefs, actually take up the mantle and join the citizens in marching for freedom. Seeing these pacifists and the people who stuck with them through ruthless beatings certainly gave me some perspective. I'll probably think twice the next time I want to gripe about not getting the NFL Network as part of my cable package.

File this one in the same category as films like Waltz With Bashir, The Square, Dirty Wars, and any other documentary about the brutal realities in which many people live. No, you won't "enjoy" these movies, but you really should watch them to have an understanding of just what a large portion of the global population has to live through and fight against.