Politics and filmmaking are an explosive combo. From the silently affecting propaganda of Sergei Eisenstein to Pasolini’s disturbing attack on the Italian institution in Salo, filmmakers have used their political fervour to produce monumental masterpieces. As a rule, documentaries have not reached the heady creative heights of their fictional counterparts in conveying their message. Too often dry or preachy, directors tend to lose sight of the bigger picture as they compile evidence for their cause.
However, I may have found the exception to this rule in Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country. Pieced together from footage taken by covert video journalists (VJs) and reconstructions of phone conversations between them (to protect identities), this remarkable film tells the story of the 2007 Saffron Uprising in the military dictatorship of Burma from the point of view of a group of men right at its core. It has a miraculous story about how it came to be made (check out my interview with director Anders Østergaard for more on that), but suffice to say that the director suddenly found himself the regular recipient of some astounding footage to piece together as he sat in the middle of a revolution.
If that hasn’t already grabbed you, let me clarify a bit more on why I think Burma Vj is so amazing. Firstly, it’s footage of an historic event shown in a way that has never been seen before. Images shot undercover reveal the full extent of the melee of activity that occurred as the Buddhist monks took to the street in a rare act of political protest, and the swell of public support against their oppression that built around them. No matter how many times Michael Mann or anyone else tries to appropriate shaky camera techniques, he’ll never recreate anything as real as a reporter hiding behind a wall and occasionally raising his camera slightly to see if his heavily armed pursuers are approaching his hiding place.
Secondly, director Anders Østergaard has the rare talent of being able to stan back from the powerful politics of the material he is collating and create an emotional, gripping story. There are no essays in Burmese politics, or diatribes on the ban on foreign media in the country, instead he arranges the footage and carefully places the phone conversations to tell the story. But more than this, he makes the story micro as well as macro. The VJs filming the images we see become an integral part of the story, we feel their fear as they flee gunfire, we feel their joy as crowds gather on rooftops and we feel their sadness as monks and civilians alike are beaten and arrested by the brutal thugs of the regime.
Thirdly, the film is a hard-hitting reminder of how easily we forget. Uprising in Burma, deaths in Afghanistan, protests in Iran: they are just fleeting media images that we forget as we return to our own worries. Watching this all over again brings to life the constant struggle that many peoples still have to attain anything near the kind of freedoms we have in the West. More than this, though, the endeavours of the VJs illustrate just how hard-fought political battles are. Their battle just to win the minor justice of showing the rest of the world the crimes of the Burmese rulers puts to shame every one of us who fails to engage with political injustices we suffer under, there’s always something worth fighting for.
I have to stop myself there for fear of doing exactly what I accused political documentarists of: turning my medium into a boring essay.
Suffice to say that Burma Vj: Reporting from a Closed Country is a film that nobody should miss. It’s an absorbing tale of struggle that has more action than you could ever wish for, a huge political importance that we can all learn from, and a group of protagonists whose activities cannot help but inspire you.
Burma Vj is out now in the U.K.
This article was first posted on July 18, 2009