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Case Number 19104

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Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country

Oscilloscope // 2008 // 89 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // June 17th, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge William Lee enjoys a good PB and J. The peanuts are optional.

The Charge

"I feel the world is forgetting about us. That's why I decided to become a video reporter. At least I can try to show that Burma is still here."

Opening Statement

Having grown up in a politically stable environment at a time of peace (locally speaking), I am grateful for my relatively fortunate circumstances. I appreciate, but also take for granted, the freedom to move about, to assemble with others and to express my opinion. I trust that my community and my government will defend my basic human rights. Once in a while, a movie comes along to remind me that many others have to fight for these rights and freedoms. Some will die for them.

Facts of the Case

The elected government of Burma was overthrown in a coup d'état in 1962 and since then the country has been ruled by a military junta. The oppressive police state has violently silenced opposition voices for decades. In 1988, students led a mass demonstration for democracy but the movement came to a shocking halt after military forces opened fire and killed 3,000 civilians. In September 2007, Burma's Buddhist monks staged a national strike and invited the populace to join them in a massive protest in Rangoon, the country's largest city. An underground network of video journalists documented the tumultuous days' events at great personal risk. Their footage was sneaked out of the country by couriers or uploaded to the Internet to foil the government's attempts to suppress information.

burma vj

The Evidence

Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country is a powerful movie and it was deservedly nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2010 Academy Awards. Assembled from the actual video footage shot by undercover journalists on the streets, the tension is palpable as this is about as close as you'd want to be to the front line of an uprising staring down armed troops. It is also an extraordinary work of filmmaking by Danish director Anders Østergaard (Tintin and Me) who assembled footage shot by various cameramen and bridged those fragments with factual recreations to create a thrilling and informative narrative.

In the opening scene of the movie, a lone man unfurls a banner in front of the United Nations building in Rangoon. Within minutes, two men in plain clothes whisk the protester away in a waiting car. The secret police are everywhere. The country's media is controlled by the state. The news network in exile, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), trains its staff to be guerilla filmmakers. They record the hardship of daily life and document dissent. Their footage is smuggled out of the country or uploaded to the Internet. DVB beams its programs via satellite back to the country so Burmese civilians have access to information that isn't from the state's propaganda machine.

The events of Burma VJ are told through the collective cameras of Joshua and his network of covert video journalists. Their methods seem unsophisticated at first but they are surprisingly well-organized and proficient cameramen. They also put themselves at considerable risk to capture their footage. Being arrested as an underground journalist would result in a long prison term, or worse. During one scene, a cameraman films while hiding in a ditch. As policemen appear to move closer and closer to our cameraman, he still manages to record the armed thugs beating students on the street just yards away.

When Joshua is forced out of action—he must flee the country after the authorities identify him—this setback is turned into a useful dramatic device. Staying in communication with his colleagues through Internet chat and cell phone, Joshua receives updates on events through sporadic incoming reports. It's bittersweet for Joshua to be so far from the action at a crucial moment in history and there's heart-pounding frustration when the fate of the reporters in the field is unknown.

Seeing Burma through the camera lenses of these video journalists really puts the viewer on the street in the middle of the action. You can see the suspicion and frustration in people's faces. Yet, when the 2007 uprising gains momentum, the atmosphere of excitement in the street is truly something to behold. When the entire city comes alive at the prospect of achieving democracy, it's one of the most moving things I've ever seen on screen. And to witness that hope being crushed by violence and chaos is devastating.

Oscilloscope Laboratories has included some quality extras on the DVD that help fill in the background to the situation we see in the main feature. To start, there is an excellent commentary with director Anders Østergaard and Variety film critic John Anderson. They discuss various aspects of the film's creation, its reception and the situation in Burma since. It's great information for viewers interested in the politics and it's a fascinating listen for those interested in the filmmaking process.

"Fighting for Freedom: An Interview with Joshua" is a 10-minute interview with the film's narrator. There are also 25 minutes of interviews with four Burmese monks involved with the 1988 and 2007 uprisings. The leaders of the protests are living in exile in various places from Thailand to Utica, NY. In "A Message from Richard Gere" (4:30) the actor-activist talks about the similarity of the situations in Tibet and Burma. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu supplies a short essay printed on one of the four fold-out panels that make up the DVD's cardboard packaging.

The last supplemental feature is the short 2008 documentary Crossing Midnight by director Kim A. Snyder. It is a profile of the Mae Tao Clinic on the Thailand-Burma border that was started by exiles that fled Burma after the 1988 uprising. It is now a community of 500 medics that helps refugees and the ethnic minority population in the region.

The picture quality of Burma VJ is a mixed bag but that is to be expected. The undercover video journalists use small camcorders and sometimes even cell phones, so their footage definitely isn't broadcast industry standard. Given the limitations of their equipment and the tough shooting environment, the footage from the streets of Rangoon is quite impressive. Even in the most chaotic situation and in the shakiest hands, it's clear what you're seeing on screen. Certainly, the sheer power of the images is compelling enough to dismiss any objections to the video quality. The anamorphic widescreen image is presented in a 2.00:1 aspect ratio. Judging by the framing of some TV monitors at the start of the film, it looked like the full picture might be masked at the bottom of frame. However, it was something I stopped noticing after several minutes. Joshua's English is clear on the stereo audio track but he does have a thick accent that may be a little difficult to decipher at times. Fortunately, the accompanying English subtitles cover his speech as well as the Burmese voices captured in the DVB videos. Voices are the most important element of the audio mix and they remain prominent even when balanced with the music and sound effects.

Closing Statement

The purpose of the DVB's work is to record the Burmese story truthfully for its people. Burma VJ honors that effort and tells the story of the video journalists to the world. This film makes an abstract news item into a powerful and immediate real life drama. I didn't even remember that the Hollywood action movie Rambo was set in the jungles of Burma (the extras on this disc reminded me). That sort of treatment of this issue is disposable entertainment. Burma VJ, on the other hand, is an unforgettable documentation of history and an inspiration.

The Verdict

The filmmakers are free to go about their good work. The court denounces the illegitimate government of Burma and the inaction of the United Nations.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 78
Audio: 88
Extras: 90
Story: 95
Judgment: 94

Perp Profile

Studio: Oscilloscope
Video Formats:
• 2.00:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
Running Time: 89 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Crime
• Documentary
• Foreign
• Historical

Distinguishing Marks

• Commentary
• Documentary
• Interviews
• Essay


• IMDb: Burma VJ
• IMDb: Crossing Midnight

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