BURMA VJ is a riveting cinema verite-style documentary that uses its rough-and-tumble covert camera work to its advantage. Covering the popular uprisings in Burma in 2007 that began as a protest against the doubling of fuel prices and grew so quickly and so virulently that the oppressive military regime saw itself as being threatened by them, the footage, with the picture jumping as frenetically as the protesters being filmed, brings home as nothing else quite can the energy and the danger of the events depicted.
The footage itself was obtained by the Democratic Voice of Burma, an underground network of video journalists that defy the government ban on sending unauthorized footage to the outside world. Focusing on Joshua, a name like so many in this film that is changed to protect his identity, it follows his very personal experiences inside Burma and later in Thailand covering the protests. It begins with his musings on the state of personal freedom, or lack thereof, in Burma. He films secretly, looking over his footage later wondering if the faces looking his way are the secret police and if they know he is filming. He confers with his mentor, Ko Maung, a veteran of the 1988 uprisings, who counsels Joshua to have patience. Presciently, he quotes the Buddha, advising Joshua not to be too greedy, in the sense of being patient. Protest in Burma is serious business. The 1988 protests resulted in 3,000 dead, and the penalty for speaking out in the present is jail and torture.
On August 7, Joshua is riding a bus when he senses that something has changed. People are quietly but publicly complaining about the rise in fuel prices. Joshua himself is on his way to cover a protest that all concerned know will result in a swift arrest. And it does. It also results in a close call for Joshua himself. Arrested, camera confiscated, he is released, but he is sure he is being monitored by the secret police and relocates to Thailand, where he will coordinate other DVB journalists still in Burma, and upload their footage to their Oslo headquarters for processing. Itís then that the situation heats up and Joshua can only watch from the sidelines as the protests build and the government responds with brutality.
Using recorded telephone conversations between Joshua and the various journalists in Burma as narration for the footage itself, the blurry images take on an unexpected power. Particularly when a line of monks, hundreds of them in their traditional burgundy robes form a river of protest amid the ordinary people who are inviting arrest and worse by taking to the streets. The monks are recognized as the only force that the government fears, and as a group that has stayed out of politics until now. Their participation an indictment of the military dictatorship that transcends rhetoric. The most haunting image, and perhaps the most powerful, is when the monks march to the gates of where Nobel Laureate Aun San Suu Kyi has been held under house arrest for decades, deprived of any contact beyond those gates. She is seen peering through the metal bars of the gates, risking reprisals from the government by offering respect to the monks. The sense of impatience as Joshua waits for the image to download on his computer is acute, the frustration of seeing her face become more and more indistinct as he enlarges the picture to see her better, even moreso. And yet there is in that indistinct face a powerful metaphor. The government, by removing her physical presence, has rendered her into a symbol more potent than a mere human being could be.
The self-destructive nature of the government continues, as the monks are arrested, first under the cover of darkness, then in the full light of day and cameras. When the footage is seen playing on CNN, the BBC and other news outlets around the world, there is a sense of triumph. The publicity of airing the regimeís violence, plus the unmistakable dread that while the balance of power is shifting to the people and their protest, the government of Burma is becoming more reckless. When the cell phone connection between Joshua and a journalist on the scene goes dead, itís hard for him, or the audience to not assume the worst.
BURMA VJ celebrates the courage of people fighting against an implacable, ruthless enemy. Protesters donít pray to be delivered, they pray to overcome their fear of death as they crowd rooftops and march hand-in-hand through the streets to fight for freedom. Journalists risk death so that the stories that Joshua has described as silent for too long can finally be told. The preciousness and the imperative of free speech has never been more compellingly set forth. Itís impossible to see this film and take it for granted ever again.