322nd Meeting - Tuesday, May 11th 2010


Documentary: ‘Burma VJ – Reporting from a Closed Country’

With Ashin Sopaka and Jan Krogsgaard introducing the film and answering questions


Present: David James, Mangkhoot Wonapong, Inderjeet Mani, Ken Dyer, James Bogle, Simone Buys, David Steane, Richard Nelson-Jones, Jay Rabin, Beth Nawyen, Sidhorn Sangdhanoo, a Thai person, Jennifer Dyson, Pierre Chaslin, Lorenz Ferrari, Stefan Mickel, Derrick Titmus, Alison Campbell, Suriya Smutkupt, Patricia Cheesman, Oliver Puginier, Louis Gabaude, Michael R. Boeder, Hans and Sangdao Bänziger, John Cadet, Angel Lipke, Jeff Warner … An audience of more than 80 (At least 50 people didn’t sign the attendance list. Too dark to see?)  


Bravery Fills Secret Burmese Dispatches

New York Times Review by A. O. Scott. Published: May 20, 2009

Many of the images in “Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country” are shaky and blurred, captured with video cameras small enough to be quickly concealed in circumstances of danger and chaos. The lack of cinematic polish emphasizes the urgency of these pictures and the bravery of the anonymous camera operators — “VJ” stands for “video journalists” — who risked their safety, their freedom and their lives to record popular protests against the military government of Burma and the regime’s brutal response.

Directed by Anders Ostergaard, a Danish filmmaker, this documentary is largely a collage of those clandestine videos, recorded in August and September 2007 and narrated by a Burmese pro-democracy activist known as Joshua, whose face and identity are shrouded for his own protection. Joshua and his colleagues are haunted by memories of the early 1990s, when the military junta known as SLORC (an acronym for the State Law and Order Restoration Council) responded to its electoral defeat by Aung San Suu Kyi by cracking down ruthlessly on the citizens of the country that nearly everyone in this film pointedly calls Burma rather than Myanmar; the new name imposed on it by SLORC.

As public defiance of the regime grows through the late summer of 2007, Joshua hopes the result will be different. He is part of the Democratic Voice of Burma network of journalists who discreetly gathered information about Burmese life by interviewing ordinary people and recording their everyday activities. When small, apparently spontaneous demonstrations begin in the capital, the group’s cameras are there to witness the events, and as video circulates at home and abroad, the gatherings grow bigger and bolder.

Somewhat reluctantly, Joshua flees to Thailand, where, via cell phone and Internet, he receives firsthand reports and raw footage of a rapidly escalating movement. Burma’s normally quiescent Buddhist monks emerge as the symbolic and strategic linchpin of anti-government activity, and images of their defiance spread around the world in spite of the government’s ban on foreign journalists.

“Burma VJ” is a rich, thought-provoking film not only because of the story it tells, which is by turns inspiring and devastatingly sad, but also because of the perspective it offers on the role that new communications technologies can play in political change. The viral videos of the Democratic Voice of Burma are like the hidden printing presses of earlier underground revolutionary movements, except that the portability of the cameras and the ease of Web and satellite-based distribution make them harder to suppress.

But not impossible. While much of the film offers the stirring drama of a population shaking off passivity and fear and standing up to tyranny, the denouement shows that old-fashioned police-state repression can still overpower a rebellion fueled by new media. The cameras are on hand to record the eventual crackdown in horrific detail — there is something indelibly and uniquely appalling about the sight of soldiers firing on crowds of their fellow citizens — but they cannot alter the terrible course of events. And so the narrative of “Burma VJ” takes on a somber, elegiac cast, as the potential for freedom flares up and is, in short order, snuffed out.

The story is not over, of course, as a glance at recent headlines suggests. The cruelty and paranoia of the Burma government may yet be overcome by the patience and resilience of people like the brave and anonymous monks, students and office workers glimpsed in “Burma VJ.” But while the film refuses despair, it also declines to traffic in hopes that may prove, once again, illusory. Instead it tries, with a fascinating mixture of directness and sophistication, to tell the truth.

Directed by Anders Ostergaard; written by Mr. Ostergaard and Jan Krogsgaard; directors of photography, Simon Plum and Burmese video journalists; edited by Janus Billeskov Jansen and Thomas Papapetros; music by Conny Malmqvist; produced by Lise Lense-Moller; released by Oscilloscope Laboratories and HBO Documentary Films. At Film Forum, 209 West Houston Street, west of Avenue of the Americas, South Village. In English and Burmese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 25 minutes. This film is not rated.


Joshua's mission

By Jan Krogsgaard

When Joshua received the phone call we became nervous. The military regime in Burma had been hunting down colleagues in his underground journalist network for months. Anybody with a camera was regarded as an enemy of the state. Many had gone into hiding. With few resources, starving and scared, some had managed to escape abroad while others were now being tortured for information in the prisons of Burma.

Joshua and I were working together in his small office in Mae Sot, a Thai town on the border with Burma, when the call came. It was a burning hot day in April 2008 and the Water Festival, the Buddhist New Year in Burma, was in 5 days time.

For two months, we had been examining video footage from the 2007 uprising in Burma, where protesters in Rangoon and in cities around Burma were calling for a peaceful transition to democracy, after nearly half a century of military rule. In those days, tens of thousands of monks and civilians had marched through the former capital Rangoon, chanting: “May all beings be free from fear and suffering - Reconciliation, Reconciliation, Reconciliation.”

But it was not to happen. During a two-day deadly crack down Rangoon was chocked in tear gas and echoing of gunshots, people were fleeing for their lives, many were killed and the military sealed Burma from the inside out.

Joshua is a young man, at that time 27 years old. I came to know him during my work with the documentary movie Burma VJ – Reporting From a Closed Country”. We worked together on the manuscript and narration for the movie and he is its main character and narrator.

Joshua works as an undercover video journalist (VJ) inside Burma, a very risky life. When the Burmese military took power in 1962, they immediately showed their stance, killing close to two hundred university students who were peacefully demonstrating against the military coup. The message was clear: from now on, anyone who chose to lift his or her voice against the generals of Burma could expect a similar response. It happened again in 1988 where several thousand people were killed, it became so tragic that nurses and doctors outside a hospital waived banners imploring soldiers to “stop the killing” written with the blood of the dead. In September 2007 history repeated itself again.

Joshua works for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an exiled Burmese TV-Station based in Oslo, Norway. DVB broadcasts news, information and programs to Burma the only television alternative to the military’s omnipotent control of media and reality making in the country. Deliberately the population has been kept uneducated, misinformed and barred from information from the outside world. Watching DVB is regarded as a criminal act against the state.

Inside Burma, DVB has a small network of undercover VJs who, despite the unrestricted violence of the military, and a society infiltrated by informers and spies, try to gather stories from a reality that people inside Burma can relate to.

When the call came Joshua was told to return to Rangoon. He had escaped from Burma seven months earlier after filming a small demonstration, by a young woman. It was such unusual footage from this closed country that it became breaking news around the world. One month later the big demonstration started in Rangoon and Joshua, working from Thailand, became the liaison and tactical leader of the VJs inside Burma, who provided the world with footage from the uprising, and the crackdown that followed. All foreign press were denied entry into Burma – it became the first time in history that undercover journalists provided coverage to all major TV-stations in the world. It was TV history. It was also the first time that the Burmese people could watch themselves as private people on a Burmese language TV station expressing their own desires.

Joshua’s mission was to go to Rangoon and empty an apartment full of compromising materials: laptops, satellite modems, tapes and, most crucial, handwritten notes with the telephone numbers and code names of other network members. Joshua and his fellow VJ, a friend by the name of Aung Maung, who had been arrested during the military’s hunt, was the only one aware of the flat’s location: it was paramount that nobody got hold of the contents as this could destroy DVB’s network. Joshua had no keys to the apartment, and so he would have to find a way of gaining entry without arousing suspicion.

He decided to move immediately, using the Water Festival as his cover. During this carnival-like festival, a time for forgetting, Rangoon’s streets are crammed with people dousing each other with water to cleanse and purify the other of the sins and misdeeds committed in the past year. People dance, eat and drink while others arm themselves with hoses, buckets, bottles, teacups or what ever else is at hand to drench each other. The streets turn into flowing rivers. Even the generals partake, pouring purifying water on each other, sequences which are filmed and repeated on Burmese TV later in the evening. But as Joshua once said “No matter how much water they pour on each other, I cannot imagine that they can clean themselves from what they have done to Burma”.

Joshua traveled illegally overland to Rangoon, I followed him to “shadow” him with my camera. I flew in by plane. Coming back to Burma I immediately sensed what I had sensed so many times before: a human-created pain hanging in the air, a deep sadness that permeates every molecule and particle in the country. Joshua’s words from an early interview “everybody in Burma is in pain, even the Generals” reverberated inside me. While driving from the airport I recalled one of our last late night talks in Mae Sot: I had asked Joshua how he felt when he realized that Aung Maung had been imprisoned. We knew that he had been suffering water torture for weeks and that he lay paralyzed in a dark room in an abandoned hospital wing in a prison in the outskirts of Rangoon.

I feel “hna myaw tal,”, Joshua told me. It took us a while to translate the phrase from Burmese into English; it means “something is broken beyond repair”, an expression I realized covered the entire atmosphere in Burma.

With this feeling rooted inside him Joshua returned to Rangoon without knowing if Aung Maung had been talking or not. But we also had reminded each other what they teach in the Buddhist monasteries: that one of the four causes of decline and decay is “omitting to repair that which has been damaged.”

A teaching that is so much needed in Burma these days that all groups would do well to put into practice. 

When we met two days later in the water-drenched city, only one hundred meters from where the Japanese video journalist Kenji Nagai was killed, Joshua was on high alert. He told me the cause for his alarm while we passed laughing kids who splashed water at us with buckets and hoses: sources from the prison said that the pain Aung Maung was suffering had become too much and he had been forced to speak. How much the military intelligence knew, or whether they were aware of the apartment, Joshua didn’t know. Our reality had changed uncontrollably.

If caught, Joshua would end up as so many others in Burma, spending years in solitary confinement, not being allowed to read, write or speak, being incarcerated in dark rooms where time and space dissolve. The only communicating voices are the voices inside one’s own head. Reading just one word on a piece of paper becomes a hunger. The most human voices they hear are guards shouting insults, or the sounds of their inmates being routinely beaten, knowing that their turn would come soon.

As Joshua turned away, he said goodbye to me at a street corner. I knew I had no chance in this world to help him with what he was up against. Words that have followed me for years, expressed to me by a Burmese woman taking care of trafficked girls in Thailand came back to me -- “Jan, we are like people without protection trying to protect people without protection.” I could only wish Joshua good luck as I watched him melt into the celebrating dancing crowds with this lonely task ahead of him.

I spent restless days in Rangoon to film additional footage. Some Burmese guys I met bravely agreed to help me with reconstructions for the movie. But my anxiety grew as the three phone numbers Joshua had given me closed down one by one. Where was he – what was happening?

Four days later I had to go back to Thailand to greet the Danish crew that was arriving for our final filming of “Burma VJ”. On location I received the news that Joshua had managed to get out, and that his mission was completed – the future of the network was secured.

Over the past year, Joshua and his colleague Aung Htun, the co-protagonist in Burma VJ, have been touring the world with the movie telling about their work and the conditions in Burma. They have met huge audiences who were deeply touched by their and Burma’s situation, and have given hundreds of interviews, appearing on major TV-stations and news programs, meeting celebrities and high ranking politicians. But it all happened in anonymity. At the same time they are cut off from Burma, their families, friends and girlfriends – they just must go on with their work; as Aung Htun expresses it:

I feel horrible, I know that several of the monks I interviewed during the military crackdown are in prison now. I have been told that they are jailed because of the interview they gave to me. It is like this – there is a high price for our success, and for our own people in prison. They might be beaten up more than normal, and their sentences can easily be extended. Sometimes I ask myself how far can I go and still be myself – truly be myself?