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Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country (DVD Review)

21 Jun, 2010 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $0.05 million
$29.99 DVD
Not rated.

It takes a certain kind of mindset (and a lack of savvy in terms of the global arena) for a governing body to beat up monks. This is one of the dramatic highpoints and moral low ones from last year’s Oscar-nominated documentary, whose competition included The Cove (an Academy winner hard to deny) and the forcefully assembled digestive wrecker Food Inc., to name two.

You hear the term “citizen journalist” tossed around a lot these days in America, usually by news corporations who no longer can (or want) to pay professionals and are hoping there’ll be somebody with a cell-phone standing by a bank the next time somebody else knocks it over and runs out the side door with $450. But the CJ’s or VJ’s here (the latter would be “Video Journalists”) are truly admirable and define the terms in their purest forms.

Under likely threat of imprisonment or the kind of “disappearance” where your friends never find out what ever happened to you, the VJs here secretly recorded street protests against the brutal military government of Myanmar, which forcefully took over from a previous military government that was no prize, either, despite massive protests in favor of democracy. The death tally in these killed thousands and led to the political ascension of returned Burmese native Aung San Suu Kyi, whose National League for Democracy swamped her military rivals in the popular election — results that were ignored and led to her house arrest, which continues to this day. Suu Kyi is a key figure in the film but mostly on a spiritual or symbolic level because what few shots there are of her are obviously taken from afar.

The narrator, a pro-democracy activist, is introduced to us as a so-called Joshua. But he’s no fool, and we are left wondering about his real identity — especially, when at the end, we are told that some of his colleagues are no longer fortunate enough to be around. The documentary notes early on that Danish director Anders Ostergaard has staged a few scenes. But these don’t include any of the down-and-dirty parts of his story — footage that has even more power when assembled en masse than it did at the time when it got funneled to the news networks. Given what’s at stake (a country and a lot of lives), it may be banal to say it — but the video quality is remarkable given the raw circumstances under which it was shot. This wasn’t exactly one of those David Lean situations where the cinematographer waits five hours until the sun is in the perfect position.

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