Beating Burma’s blackout

The film Burma VJ brings Burma's struggle for freedom into close proximity to its audience and is generating new solidarity efforts as a result. Siobhan McGuirk investigates

December 11, 2009
8 min read


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.

When Burmese monks took to the streets during the ‘Saffron uprising’ of August 2007, their unexpected show of dissent was seen around the world, courtesy of fearless amateur video journalists. These ‘VJs’, working undercover for TV station-in-exile the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), use concealed video cameras and smuggle footage out of the country by courier or internet upload.

Their videos of the uprising made international headlines and provided rare and shocking insight into a country where media censorship is the norm. Burma VJ, the inventive and compelling new film from Danish director Anders Østergaard, presents the original footage, urgent camera movements and rapid zooms intact, intercut with scenes reconstructed under supervision of the VJs themselves.

The film feels very real, and the emotional tone of ‘Joshua’, the young VJ narrator whose face is obscured throughout, is raw. Viral marketing and public response has transformed this sensitive, protagonist-led docudrama into a potent campaigning tool. With the film raising awareness and achieving critical success, a new people-led approach to ‘issue’ filmmaking seems possible.

Media blackout

Pro-democracy demonstrations in Burma, which has been under military rule since 1962, are habitually met with overwhelming and often fatal force. Dissent is suppressed and thousands of protesters, journalists and political prisoners languish in jails and labour camps, accused of being ‘threats to the national peace’. In 1988, student-led protests were brutally attacked. Thousands were killed.

One year later, open elections resulted in a landslide victory for Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the National League for Democracy. The election was swiftly declared void by the junta and Suu Kyi placed under house arrest, where she remains today, a symbol of resistance and hope for a deeply impoverished population.

Government efforts to stem dissent have increasingly targeted the media, purging the country of foreign journalists and passing draconian laws effectively abolishing freedoms of speech and the press. Printers and publishers must submit all output to press scrutiny boards, and ownership of unlicensed media players, including televisions, is prohibited.

It is a criminal offence to distribute, transfer, or acquire information that ‘undermines state security, national solidarity and culture’. Radio and satellite signals are jammed. In 2000 the Internet Law banned postings that are critical of the government. Cyber cafés must be licensed and are required to monitor activity every five minutes.

Reporters Without Borders ranks Burma as the fourth worst country in the world for press freedom. The junta rules with an iron fist that is hidden from view. In 2004 Human Rights Watch reported that ‘forced labour continues to be a policy and practice of the military. Torture is routine.’ The report concluded that ‘Burma is a true military dictatorship.’

The impact of the blackout is well understood by the VJs. ‘I am a video reporter so the world does not forget about us,’ says Joshua in the film. ‘We must show the world that Burma is still here.’

Burma VJ is subtitled ‘reporting from a closed country’, yet the film shows how advances in modern technology undermine government efforts to shield its actions. Viewers of the film see the daily oppression of the Burmese and will feel empowered, or enraged, to take action.

Reporting from a closed country

Anyone wielding a video-camera in Burma is in danger, facing arrest, questioning and, if released, police surveillance. In the opening scenes of Burma VJ such an experience sees Joshua fleeing to protect his colleagues as the Saffron uprising begins. From Indonesia, Joshua communicates with the VJs, trying to make sense of the footage he receives. He veers between hope and fear. After the protests have been crushed and many VJs arrested, Joshua returns to rebuild the VJ network.

Funded by various Scandinavian production houses, Østergaard had long been interested in Burma when he heard about the citizen journalists working for DVB, based in neighbouring Norway. After meeting Joshua at a training camp in Indonesia he decided to make a short film using DVB footage and Joshua’s voiceover. When the Saffron uprising began, the project developed. Østergaard realised that Joshua’s view of the action from a distance could be useful, as the audience experiences his confusion, elation and fear as their own.

The film traces the uprising as it emerges. Sudden fuel price rises, imposed by the junta, devastate the population and small, sporadic protests are swiftly cut down. Burma is a devoutly Buddhist country where monks are deeply respected and rarely politically involved. Against expectations, the monks begin to march, holding their bowls upturned, refusing alms from those in power.

Their gesture of solidarity brings thousands to the streets, balconies and rooftops, signing their support to a sea of saffron robes. VJ footage of the scenes is beamed back into the country and news of the protests quickly spreads. A VJ camera follows a demonstrator’s shout – ‘Look at all the people!’ – to reveal apartment buildings and car parks overflowing with people. It is an inspirational moment justifying reports that 100,000 demonstrated.

The crackdown is brutal. The revered monks are beaten into trucks by soldiers and the public’s shock is tangible. Yet, despite midnight temple raids and corpses floating downriver, the monks continue to march. Eventually civilian demonstrators take their place, only to be more readily shot. The internet is disconnected and foreign journalists banned – but the VJs continue to document events. Burma VJ is utterly gripping because its sense of urgency is real.

The future is viral

The film is being distributed in the UK by Dogwoof, specialists in social issue and documentary film. They are working in coalition with the Burma Campaign UK, Film Aid and the Co-operative Group to engineer a creative marketing programme replicating VJ tactics, utilising internet and people-power to full potential. By connecting the film to new and existing Burma campaigns, wide audiences are being reached.

The Co-op has campaigned for Burma for a decade. The company boycotts Burmese produce and commercial organisations with significant presence there. It financed the celebrity-swamped ‘Saffron Premiere’ held in London this summer and broadcast simultaneously to cinemas around the country. The event initiated a touring programme that has taken the film, along with the ‘Free the Burma VJs!’ campaign, across the UK in recent months. Screenings often included guest speakers, with discussions publicised through existing social justice organisations. Social networking websites such as Twitter and Facebook, originally used to publicise screenings, now keep followers informed of the situation in Burma, ensuring interest remains once the film has come and gone.

The Burma VJ Facebook groups based in the UK and US have more than 2,500 members apiece. They receive regular reports about Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial and the VJs still under arrest. User input to discussions and the promotion of the film within local networks demonstrates the power of technology and the influence wielded by an increasingly online-savvy campaigning public. These online groups have become information hubs for Burma activists and attention is not dying down. Rumours are circulating that the film may receive an Oscar nomination, further boosting the Burma VJ movement’s profile.

By forging a strong and interactive web presence, Burma VJ is taking a bold step along a path blazed by issue-led documentaries in recent years. In 2006, An Inconvenient Truth, featuring Al Gore, reinvigorated campaign-led documentaries for mainstream audiences. It has since become commonplace for similarly themed films to suggest audiences help tackle an issue. Before the credits roll we are offered websites to visit and pledges to take.

Yet while celebrity, slick presentation and financial clout all contributed to the appeal of An Inconvenient Truth, together with a certain element of zeitgeist, Burma VJ arrives two years after the events and relying on word-of-mouth publicity to bring Burma into social consciousness. For Burma VJ, publicity for the film has always doubled as campaign tool. Flyers declaring ‘Free The Burma VJs!’ split into information sheets covering both film screenings and the situation inside the closed country. The other half is a pre-addressed petition postcard. Action can be taken even before the film is seen.

Østergaard does not consider himself to be an activist, but is pleased with the film’s impact: ‘It’s very satisfying to feel that you can do something useful in order to fight this horrifying machine.’ And the VJs, who are the real voices behind the film, continue their work with the explicit support of thousands online.

After the success of Burma VJ, Dogwoof and the Co-op are working together again to promote new environmental documentary The Vanishing of the Bee using a similar, campaign-led approach. So while the film itself deserves to be celebrated, it is perhaps the way that it has been made central to a long-term campaign that is most interesting. Expect to see similar tactics in the future.

Burma VJ is released on DVD on 18 January.


Siobhan McGuirkSiobhan McGuirk is a Red Pepper commissioning editor.


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