Occidental audiences weary of complaints that the trans-Atlantic media poisons society with biased sensationalism will find much to applaud in Burma VJ, a haunting reminder that the news can still be heroic—if only where it’s expressly forbidden. A rather unlikely collaboration between Anders Østergaard, a Danish documentarian, and “Joshua,” an exiled member of the Democratic Voice of Burma (a band of contumacious journalists who counter Myanmar government propaganda with satellite broadcasts from Thailand), the film collects several pieces of handi-cam coverage from the 2007 Burmese uprisings in an attempt to display both the staggering breadth of the nonviolent rebellion and the armored fist that squelched it.
Structurally speaking, it isn’t much of a movie: The filmmakers were limited to whatever choppy, lo-res footage had been smuggled out of the country, and much of it fails to capture the most damning angles of military oppression due to the fact that camera-wielding citizens are either jailed or shot on sight in Burma (even tourists, as one trigger-happy incident in the film shows). There’s also scant exposition about the events that configured Myanmar into its current totalitarian state, so we’re uncertain as to what political ideals either side is upholding—aside from a glib, condescending democracy/fascism dichotomy. But most frustrating is Østergaard’s decision to dilute his “money shots” with dramatizations of Joshua receiving blow-by-blow updates in his Thailand cloister and subsequently editing them on a cheap PC. While this narrative framing device offers the audience a cunning proxy through which to comprehend the horror of the videotaped events in spite of cultural alienation, it also keeps the tragedy queasily at arm’s length—it’s as though the raw veracity of murdered monks floating in a viscous, purple pool would be too bewildering as independent content, so the film includes assurance that what we’re seeing is a poor simulacrum on a screen. Such distancing would be more appropriate as a grieving mechanism for the justly outraged citizens of Burma than as a dramatic cushion for Western moviegoers, who are already likely to view the film quite dubiously as “entertainment” rather than as truthful representation of municipal terrorism.
Many of these critiques dissolve with the violence of drowning antacid tablets, however, against the sheer brute force of the catenated images, which steadily assume the indispensible pride and artifactual aura of a museum exhibit. In one essential scene, we observe a wobbly pan across streets brimming with red-clad monks and white-shirted laymen assembled in organized flag-like strips; a marcher approaches the camera and points upward toward additional protestors assembling on rooftops, commanding, “Film them all! So many!” In a society where tens of thousands can take to the streets with their arms extended in protest and then be utterly forgotten in a generation due to government retaliation, the burden of proof is a cumbersome weight, indeed. And as the demonstration deteriorates into riotous, tear-gas-obscured pandemonium, we watch as the camera—our eyes and ears—is stuffed into a womb-like satchel and hidden from sight. Burma VJ is a lopsided testament to the noble journalists it profiles, but it effectively documents the precious and nearly deviant luster mere information can develop under the appropriate circumstances.