Saturday, July 11, 2009

Behind the Lens

The Irrawaddy News

"Burma VJ" was this year’s winner of the coveted Joris Ivens Award for best documentary over 60 minutes in length, This is the top award at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, the largest documentary film festival in the world. The film celebrates the courage of the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a group of exiled Burmese journalists who secretly film the abuse of peoples in Burma. The film recounts the efforts of a small group of independent video journalists (VJs) who risked their safety, freedom and lives to record popular protests and the military government’s brutal response. The co-writer of the film, Jan Krogsgaard, spoke to The Irrawaddy about the film:

Question: Congratulations on winning the best documentary award at the Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival. Is Burma VJ going to be an entrant, or will it show at other forthcoming festivals?

Answer: Burma VJ has been selected for screenings at all major festivals around the world. I think it has received 22 awards and 2 special mentions up till now. HBO and several other TV-stations will broadcast it soon, and it has just been released for DVD sales in the USA and UK.

And recently former Czechoslovakian president Vaclav Havel showed the movie to Hillary Clinton when Obama was in Prague. The Czechs are currently the chairman of the EU, and they use the film in their campaign for human rights.

Q: What do you think the impact of the film has been so far?

A: I presented it at the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the audience was very touched.

It must seem like a breath of fresh air to the large international community who are concerned about the destiny of the people of Burma. It seems like they have been waiting for this for a long time, waiting for a move from the Burmese people that would show that the Burmese were trying to help themselves. It has to come from the Burmese first.

The film also shows how it is possible to bring about change by using a mobile phone to film something of significance, and to connect it to a TV-station willing to expose the footage. This mobile technology could initiate a revolution, or even a war under certain circumstances, but it would best of all would be if it could bring about peace.

But we are talking about cameras, not weapons.

I do believe that the movie will bring something positive to people inside Burma. New VJ’s will emerge from the underground, and others will be encouraged to do new things.

However, there is a downside, and this is that people filmed in the street get exposed, and this might help the Burmese military intelligence as well.

In Burma, positive news always carries the risk of potential disaster within.

Q: How did you meet Joshua and how was the decision made to make him the main character?

A: We were following a training session in 2007 in which around a dozen DVB VJ’s were getting basic training on how to do short news programs. We were looking for our protagonist, which is how we met Joshua. He had good humor and laughed easily, and he was endearing to those around him. He spoke okay English, had experience in journalism, was serious about his mission, narrated well, and he seemed to be able to create a necessary mix of irreverence and prudence while maintaining a sense of immediacy, of being in the here and now.

Q: Do you think he is a hero?

A: one Burmese woman providing shelter for Burmese girls who had been victims of trafficking in Thailand once said to me: “Jan, we are like people without protection protecting people without protection”.

Joshua and his fellow VJ’s do not have the luxury of being embedded journalists. It takes guts to do what any undercover reporter in Burma is doing, and they are just ordinary people like you and I.

If a hero is a person who, without protection, shows exceptional courage for the well-being of others—then, yes, he or she is heroic.

I followed Joshua to Rangoon as a kind of mission control, going there during the Water Festival in April, ostensibly to film the festival, but this was a cover for our real mission. I had three phone numbers I could use to contact him, and they just closed down one by one. It was nerve-racking. I wondered what could have happened, whether I had made a terrible mistake. We had become pretty close during our weeks working together. I had restless days during the festival, getting drenched and then drunk in noisy Rangoon. All the while I was trying to forget what had happened the previous September, and what could be happening to Joshua.

Fortunately, we met again outside Burma some days later. What he had done during that trip was to bring immense benefit to everybody in the network.

Q: What was DVB’s role in the film?

A: First of all they were there whenever we needed them, from the beginning in 2005. After the uprising they helped us get as much footage as possible. Later, when there were days of uncertainty in the editing room in Denmark, especially over translation, they provided vital help, and they crosschecked all material for any confidential leaks.

Q: What surprised you the most during your trip inside Burma before making the film?

A: Actually, I first went to Burma to film “Burma Manipulated” in 2003, so I was not that surprised at things. However I did feel that Burma was somehow different from what I had experienced before.

There were three kinds of atmospheres, or scenes if you like, that I remember clearly:
The first one hit me almost immediately I arrived in Burma. It was a sense that something was very wrong.

Of course you know that things are not good from the news, from hearing rumors and from all the diverse sources of information about Burma. But this came directly from my senses; it was like feeling that there was something profoundly sad in the air.

I had felt it before, sensing it coming from my father when I was a kid, and I felt it again in Poland in 1983 when the military crushed the aspiring democracy movement, dashing hopes to despair after years of communist rule. It was a feeling as if every particle and molecule surrounding you had become permeated with enduring sadness.

When I returned to Rangoon last year I got that same feeling again, and I remembered what Joshua had told me during one of our many late night recording sessions, when I asked him how he felt about one of his close compatriots who was in jail, and who had become paralyzed after torture.

“I feel hna myaw tal,” he answered.

It took a while for us to get the metaphor translated; it meant something like “broken beyond repair.” These words described what I felt pervaded almost everything in Burma—it was a sense that almost everything was somehow “broken beyond repair”.

It seems ironic, but you know that Buddhist monks in Burmese monasteries teach that one of the four causes of decline and decay is “omitting to repair that which has been damaged.

The second feeling I clearly remember was at Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. The atmosphere was almost the opposite of a sad one. I could spend many an evening there. No doubt people came and uttered a lot of prayers for a better future, but it still remained a very pleasant place. It was so peaceful, so full of a gentle, colorful life that seemed to go on in a slow-paced continuum—kids playing, old men talking, teenage girls sitting under low hanging bells sharing confidences. It all seemed so distant from what goes on in a Christian place of worship.

Finally I had this inconclusive feeling—after traveling from Rangoon up to Putao at the foot of the Himalayas and back—that there was a kind of untapped reservoir of deeply rooted intellectualism, as well as a lot of other good human qualities, that lay just below the surface, like a rich sub-culture, waiting for the opportunity to burst forth.

Q: Andrew Marshall, writing in Time Magazine, criticized the use of dramatic reenactments as dishonest and hurting the film’s credibility. How do you respond to that?

A: I do understand Andrew Marshall’s journalistic concerns.

But any recall from memory will always be a reconstruction. The words we use in our daily life are inadequate reconstructions of our reality. The second you start talking, you are sucked into fragmented reconstructions. That’s how it’s!

As an interviewer you have to try and enter the person you interview—if possible. The interviewee is reconstructing his or her own experiences. When you write an article, or you film someone talking about the past, you are already in the landscape of reconstruction.

It was obvious to us that the “self reconstructions” were crucial to serving the collective memory of the VJ’s and what happened in Rangoon in September 2007.

During the film recordings we worked closely with the VJ's, helping them recall their memories through reenactments. We just used cameras and microphones instead of the pen.

It was really time consuming trying to get it as authentic as possible.

We had to do it in a way that would touch any audience in the best possible way. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity for the VJ's and the people of Burma to get their message out to the world, and we had to be humble, innovative and do our utmost to help them get that message across.

If we hadn’t done it the way we did, if we had taken the classic journalistic route, had shown blurred faces with distorted voices and a journalist’s voice over, I doubt whether the people of Burma would have had this collective audiovisual memory called "Burma VJ." It would have been just another documentary on this important issue.

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