Friday, July 17, 2009

(Myanmar) Burma "VJ" film exposes 2007 protests

By Mirja Spernal and Mike Collett-White

LONDON (Reuters) - A film documenting a group of clandestine reporters secretly filming the 2007 street protests in Myanmar and crackdown by the military junta hit cinemas in Britain this week to warm applause from the critics.

"Burma VJ," directed by Denmark's Anders Ostergaard, takes the viewer to the heart of events two years ago which, without the courage of video journalists on the ground taking huge risks, would have gained far less international attention.

Led by "Joshua," the VJs covertly filmed the drama unfolding on the streets.

The demonstrations started in August 2007 as a protest over living standards before attracting the revered Buddhist monkhood and snowballing into the biggest challenge to military rule since a 1988 uprising. At least 31 people were killed.

Often shaky footage of monks parading along roads, and thousands of people leaning from balconies and lining the streets to cheer them, is interspersed with soldiers opening fire on the protesters who flee in terror.

Journalists capture the tension as panicked crowds rush up the stairs of a darkened building to escape the authorities, while Joshua keeps in contact with his team of cameramen on the telephone and frets about their wellbeing.

The journalists smuggled footage to Thailand, from where Joshua, who kept his real name a secret, sent it to Norway, where the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) ( is based.

DVB is a media outlet based in Norway that aims to provide independent news to people inside Myanmar. It also became an important source of information for international broadcasters in 2007, because foreign media access was so limited.

"I know the risks, but we understand that there has to be somebody to take the risk to break other people's fear," Joshua told Reuters at the British premiere of Burma VJ this week.

"There will be somebody who starts and I decided that I have to be the one to start."


Joshua described some of the sacrifices he had made.

"Since I began this job I disconnected with (my family), that's the first thing I had to sacrifice," Joshua said.

"I don't want them to become hostages of the authorities and I don't want to compromise my job with my family. That's why I disconnected with them because maybe they can pressurize my family or harm them to pressurize me to leave my job.

"Sometimes I miss my family. I want to meet them, I miss my old neighbourhood, you know everybody in my neighbourhood loves me, but I cannot go back to them."

According to media reports, other video journalists in the team are behind bars facing long sentences.

Critics have lauded the courage of Joshua and his "VJs."

"That footage ... is raw and compelling," said the Daily Telegraph. "The story of how it was sneaked out is worthy of the best thrillers. Burma VJ is crucial testament to the will of a suffering people to ensure the world does not forget them."

The New York Times, in a review posted in May, agreed.

"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 newspaper said.

"The narrative of Burma VJ takes on a sombre, elegiac cast, as the potential for freedom flares up and is, in short order, snuffed out."

(Writing by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)
© Thomson Reuters 2009 All rights reserved.

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