It’s easy to overlook “Burma VJ” in the Sundance line-up — a documentary about Burmese reporters risking their lives to report on the conditions within their closed country sounds like the type of earnest, pedagogic film that offers up a pressing issue for audiences to tsk about and then forget after leaving the theater. But to preemptively classify it as so is to do “Burma VJ” a terrible disservice. The film, assembled by Danish director Anders Østergaard primarily from handheld camera footage shot during the 2007 anti-government protests, is an astounding journey through the exhilaration and terrible danger of the first major protests in the country since the 1988 pro-democracy demonstrations that ended in thousands being killed by the military junta. “Burma VJ” is filtered through the perspective of a young journalist given the pseudonym “Joshua,” who’s part of the Democratic Voice of Burma, a media organization that circumvents the government-controlled news by smuggling their footage out of the country to Oslo, where it’s broadcast via satellite. In 2007, it was the DVB’s coverage of the protests that reached international outlets like the BBC and brought global attention to a nation in which traditional media coverage has long been impossible. I had a chance to talk with Østergaard and Joshua about the conditions in Burma and the difference between filmmaking and journalism.
How did “Burma VJ” begin?
Anders Østergaard: I was invited to do a film on Burma three or four years ago. We had some early thoughts of trying to portray this closed country from life on the borderline — people going in and out — to reflect what was going on in there. It was maybe too conceptual. I was looking for more concrete people, so to speak, and during that process, we became aware that a lot of people are trying to shoot inside the country, many of them regular citizens. We realized that next door to us in Norway there was actually a TV station broadcasting reports that were smuggled out of the country. For me, it seemed like a perfect platform to make a film about the country: not just the footage, but also the people who were actually doing this: why, how and what went through their head. I went to see a group of reporters who came out to be trained in Thailand. Through the course of that, I met Joshua, who understood intuitively what we were trying to do and was very generous about trying to describe how life as a secret reporter really is. That got us started, way before the uprising. I was planning to do a short documentary, a human interest, intimate thing about his life and thoughts and then it exploded into a much bigger story in all respects.
When did the decision come about for the majority of the film to be footage that was shot by the reporters?
AO:That was born into the project from the beginning, even in the small format. My approach was that the film should be based on the footage, but with an audio soundtrack that would give more insight. That survived into the ultimate film, as we developed these reconstructed conversations, telephone conversations. That’s really the spinal cord of the film when you look at it, the understanding of dramatic developments.
And the choice to filter the point of view through Joshua, even as he’s removed from the main setting of the action and forced to stay in Thailand?
AO: Of course, first we thought, “Well, our main character has left the scene,” which was a bit awkward. [laughs] We really had no choice. [to Joshua] You did, as you said yourself, take a little bit too much of a risk and had to escape. But we slowly realized that it was actually quite a gift, that we had this guy who was trying to follow what was happening inside because we could hold his hand, trying to understand what was going on. And I learned that this distance had some tremendous suspense value, that we are with him trying to find out what’s happening over there, which became the dynamic of the film.
Joshua, how long ago did you first get involved with the DVB?
Joshua: I first worked with the DVB during 2003, and I became one of the first cameramen on the ground. But I got my first professional training as a cameraman in Bangkok, in 2005, I first met with [the “Burma VJ” filmmakers]. I didn’t really know at the time how big this project was, and what I had to do at the time. [It was] just an assignment from my college. They just introduced me to these people, and I talked with them. That’s all I knew about, at the time. But after I’d seen their demo about what they had done on the project, I thought I really had to go on… I mean, I need to talk for everybody, not only for me, not only for our group, but also for everybody in Burma.