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Where EAST meets the Northwest

CRACKDOWN ON CAMERA. Burma VJ offers a rare look inside the 2007 uprising in Burma through the cameras of Democratic Voice of Burma, an independent journalist group. The documentary screens at Portlandís Whitsell Auditorium on Sunday, October 25. (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Pictures)

From The Asian Reporter, V19, #40 (October 13, 2009), page 9 & 13.

Smuggled footage begs the world not to forget about Burma

Burma VJ

Directed by Anders ōstergaard

Produced by Magic Hour Films

Distributed by Oscilloscope Pictures

Showing October 25 at Portlandís Whitsell Auditorium

By Allison Voigts

Can you stand a tragic story when you already know how itís going to end? If not, Burma VJ ó a documentary playing as part of the Northwest Film Centerís Voices in Action: Human Rights on Film series ó may not be for you. The film begins with Burmese citizens chanting hopeful slogans but ends with the image of a dead monk, his saffron robe stained with blood, lying face down in a creek.

Burma VJ, which stands for Burma video journalists, documents the massive protests that took place in Burma, also known as Myanmar, in August and September 2007 and were violently crushed by the military government. The documentary was pieced together by Danish directors from footage taken by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an underground group of Burmese journalists that was broken up shortly after the uprising.

Narrated by "Joshua" ó an anonymous Burmese journalist who directed the groupís operations from the safety of Thailand ó the film opens with a brief account of failed protests that took place more than 20 years ago in Burma. Those demonstrations ended with 3,000 people gunned down in the streets and the decade-long house arrest of democratically elected opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi (who recently made world news again when an American snuck into her com- pound).

Anyone who pays attention to the news will know there isnít hope for the events in Burma VJ to turn out any better. But the story unravels with so much tension that the viewer canít help but experience the same wild hope Burmese citizens felt during those few weeks in 2007.

The wave of protests began with just a few small incidents that quickly escalated as the oppressive regimeís reign of fear momentarily broke down. Joshua, who worked undetected at the time, films a brief demonstration by a well-known protestor named Su Su Nway. Within several minutes of Nwayís speech, she and her supporters, who have locked arms around her, are surrounded by undercover policemen and a human tug-of-war unfolds within feet of the camera.

A few weeks later, the military junta doubled gas prices, setting off a new set of protests, this time by the most powerful non-military group in the country ó Buddhist monks. Turning their alms bowls upside down, monks and nuns took to the streets of Rangoon by the thousands, calling for peace and demanding the release of political prisoners. Within a few days, hundreds of thousands of citizens had joined them, and those who werenít marching stood on rooftops and balconies clapping and cheering.

As they awaited the reaction of the silent government, video footage from DVBís hand-held cameras poured out of Burma via the internet and was broadcast all over the world on CNN, BBC, and other news outlets. The journalists were cautious but hopeful, even marching with the monks and gaining protection in numbers.

Alas, all of that strength unravels before the camera when the military cracks down a few days later. Between running and hiding, DVB cameramen and women record a Japanese journalist shot point-blank by police and interviews with monks whose monastery is destroyed in a bloody raid and who are later carted off to prison. The journalists themselves cannot elude the government indefinitely, and many are arrested during a raid of their headquarters the following December.

There is certainly no reason for optimism as the documentary closes, especially as it touches briefly on the cyclone that killed 200,000 Burmese in 2008. But Joshua has returned to Burma, and if he hasnít been captured, he is rebuilding the DVB one step at a time.

Burma VJ is screening at 4:30pm on Sunday, October 25 at the Northwest Film Centerís Whitsell Auditorium at the Portland Art Museum, 1219 S.W. Park Avenue, Portland. A discussion follows the film. For more information, call (503) 221-1156 or visit <www.nwfilm.org>. To learn more, visit <www.burmavjmovie.com>.