Burma documented by VJs


he images flow in Burma VJ

A highlight of last month’s Vancouver International Film Festival was the potent little documentary Burma VJ (www.burmavjmovie.com). The good news for those who missed it is that it’s showing again at the Amnesty International Film Festival (November 12-15, Vancity Theatre).

The reality of news reporting in Burma is that there isn’t any. Or, at least, there wouldn’t be if it weren’t for the few resourceful video journalists, or VJs, who risk life and limb to capture images of rare acts of dissent against one of the world’s most oppressive regimes. Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi has been imprisoned in her house since 1989. Foreign journalists are not allowed in. The media is the enemy. Anyone with a camera is arrested, and, as footage shows, can be shot dead on the spot.

In August and September, Burma made headlines as popular protests swelled into huge marches led by Buddhist monks. The VJs kept the images flowing via satellite and other means to international news agencies and to us at home, even as the uprising was brutally suppressed.

It’s quite astonishing that a film that comprises so much footage can have such impact; it was caught on palm-sized, consumer camcorders, often shot with a handheld, sometimes with the lens poking out of a bag with bits of clothing getting in the shot. There’s a sense of being there. At first, fear permeates everything. Our VJ, codename Joshua, says he fears being spotted filming by the ubiquitous secret police. People on the bus fear talking about “the generals” on camera. But one act of defiance leads to another, the vice grip of fear loosens and before long, the streets are erupting. There are moments of pure elation in this film as monks, students and people march chanting, “Our cause! Our cause!” defying the multiplying ranks of gun and bat-toting soldiers and police. It swells the heart. Credit to director Anders Østergaard and his team for crafting this film so well. For instance, the few reconstructions are perfectly understated and work seamlessly into the story.

Festival opener, The Yes Men Fix the World, also goes undercover, with serial corporate pranksters Yes Men’s Mike and Andy performing their hilarious high profile spoofs. Remember when Dow Chemical accepted full responsibility for the Bhopal chemical disaster on BBC television? Or when ExxonMobil and National Petroleum Council (NPC) launched Vivoleum at GO-EXPO, Canada’s largest oil conference? Delegates were told how human fat-based Vivoleum will make up for a shortage of the black stuff and burned little vivoleum candles at their tables. It’s amazing what they get away with.

Another to look out for is Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco’s The Judge and the General in which a judge from the Pinochet era examines the murderous legacy of the Chilean dictator and his own complicity in the tragedy.

Docs ruled at VIFF with the most popular citation going to Bill Guttentag’sSoundtrack for a Revolution, focusing on the music that powered the American civil rights movement. Dan Stone’s Sea Shepherd doc At the Edge of the World (see September FWW) won the VIFF Environmental Film Audience Award. Common Ground sponsored it. People also really liked65_RedRoses about the struggle of one cystic fibrosis sufferer to get the lung transplant operation she needs to survive.

Brit climate change documentary The Age of Stupid is now rolling out at many unusual venues across Canada. The film is as good as the trailer suggests with plenty of fun animation, snappy effects and, importantly, a good sense of humour to leaven the seriousness of the message. It should have broad appeal and if the Vancouver premiere is anything to go by, it could help stir things up in the run up to the Earth Summit in Copenhagen in December.

Robert Alstead made the Vancouver documentary You Never Bike Alone.www.youneverbikealone.com. He writes at www.2020Vancouver.com and is blogging VIFF at www.iofilm.com

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