While 100,000 people (including thousands of Buddhist monks) took to the streets to protest the country’s repressive regime that has held them hostage for over 40 years, foreign news crews were banned from entering and the Internet was shut down. The Democratic Voice of Burma, a collective of 30 anonymous and underground video journalists (VJs) recorded these historic and dramatic events on handycams and smuggled the footage out of the country, where it was broadcast worldwide via satellite. Risking torture and life imprisonment, the VJs vividly document the brutal clashes with the military and undercover police – even after they became targets of the authorities.
Anders Ostergaard, director of Burma VJ, graduated from the Danish School of Journalism in 1991. Mixing documentary footage with staged shots has been a hallmark of Østergaard’s films almost from the beginning. Anders was awarded Best Documentary at Odense International Film Festival in 1999 for The Magus. He was writer director on the international awarded Tintin et moi in 2003; and made his first big impression on Danish cinemagoers in 2006 with a documentary centering on one of Denmark’s most popular rock bands, Gasolin. In 2008, Burma VJ was selected for Joris Ivens Competition and Movies That Matter, IDFA, Amsterdam. Så kort og mærkeligt livet er, about the Danish poet Dan Turèll, was selected for the opening gala at CPH:DOX.
Bijan Tehrani: When did you decide to make Burma VJ? How did you come to this story?
Anders Ostergaard: What might surprise you is that we actually thought of making this film before the uprising. I was intrigued of the phenomenon of citizen reports inside Burma. I wanted to do something in Burma but I realized that if I went in myself it would be a film about my own crew and the difficulty we would have talking to people or getting around the country. When I realized that there were already people inside producing footage, I thought that was enormously interesting and would open the story up in a different way.
BT: How difficult was making of Burma VJ? It seems to be a very difficult film to make, especially for those who were shooting the footage.
AO: Right. Obviously they were risking their lives, I wasn’t. I was in Copenhagen editing, which of course was a challenging task, but nothing compared to being in the streets in Rangoon.
BT: How were you receiving the footage? It is amazing that this footage got out, with all of the control imposed by the government, and the brutality. How did the footage manage to get out of the country?
AO: The bulk of the footage I got directly from Oslo. I came in later and picked up this material, and as we were editing some stuff would turn up. The difficulty was that there were no labels on this footage. It would turn up not saying who shot it, where it was shot, or when. So we had quite a bit of detective work ahead of us to establish how all of this footage hung together. We even applied Google Earth to compare the footage with the satellite map of Rangoon.
BT: How would you describe the experience of screening the film?
AO: I would say overwhelming. We are clearly talking to an audience who already has a heart for Burma; I think it is even more widespread than you would imagine. We feel that we are reigniting an issue and keeping it alive, otherwise it has the risk to be forgotten.
BT: The audiences in the US always look at the latest hot films. How do you get over this issue and let the audience see this film?
AO: The important thing is to understand what documentary films can do which the news can’t do. The news has a short memory. A good documentary film can pick up in very different ways; it can remind people of a story and offer more context and insight. The important thing for me was to take out anything exotic about the story. If you just look at the pictures you will see a place far away in Asia where some monks are marching shouting something that you don’t understand. By trying to put everything in context and rooting the film in characters that you can get to know, we can get rid of all the exotics and get down to what is deeply shared human aspiration.
BT: Are you going to follow up with this issue with another film?
AO: Well, I have no concrete plans, but as destiny has it, I am sort of married with this issue. It will be part of my life forever, so it is not very unlikely that at a later point I will deal with Burma again.
BT: What other things can be done to keep the focus on Burma? Nothing has really changed.
AO: That’s true, except that when they kill people, they will go on television. I take a lot of heart in the fact that the media situation around Burma has been so dramatically changed through citizen journalism. Even the cyclone was eventually covered and documented by a citizen journalist, who quite simply took a bus out to Rangoon and shot what they could, and in that way could give us a little bit of an idea of what was going on.
BT: Do you know of any who shot footage for your film who lost their life?
AO: Not among our reports luckily. There is a Japanese reporter who lost his life unfortunately, but three of the group who I followed are arrested and are facing, in effect, life in prison. There is one trial after another and their sentences are piling up. So, three of the reporters are paying a very high price for this.
BT: How did new technology help in making this film?
AO: I would say that technology is everything. The accessibility of cameras; the government cannot forbid cameras in the country, that is totally impossible. Also, in the long run, they cannot ban the internet because they are part of the modern world. As long as these things are around, you have an opportunity to make a big difference.
BT: Do you think there would be anyplace to broadcast news or new material coming out of Burma?
AO: The problem is that the rest of the world’s media will only be interested if something spectacular is going on. But that’s where documentaries can be helpful, because we can talk to an audience in a different way.
BT: Do you have a theatrical release date for this film in the US?
AO: Yes, the theatrical release will be May 20th at Film Forum in New York, and will go to 12 or 13 theaters in the US.