Big Buddha iswatching you.
By Ed Rampell
Are you sick of the corporate mainstream media, like I am? The paid off pundits shilling for private interests that are rarely disclosed? The lack of firsthand reporting and coverage of world events replaced by a narrow scope of stories examined by an even narrower range of viewpoints, usually from the center to the hard right, with “commentators” such as Karl “The Architect” Rove, Bill “Wars- Are-Us” Krystal and John “Torture Boy” Yoo? The endless titillations and celebrity gossip that poses as journalism? The incessant commercials and ads, especially on cable and satellite radio, so that viewers/listeners are, in essence, paying for unwelcome, unsolicited, time consuming advertisements? The Judy Miller school of lying us into bloodbaths? And, as Yul Brynner said in The King and I, “etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.”
Brynner may have played a monarch from Thailand in that classic 1956 musical, but don’t miss another film being released about a different Southeast Asian nation: Burma (renamed “Myanmar” by the ruling junta), which has been in the news lately, due to the dubious intrusion by an American swimmer onto the grounds of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, suspiciously violating the terms of her house arrest, just as it had been scheduled to end soon and elections scheduled for 2010 neared. The documentary Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country is one of the best, most moving, gripping and even entertaining films I’ve seen recently.
National League for Democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is glimpsed onscreen in Burma VJ, is the daughter of one of the heroes of Burma’s independence movement against Britain. In 1962, a military coup led by General Ne Win (General “Nit Wit” appears to be the junta’s current leader, LOL) ousted the government, ushering in decades of brutal dictatorial rule. During part of this time the acronym for the junta was “SLORC”, which sounds like the perfect name for a totalitarian regime. Aung San Suu Kyi overwhelmingly won a 1990 election, but the military viciously cracked down on the pro-democracy movement, placing Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, where she has languished for most of the last 19 years.
Burma VJ is about the latest mass uprising, 2007’s so-called “Saffron Revolution”, which was led by Buddhist monks, with wide public support. The saffron robe-clad monks play a pivotal role in Burmese society, as moral authorities due to their religious standing, and as an organized force that was beyond complete governmental control. This revolt is one of the few contemporary examples where, in the struggle between church (or temple) and state, the former is the more progressive force.
In addition to the monks, and an outrageously bold young woman who openly defies authorities at a demo (I’d love to meet her!), the other protagonists in Burma VJ are the latter: “video journalists” who dare to not only surreptitiously film the rallies, riots, etc., but somehow manage to make their often amateurishly shot footage available to CNN, the BBC, and the outside world, whose journalists are denied entry to the closed country. One foreign reporter who did manage to get in, a Japanese photojournalist, is seen as he gets shot and killed by Rangoon goons. It is a cinema verite moment as disturbing as the murder committed by Hell’s Angels that the Maysles Brothers caught on celluloid in their 1970 Rolling Stones documentary, Gimme Shelter.
The camerawork by the VJs of the nonprofit collective called the Democratic Voice of Burma (see: http://english.dvb.no/) is often shaky, out of focus, obscured, etc., but this real/reel life videography only serves through its form to heighten the content, and the fact that we are viewing forbidden fruit. Burma’s despotic regime surveills its citizenry with a network of spies, infiltrators, undercover plainclothesmen, etc. George Orwell had served in the security forces in Burma back when it was a British colony, so, to paraphrase the author of 1984 (and of Burmese Days), in Burma, “Big Buddha is watching you.”
The courage and resourcefulness of the VJs is a case study in not only how to use modern technology such as mini-cam cameras and the Internet to report at home and abroad, but in a journo bravado that is sadly lacking in our overpaid anchormen/women, talking heads, etc. Burma’s VJs put America’s MSM to shame.
Three cheers to the director of Burma VJ, Danish documentarian Anders Ostergaard, may he end up in Asgaard. Kudos, too, for the faceless VJ called “Joshua”, who hides his camera in his bag as he confronts the despotic regime and eventually runs for his life. Hip hip hooray for the other VJs who, unlike most of our coddled press corps of professional supplicants, risk life and limb. Blessings to the courageous Buddhist monks, and most of all, to the people, the doc’s mass hero, who took to the streets to fight for democracy. Maybe America should give Burma our First Amendment, since we rarely use it anyway.
I have one small gripe with this Oscilloscope/HBO Documentary Films production: There is a disclaimer stating that Burma VJ includes some reenactments, which I commend the filmmaker for noting. However, in the interests of journalistic accuracy, I think those scenes that are reconstructions should be labeled as such. But this is a minor quibble indeed.
Quite appropriately, Burma VJ took part in the Joris Ivens Competition, named after the Dutch director who helmed classic such as 1937’s Ernest Hemingway-narrated documentary, This Spanish Earth. Like the crusade against Generalissimo Franco’s fascists, the movement against Burma’s despots is an epic story ably told with all the verve and commitment of not only Ivens, but of Soviet documentarian Dziga Vertov. Burma VJ is one of the best revolutionary documentaries made since Vertov’s Kino Pravda (“Film Truth”) series – for those who love freedom and film, don’t miss the Video Journalists’ chronicle of their years of living and filming dangerously!
Free Aung San Suu Kyi!