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Q&A: Burma VJ so Powerful a Documentary it Garners an Oscar Nomination

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When Danish documentarian Anders Østergaard took on the challenge to make Burma VJ, he had no idea how much he would advance the cause of citizen journalism. A collective of 30 anonymous and underground video journalists (VJs) called the Democratic Voice of Burma recorded the 100,000+ protestors (including thousands of Buddhist monks) who took to the streets in 2007 to protest the repressive junta that has controlled the country for over 40 years.

Since foreign news crews were barred from Mynamar (as the regime renamed Burma), the internet was shut down, and domestic reporters were banned unless employed by the state, they used handycams, or cellphones, to document these historic and dramatic events; they then smuggled the footage out of the country. Broadcast worldwide via satellite, these VJs risked torture and imprisonment to show the brutal clashes with the military and undercover police -- even after they themselves became targets of the authorities.

Using this smuggled footage offered for free usage to the international media, this 40-something filmmaker tells the story of those 2007 protests and briskly shows how the Burma VJs stopped at nothing to make their reports with dramatic results. As the director assembled this raw footage, made on cell phones and other digital devices -- and sent through these clandestine electronic channels -- they marked a new step in freedom of expression and he has stirred a media pot that is now percolating in other global trouble spots such as Iran. The protestors there also captured the unvarnished images and reports of their actions and their government's violent reaction through digital channels.

Previously Østergaard had helmed films about pop culture covering such subjects as the Scandinavian rock band Gasolin' and the Belgian cartoon classic Tin Tin. Ironically, with Burma VJ he covered another pop culture expression -- the use of digital technology to create user-generated content -- to document a major political act of defiance. The results have paid off in various accolades from a 2009 Sundance Grand Jury prize to an Oscar nom for Best Feature Doc.

In fact, this exclusive interview itself was done through the cutting edge technology of Skype -- so once again the digital domain advances another journalistic expression.

BB: The human rights abuses in Burma don't seem to be on the radar like some other issues. Are you a little surprised that the film has garnered this support? What do you think made it click?

AO: I think the uniqueness of the material that these reporters gathered. This unique access and this very dramatic portrait of an uprising which they've managed to pass on to the world. I also think some of our own decisions play a role; our deliberate decision to tell this story as a suspense story, using all the cinematic tools needed for that, which I think was a good choice for the film.

BB: How did you contact the Burmese people? Was there someone who was your liaison, or was it someone you knew from Denmark? What was the connection?

AO: It was pretty straightforward. Once we decided that we wanted to work with this we got in touch with the Democratic Voice of Burma in Oslo, which is basically a satellite tv and radio station, and explained our interest and they were very forthcoming. They needed the attention, I guess they trusted us, so they sent us to Bangkok to meet 12 of those reporters who were coming out of training.

BB: Are they paranoid that someone might be an agent of the government?

AO: They're used to this. I think their biggest worry is that one of their recruits would be an agent. They deal with this all the time and I'm sure they made their investigations.

BB: When you made this film what was your hope or your original expectations for it? Do you think you can change society with it?

AO: Oh absolutely not. I wasn't too focused on purpose as such. I tend to go so deep into the storytelling in itself that that's what really drives me and I don't think too much about the function afterwards.

Of course, I can see from the old pictures that I tried to say that I wanted to make the Burmese condition tangible, so that you could feel it and smell it, and I guess that was my ambition, to take it beyond the abstract interest in some other country and just be there. And that was what I was totally committed to when I put the film together; I didn't speculate too much on the aftermath of what might come out of this politically.

BB: You had so many different people involved; who did you consider your critical liaison? Who was the one gentleman that you had with you in the States that was working with you from Burma?

AO: That was very obvious to me when I met Joshua, because first of all he wasn't scared. Understandably, most of these guys would be already very paranoid about what they were doing, so having a foreign film crew on top of that was just too much, obviously. Joshua had this kind of fearless attitude to everything, and he also had an intuitive understanding of how to explain Burma; he's an excellent communicator.

And he has also a mix of qualities that intrigued me. He was on the one hand this cheeky young guy looking for challenges and really enjoying his cat and mouse game with the police sometimes. And on the other hand, kind of a reflective, philosophical guy, who could also look back and explain the Burmese condition in a very deep way. So I was just intrigued by his qualities as a storyteller.

Q: How did you and producer Lise Lense-Møller define your roles? You obviously have the directing experience, so how did she come in as producer?

AO: Very much in the European tradition, I would say, in pretty much keeping hands off the creative business but making sure to give solid financial support. For instance, we needed some extra time, and she had the guts to let that happen even though she was under considerable economic pressure. So her contribution is mainly securing the financial circumstances. Creatively, she would be less involved than some other people.

BB: Were there moments when you were worried that this wouldn't happen? It must have been touch-and-go as to whether you had enough stuff that would make a film, and whether it would look right. Was there a point where anybody was in danger?

AO: Security of course was a big issue all the time and made some restrictions to what we could do. We tried to work creatively with that; we tried to make a virtue out of necessity. How can we work with people when we can't see their faces? That led us to phone conversations as a leading tool for the film. Otherwise, just sorting out the chaos; the material came in a pretty confused way where we wouldn't know who'd shot what and when, so we had to piece all that together first before we could start telling the story.

Q: When did you know you had a movie that would work?

AO: I think I was struck quite early on by the uniqueness of the material, the very straightforward demonstration of the regime's brutality. But also the happy moments, the optimism of the early days of the uprising, when everybody was coming out in the streets, I think they managed to capture that beautifully, if you consider the circumstances. These were guys who could barely pay for the bus ticket.

BB: How much information did you decide to put in or not put in? how much do you reveal or not reveal about the regime and Burma's history? How much do you assume that people know, understand or are passionate about?

AO: Much of these decisions are made by instinct, by the kind of director you are, the kind of storyteller you are. And as I said before, the number one thing for me was to make people experience the Burmese condition, to feel it, to sense it, the whole visceral thing about it. So that led obviously to me being very, very restrictive about me spending time on history, on more than just the absolutely necessary information.

BB: Do you hope some day you'll be able to go to Burma without having to be under scrutiny?

AO: That would be the greatest strength.

BB: Of the many people you've talked to, what are their expectations?

AO: Well interestingly, in my experience the most optimistic people are the Burmese, and that's a curious thing. I don't know if it's because of their Buddhist education, but they seem to be the most patient and the most convinced that some day that this regime will fall. The uprising of 2007 was a tragedy, but it was also a reminder of what people are actually able to do and how they're able to battle their own fears.

BB: Was there any one person in the film that you consider the key to getting the film?

AO: Joshua, meeting Joshua. That was a critical thing, to have somebody who was able to give his voice to this, and to bridge any cultural gaps and make it such a smooth and happy collaboration, to me that's a crucial thing. And also, some of the other guys also had these qualities actually. So basically the VJs.

BB: Do you know of anybody that had a chance to speak to Aung San Suu Kyi?

AO: We'll see; there are some complications to that.

BB: How did making this film affect you personally?

AO: Well it made me very busy. Putting a film together like this, first of all is hard work, and you're so focused on doing it right that you really don't spend much time feeling a lot of stuff. Just dealing with this huge responsibility really takes up most of your energy. But of course, I think what made the biggest impression on me was to watch the uplifting footage, the hopeful early days, this moves me just as much as it seems to have moved the audience.

BB: In your one week in Burma what did you see there that you hope tourists will one day be able to see?

AO: It's a gem; it's one of the most beautiful countries in the East. Also actually, ironically, because of the regime things have been preserved in a way quite different from, for instance, Thailand. It also is in terrible decay, but the millions of pagodas, the lush green trees of Rangoon. First of all the people are very mild mannered and gentle and they're wonderful people.

BB: Have you had an interest in other countries in South East Asia?

AO: Not too much. I'm not an expert on Burma or on Asia as such. I've done a little bit of traveling in Indonesia, but nothing that would really put me in a special position. I came to this as a filmmaker more than anything else.

Q: I've met a number of the Burma refugees here in the States. It's a tough struggle. I don't know who has it worse; the Tibetans or them.

AO: It's pretty bleak for both of these peoples. It's a good fortune that they're both Buddhists because it helps them a lot, clearly.

BB: One other really fascinating aspect to the film is your exploitation of the contemporary technology. Your movie couldn't have existed a few years ago. When you step back and think abut the implications of that, that must have interesting ramifications in your head.

AO: Sure.

BB: What are your thoughts on this.

AO: Of course a film is not just about Burma, it's also a celebration of citizen journalism as such. And telling people that technology is not always a bad thing; there's a tendency to think that cameras or something that's going to watch you, that Big Brother is going to watch you. But it actually can also be Little Brother watching the tyrants, which I think is a positive note. Basically, I'm every optimistic about technology, I believe in that kind of thing, I believe in progress through technology, so I'm happy it's a celebration of that too.

BB: You obviously have to be emotionally committed when you make a movie like this but at the same time where do you draw the line as to how you continue to be committed or not. Obviously, you're going to go on to do other things after the Oscars, but then you say to yourself, "Well, do I need to come back to it, to continue to worry about what's going on in Burma?" Where do you draw the line?

AO: Well I draw it just around the Oscar, actually. I hope this will be the end of my story with this at least. Of course personally I will always be attached to the issue on some level; you don't just quit that. I made a lot of friends in Burmese circles and so on. But professionally, I expect this to be the finale of almost one and a half years of touring with this film.

BB: Of all the people you've met from Sundance on, who's been most exciting to you?

AO: To be honest I think what made the greatest impression on me was going to places like 10 Downing Street and being welcomed. It felt very natural to be there and to present this film, and that people connected to it so easily, that was great.

BB: Did you meet President Obama?

AO: No, I never met Obama. But of course this leaves a huge impression. Otherwise, what touches me most about this, is when I get, for instance recently I got a picture from New Delhi, from a open-air screening on a street corner in New Delhi organized by some local Tibetans. So they were sitting there in the street watching "Burma VJ" and the street was packed. Traffic stopped; they were all just sitting there and totally engulfed with it. They tell me that this has helped to bring Tibetan and Burmese exiles more together in India and those are the stories that really touch you.

BB: Are you looking forward to the Oscar parties? Whether you win or lose you get to go to the Oscar parties.

AO: I guess so. I don't know what to look forward to but it seems to be pretty intense.

BB: When you've gone to Oscar events like the nominees' lunch, there's got to be somebody you're really excited to meet. Give me a fan moment.

AO: It was a great moment to say hello to Danny Ellsberg. Even though it's not my country's history that was nice. Otherwise, I wouldn't say meeting any specific person, but what I really enjoyed about that lunch was this kind of collegial atmosphere, like we were making this class photo. There was a sense that superstars would mingle with other members of the film industry without any sense of difference. Everybody knew that film is hard work and we share this hard work, we share this effort, and we share this commitment to the medium. So that was very pure and nice, the atmosphere.

BB: What's next?

AO: I've barely had a chance to build up a new film because I've been so busy with this for a long time. So that's actually what I'm hoping to get started thinking about once this is finished.

BB: It will be something stylistically different?

AO: Oh yeah it might be entirely different. I just follow whatever story fascinates me.

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