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'Burma VJs: Reporting From a Closed Country': Filmmaking at Its Incendiary Best

Technically, Burma's 2007 Saffron Revolution wasn't saffron. The term was coined out of deference to the saffron-yellow robes that Buddhist monks in Asia usually wear. The robes of Burmese monks are, in fact, plum colored (the better to hide the blood?).

The Saffron Revolution was triggered by Burma's military dictatorship when it took the International Money Fund and its trademark "structural adjustment program," as well as the World Bank's advice, a little too literally. In one bold stroke, the junta, which has been ruling Burma with the proverbial iron fist since 1962, stopped subsidizing fuel. Prices rose at least 50%.

Imagine the chaos that would ensue if the United States Government pulled a stunt like that? Triple the effects on a semi-impoverished state like Burma.

As revolutionaries have a way of doing, the activists who initiated the 2007 protests leveraged economic mismanagement into a general call for reform. In the Southeast Asian tradition of Buddhist activism, monks soon joined in and gave the movement a shot in the arm. Also, they really hit the junta where it lives when many of the monks marched with their traditional alms bowls monks held upside down.

Thus did they signal that any donations the military gave them would be refused by the monks, whose blessings the regime relied on for whatever sense of legitimacy they could squeeze out of it. In retrospect, one wonders if severing the military from any pretense of a spiritual life freed it to act with even fewer ethical constraints than normally. Though, in fact, some in the military, including at least one of the ruling junta's twelve generals, refused to cooperate in stamping out the demonstrations.

At the peak of the protests, the streets of Yangon and other cities filled with 100,000 people. Soon, though, the junta rounded up the monks -- on the streets by day and in monasteries by night -- and detained and even killed some. Soon the junta broke the back of the Saffron Revolution.

While the demonstrations were in progress, access to Burma was denied to foreign news crews by the junta. Into the the void jumped the Democratic Voice of Burma, a collective of 30 Burmese video journalists (VJs) determined to keep the world informed of events in Burma while also trying to retain their anonymity, lest they be imprisoned and even tortured. Burma VJs: Reporting From a Closed Country by director Anders Ostergaard from Norway, where DVB is based, is their story.

The film is narrated by one of the VJs, code-named Joshua, who, early in the movement, is "made" by the Burmese authorities. He escapes to Thailand, where he acts as coordinator for the crew, who smuggle their footage across the border to him. From there it's transmitted to Norway, where the DVB disperse it to the footage-starved BBC and CNN.

The director is forthcoming about staging Joshua's scenes. Variety wrote that they "help to fill in the gaps, although some may grumble that it undermines pic's status as a journalistic document of fact." In fact, with their low lighting, these scenes are unassuming and critical to continuity.

Meanwhile, the DJs' mini-cams drop the the viewer into the streets. You may have experienced this before with news footage or YouTube clips of Nepal in 2006 or Seattle in 1999. But not to this extent. In the beginning, despite the ubiquity of security, especially in plain clothes, flash mobs unfurl banners right smack in the middle of a marketplace and voice their protests.

At the time, geopolitical analyst F. William Engdahl wrote:

Myanmar's "Saffron Revolution", like the Ukraine "Orange Revolution" or the Georgia "Rose Revolution". . . is a well-orchestrated exercise in Washington-run regime change, down to the details of "hit-and-run" protests with "swarming" mobs of monks in saffron, Internet blogs, mobile SMS links between protest groups, well-organized protest cells which disperse and re-form.

[The population] "is being used as a human stage prop in a drama scripted in Washington by. . . US intelligence asset[s]. . . to spark "non-violent" regime change. . . on behalf of the US strategic agenda [which includes use] of the strategic sea lanes from the Persian Gulf to the South China Sea."

Of course, that does nothing to detract from the legitimacy of the Burmese cause. Useful to each other, perhaps Washington and Burmese dissidents might best characterize their relationship as "Who's zooming who?"

As the demonstrations escalate, Buddhist monks march as far as the eye can see. They and the students are met by the Burmese army, which surrounds and, at critical moments, opens fire on them. In one frightening scene, soldiers chase students and a VJ, his camera stashed in a bag at this point, up the stairs of a building while shooting at them.

After the crackdown, many of the monks dissolved into the countryside and some managed to find refuge in the U.S. and join the Burmese emigrant community here. At the special screening in Manhattan, a Q&A followed with the director and three of the Buddhist monks who were at the forefront of the movement. One, seen in the film rallying his fellows in thundering tones with a megaphone, had reverted back to a gentle Buddhist monk again, lending his cause just as much gravitas as did his activism.

Trying to find fault with Burma VJs is no mean feat. Forced to, here's one -- Joshua's frequent use of the word "shooting." It can be difficult to determine if he's referring to the military shooting protesters with their guns or his crew shooting the protests with their cameras. That's about it.

Random impressions. . . Practically on the street with the protesters, at times you want to reach out and pull them from the danger. . . Disdain for the junta is dripping from those lining Yangon's broad boulevards as well as those looking on from apartment balconies. Imagine how difficult it must be to rule a country in which nobody likes you but those in your employ.

At one point, Joshua remarks: "I think I want to fight for democracy. But I think we better make a longer plan."

But it's already been a long time -- 47 years. Watching the film it's natural to wonder how best the United States can help. With our motives suspect, it might not be a good idea for us to intervene directly beyond sanctions. Even they're of questionable value.

At the screening, DVB deputy executive director Khin Maung Win commented that the 100-plus that the junta killed in the Saffron Revolution represent an improvement over the 3,000 in the 1988 uprising. It would be sad to think such incremental progress is the best Burma can expect.

Trailing a string of national awards behind it, Burma VJs will play in New York City's Film Forum from May 20 to June 2.

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