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'Burma VJ,' harrowing tale of Burma protests, is Oscar contender

Documentary film 'Burma VJ' is about Democratic Voice of Burma and how it relayed images from the 2007 protests to the world. Aye Chan, the news organization's chief, speaks about his motives, the risks, and the Oscar-nominated movie.

By / Staff writer / March 6, 2010

Ziad Al-Ajili, right, of the Iraqi Press Freedom Monitoring Center, Myanmar's Aye Chan Naing, director of the "Democratic Voice of Burma" radio and television station, center, and his news editor Moe Aye, left, hold their trophies after being awarded the Journalists of the Year 2007 award by the French media freedom watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) in Paris.

Michel Euler/AP/File



When Aye Chan attends the Academy Awards in Los Angeles on Sunday, it will be for his role as a director – not of a movie but of the exiled Burmese news agency that is the subject of one of this year’s Best Documentary nominees.

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Mr. Chan is executive director and chief editor at Democratic Voice of Burma, the Oslo-based news organization that disseminates news and images of Burma provided by underground journalist-citizens it trains to use small, hand-held video cameras.

"Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country" is the story of DVB journalists who risked their lives to show the world the brutal repression wrought by the ruling generals during the uprising of September 2007.

In a broader sense, the documentary by Danish film director Anders Ostergaard shows how new technologies – from cellphones and video cameras to wireless communications and satellites – have transformed not only the act of newsgathering, but also the age-old confrontation between the politically oppressed and their oppressors.

Chan, who now lives in Norway, is the embodiment of an evolving political opposition movement in Burma (also known as Myanmar). First a student protester while studying dentistry, Chan went underground and briefly became a guerrilla fighter before switching permanently to “showing the world the truth of what is happening in Burma,” as he says.

Parallels to Iran?

Currently in the US to tell DVB’s story – and then to attend the Oscar presentations – Chan says anyone who views “Burma VJ” will see parallels to Iran, where government opposition has blossomed since last June's disputed presidential elections.

Actor Richard Gere, in a Web video in which he encourages Britons to view the documentary at a series of British screenings, calls "Burma VJ" a "very important" movie with timely echoes in Iran. Indeed, those fresh parallels may be one reason the documentary is considered a favorite to win its category Sunday night. (Read about the lineup of Academy Award nominees here.)

“This film is about journalists, but it is also about people just trying to get information out when the military is determined to stop them from doing that,” Chan says. “In that sense, it’s not just the story of Burma but of other countries, too. We’ve seen it recently in Iran,” he adds, “with students and other protesters using cellphones to get the information out.”