'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.

Michel Euler/AP/File
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.

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.

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.”

Just as Iranian protesters and opposition figures have been arrested – and some killed – several of DVB’s journalists were arrested and face long prison terms. Iran’s demonstrations followed alleged election irregularities; in Burma, Buddhist monks sparked what became a broader challenge to the ruling junta. But in both cases, the protesters took the same risk: informing the outside world of the regime’s brutal repression.

“Burma VJ” relies heavily on the shaky, jumbled, occasionally obscured footage of the amateur journalists. It includes a horrifying scene of a Japanese journalist shot and killed point blank as he records the demonstration unraveling around him.

“That scene that records how the first person being killed [in the 2007 protests] was a Japanese journalist, it tells you what the military is most frightened about,” Chan says. “They target how the information is getting out.”

DVB started in 1992 as an exile shortwave radio station. The Norwegian government hosted the station – perhaps recalling how Norway’s king and queen, exiled to London during World War II, had set up a radio broadcast to reach their Nazi-occupied homeland. Additional funding followed from other foreign sources, including the National Endowment for Democracy, a congressionally funded pro-democracy foundation in Washington.

The power of video

In 2005 DVB moved into video transmission. “We realized in 2005 that there are a lot of satellite dishes in Burma, maybe 1.5 [million] to 2 million,” says Chan. “If you figure about 10 people per dish, we knew we’d have good coverage with images.” Burma's population is about 50 million.

To train its radio journalists in Burma to use video, DVB clandestinely transferred them outside the country, generally into Thailand. Two years later, the hand-held cameras were ready when Burma’s generals suddenly quintupled gasoline prices and set the stage for 2007’s protests.

"Burma VJ" pays homage to Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, with brief, grainy footage of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize laureate appearing to bless the protesters from the gate of the home where she has been under house arrest almost permanently since the 1988 elections. (To read a Monitor editorial on how to free Aung San Suu Kyi, click here.)

Chan says he, too, cannot help but be a pro-democracy activist, though he strives for objectivity as DVB’s director. At this stage in Burma’s struggle, he says, his work requires him to do both.

“We’re not saying we’re not working for democracy and human rights in Burma, we are,” Chan says. “We want press freedom in Burma.” But he also recognizes that DVB’s power lies in its credibility – with the Burmese people, the outside world, and the ruling junta.

“We think that’s our survival, to be credible in the eyes of the people and in the eyes of the regime,” Chan says. “We can be objective while also supporting changes in Burma at the same time. That’s our role in the country.”

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