The top prizewinner at Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam, “Burma VJ” celebrates the courage of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a group of underground journalists who risked their lives to document the 2007 uprising against the junta. Assembled mostly from footage shot by the anonymous reporters themselves, with scene-setting reconstructions spliced in, pic by Danish helmer Anders Ostergaard (“Tintin and Me”) has some style as well as compelling content. Sundance-bound docu looks likely to fill its passport with stamps via fest visits, but less likely to tour the theatrical circuit.
Narrated by “Joshua,” a key DVB figure who’s seen only in shadow to protect his anonymity, pic starts with a swift recap of the troubled past 20 years in Burma. Thereafter, footage by Joshua and his colleagues shows how thousands of people took to the streets of Rangoon in fall 2007 to protest the lack of democracy.
The regime cracked down on the protest, with fatalities, mass arrests and disappearances. But DVB played an instrumental role in drawing international attention by supplying networks such as CNN and the BBC with footage.
The risks DVB members took — and are still taking — are grimly underscored by scenes of Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai being killed on the street by government agents during one protest, merely for having a camera on him. Pic’s coda reveals three of DVB’s reporters are now in prison.
Scenes of Joshua talking on the phone to other reporters about what’s going on in the streets, and the pragmatic business of getting their footage uploaded to the org’s Norwegian office, were scripted and staged by helmer Ostergaard. This material, with its nervous, darting camerawork, looks convincingly of a piece with the real footage. It certainly helps to fill in the gaps, although some may grumble that it undermines pic’s status as a journalistic document of fact.
Use of low-key music by Conny Malmqvist stokes the atmosphere, while splicing by Thomas Papapetros and Janus Billeskov Jansen adds drama, particularly at key moments. Using regular consumer HD gear, lensing of the actual protests often looks a bit slapdash compared with professional reporters’ work, but the fact that these people dared to shoot anything at all is heroic.