An educated guess tells me that few Americans had heard of Burma, or Myanmar, until Cyclone Nargis swept through the country, killing over 200,000 people. The devastating disaster brought to American television sets a rare examination of the brutal military junta that commands the country. In Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country, filmmaker Anders Østergaard provides a rare glimpse at the oppression that takes place within the country.
Burma VJ, as the full title suggests, is a documentary assembled almost entirely from exclusive footage shot by an underground network of Burmese reporters who risk their lives to smuggle footage to the outside world. The movie is narrated by a Burmese reporter, who explains the footage shown on screen.
The documentary provides vivid details on what appears to be typical days in Burma: people getting dragged off the streets by police, presumably never to be seen again; peaceful protests by monks being broken up by vicious military crackdowns; confiscating any form of incriminating video footage.
As a snapshot, Burma VJ, which was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at this year's Academy Awards, is a compelling and disturbing view of Myanmar life. As a more detailed examination of the junta, it doesn't give the details that most audiences need. The reporter's narration paints a fairly complete picture of everyday life, but Østergaard needed to preempt this exploration with a broader look at how Myanmar came to be. If Østergaard assumed that most people already knew the underlying facts that define the country, his assumption was false. The documentary is made for people who already have an understanding of the Burmese situation, and not a lot of people - even after the news coverage related to the cyclone - have such an understanding.
Burma VJ is a well-made documentary that explores the life of Burmese citizens from the perspective of the people who know it best, but one can't help but think that Østergaard himself needed to put more effort into establishing the history of the country first. More context could have driven his thesis home. Still, as is, Burma VJ is a worthy documentary; it just isn't a groundbreaking one.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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