By Stephan Volmer Jensen
Burma VJ was the winner of the top award for best documentary over 60 minutes in length at the International Documentary Film festival in Amsterdam 2008. The movie has received 35 awards from festivals around the world, and portrays the work of a small group of independent Burmese journalists, who risked their lives recording and distributing video footage to international news stations from the popular uprising against the Military regime in Burma September 2007. Burma VJ has just been shortlisted for an Oscar in March 2010.
Jan Krogsgaard is the initiator and driving force behind. He is in Cambodia, doing research on a Global film project “I have a Dream” collecting dreams that people dream during their sleep connected to their experiences with war. Jan has always been interested in the Indochina wars, but felt it more urgent to tell about Burma.
“The Indochina wars can only be visited trough history. The situation in Burma is more serious; the repression of the population from the regime is ongoing, this is a story from the present, unfolding here and now.”
He decided to make a film about the country in 2002, having heard a lot of stories from his travels in Laos, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia about Burma.
“Very little came out of the country, in terms of specific stories. Wanting to discover the country myself, I went to Burma for 2 months, travelling from Rangoon to Putao, in the North. During my stay I talked to people in all levels of society, and shot everything I could with a small DV-Camera. People were reluctant to talk; there was an underlying sense of fear everywhere. Some criticized the regime openly, but turned 180 degrees and started praising the regime, when I switched my camera on. This is the situation. People like to speak, but do not dare.”
“I realized that if you want to talk to the Burmese about Burma, it had to happen outside the country.”
In Mae Sot, a Thai village bordering Burma. He spoke to exile Burmese, and went into the Karen state, with soldiers from their national army fighting the government, to do interviews and film their military bases.
“Basically forgotten by the world the Burmese I met were more than willing to pose in front of my camera, they needed the PR.”
Jan new knew that he was about to tell a story that had been told many times before. Burma had been in a state of Status Quo for years, and there wasn’t really any new stories coming out of the country. A new story had to be told, but there were problems. Jan was not only searching for a new story, but also another way to tell it. He contacted Magic Hour Films a Danish production company and discussed the project with producer Lise Lense Møller, for days. She was interested, and they approached the Danish director Anders Østergaard to get a third pair of eyes on the project.
“One day my assistant Eva Pedrelli phoned me, and said: “Jan, DVB (The Democratic Voice of Burma) is becoming a TV-station; there is the story you are looking for.”
DVB is based in Norway and has been broadcasting short wave radio into Burma for years. They get their stories from undercover journalists working inside Burma, secretly filming the abuse of the regime against the population. Jan suggested that they did a movie on the Vj’s (video journalists) and Anders and Lise immediately jumped on the idea. Jan is going back to Mae Sot, to do research for the next 18 month. They were looking for a protagonist, a good storyteller to carry the film.
In February 2007, they meet a VJ with the codename Joshua. He’s a good narrator, very charming, and daring. They knew they found their man.
“We wanted to tell the story trough the eyes of the VJ’s whose material is limited, due to the circumstances in Burma. They have to be cautious, if they show up with a camera, people might think that they are intelligence personal from the regime. At the same time, they themselves must be careful, as some of the people they interview might be government agents.”
In August monks starts to demonstrate in Rangoon, because of rising food and gasoline prices. It starts small with a few monks walking the streets of Rangoon chanting, “end to poverty, our cause, our cause.” “Reconciliation now, our cause, our cause.”
When monks are beaten up by the regime in Mandalay, the public starts to take part in the demonstrations; a religious movement has become a political movement. “Free Aung San Suu Kyi, our cause, our cause.” Tens of thousand’s of people walk in Burma’s main cities, and chant the slogans from balconies and rooftops. Joshua is angry he can’t work inside Burma. Having filmed a demonstration a few weeks earlier in Rangoon. He got arrested and his camera and tape was confiscated. During interrogation about his contacts and network, Joshua denies any knowledge of anything and says he was there by accident. The police let him off with a warning. In the following days Joshua’s every move is monitored and he escapes to Thailand.
Setting up headquarters in Mae Sot, he coordinates the VJ’s working inside Burma. All foreign journalists are denied access. The only live footage that leaves the country is by VJ’s sending the material to Joshua, trough the Internet or from satellite phones. He uploads it to DVB in Oslo who distributes it to news stations all over the world. This is TV history in the writing. It’s the first time that citizen journalists become the main providers of news for International news networks.
The demonstrations are stopped by a brutal crackdown by the regime. Several people are killed, monks as well as civilians. Thousands of people are arrested, and incarcerated in sport stadiums, because the jails are full.
“The rising hope of freedom, the arrests and beatings of monks and civilians, seen trough the eyes of the VJ’s, becomes our story. We become a kind of chronicle writers, and feel obliged to tell a story, that reaches an audience as broad as possible. I spend a few months with Joshua in early 2008 to review the material, identify the VJ’s whereabouts, and personal experiences during the uprising, in close contact with Anders while we develop the manuscript. I travel to Rangoon with Joshua who has to empty a location full of intimidating evidence against the VJ’s in April 2008.”
His mentor has been jailed and tortured. The only one who knows the location of the place is Joshua except from his imprisoned friend, who might have cracked under interrogation.
“I find myself in a strange vacuum meeting Joshua amid all the New year partying, with water splashing and general mayhem. Having no influence at all, Jan only hope that he comes trough unscathed. Having three phone numbers that shuts down one after one, he’s unable to reach him.
“I walked the streets of Rangoon in a daze, thinking, my god what comes next. Luckily nothing happened to Joshua and we meet again in Thailand four days later. We start the last recordings in mid April 2008. The VJ’s had no more than 2-3 tapes each, and erased material to be able to keep shooting. Joshua’s telephone conversations with the Vs inside Burma were never recorded and reconstructed from memory. I spend two months with Joshua, to seek verification of the VJ’s stories, to get as close to the truth, as possible, in the films reconstructed scenes.”
“We have had some criticism for using re-enactments, but I think the broader message of the film is more important. 80% of the material was recorded by VJ’s inside Burma.”
“The film had phenomenal success; it has brought a new awareness on Burma, which was what we were aiming fore. That it happened we could not have expected. Circumstances, a lot of different forces found each other by inscrutable ways, and made this project come trough. In the end it’s the Burmese peoples fight for freedom that matters most.”