It seemed somehow fitting that news that Myanmar’s opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prizewinner, Aung San Suu Kyi, had been freed from 15 years of house arrest came to us during a screening of “Burma VJ” at Nordox 2010, the annual Nordic Documentary Film Festival in Beijing.
The movie is a moving and powerful account of a team of Burmese “video journalists” covering the startling and tragic events of September 2007.
Armed with tiny video cameras, these VJs documented the rise and fall of days-long protests in Yangon led by monks railing against the military junta and demanding Suu Kyi’s release. Running the highest risks, the journalists filmed everything commando-style (secretly, but sometimes openly) and smuggled the footage out by Internet and couriers so that it could be re-broadcast back into Myanmar.
Watching “Burma VJ” sometimes brought a chill down one’s spine. After the initial – and moving – images of hundreds of saffron-robed monks walking quietly through the city streets with their alms bowls turned upside down in a defiant gesture of protest (a man turns to the camera and shouts, “Film them all, film them all, so many, so many,” is he a supporter or a spy?), the footage then documents the violent conclusion: military troops moving in to contain the demonstrations.
It was hard not to be reminded of similar-looking pictures from 1989, when hundreds of thousands of students and workers had descended on Tiananmen Square. And then again when thousands of People’s Liberation Army troops were trucked in to end the protests decisively and brutally on the night of June 3.
The parallel was not lost on the audience, an even mix of Chinese and westerners. Following the documentary, its director and writer, Anders Østergaard, fielded a number of insistent questions from curious Chinese who wanted to know whether he thought democracy was possible in China; what he thought of the imprisonment of that other Nobel laureate, Liu Xiaobo; whether he believed there was a global trend towards democracy; or what kind of country the Burmese VJs wanted if they were “not satisfied with the military government.”
Perhaps the most telling question, however, was one that recognized nothing has changed in Myanmar despite the documentary’s compelling message and international distribution, buoyed by a clutch of awards and an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary this past year. The military junta still has a firm grip on power. The VJs are no longer active, having been arrested or driven into exile. And, until tonight, Suu Kyi was still under house arrest.
As the film’s narrator, Joshua (the VJs’ team leader), put it before the protests began, “I feel like the world has forgotten us.”