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Burma VJs: They shoot us, and we shoot them

Burma VJs: They shoot us, and we shoot them


Armed with nothing but a mobile phone or video recorder, citizen journalists are providing a mouthpiece for citizens stuggling against brutal repression.

Photo by: PHOTOS SUPPLIED

A video journalist captures the monks’ 2007 protests in Myanmar in this scene from the documentary film Burma VJ. Inset: Documentary director Anders Ostergaard.

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THESE days it seems almost impossible for governments to get away with mass human rights violations without somebody, somehow, filming it and getting the story out.

In Cambodia, video journalists film housing evictions, illegal logging operations and stories on health care. They make activist films for the Web, filing stories with broadcasters facing the demands of 24-hour television coverage for an audience hungry for information.

In Myanmar, video journalists have formed a loose collective working for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an organisation which uploads and disseminates footage via the Web from its base in Norway.

And though the high price of petrol may seem an unlikely cause for mass public protest and military violence, these Myanmar video journalists risked their lives to meticulously record the protests and the monks' march through the streets.

Director of the documentary Burma VJ, Anders Ostergaard, shows how tension and frustration with government policies led to the September 2007 protests in Yangon.

The film, which screened at Meta House last Monday, shows video journalists are active around the country, recording scenes from everyday life as well as the activities of the military and the pro-democracy movement.

"It's a difficult job," says the narrator, a young man called "Joshua". After fleeing the country, he tries to stay in touch with various video journalists via mobile phone, email and online chat as they face being discovered, arrested or even shot at for recording events on the streets of Myanmar.

I feel the world is forgetting about us. That's why I became a video reporter. we have to show the world we are still here.

The group is passionate and tech-savvy. At times, they have been the only link between the isolationist country and the rest of the world, transmitting images of hope as well as images of violence and destruction.
"I feel the world is forgetting about us," says Joshua. "That's why I become a video reporter. We have to show the world we are still here."

The film brings together footage from a wide range of sources, from hand-held cameras to mobile phones and digital still cameras.

Much of it is extraordinary: Monks pray before the gates to Aung San Suu Kyi's home, where she stands defiantly receiving them; a group of wounded monks shelter in their temple after a brutal raid, in which hundreds were taken away; the tragic image of a monk's corpse floats face down in the water, covered in bloody bruises and wounds, saffron robes hanging from his body; and the inevitable military backlash, filmed from all angles as protesters flee the guns and tear gas.

The haunting images give us a rare insight into life under Myanmar's repressive regime and the people who are ready for change. The compelling footage is only let down by the occasional use of staged re-creations, which aren't identified and compromise the authenticity of the project.

Documentary is - or ought to be - the art form of truth-telling. To avoid accusations of fakery, the filmmakers ought to have found a better method for filling gaps in the story where footage was unavailable.

Nonetheless, Ostergaard has done a remarkable job, compiling diverse footage and using it to highlight the emergence of citizen journalism as a valid form of reportage.

Broadcasters like CNN and BBC, unable to gain entry to Myanmar, relied heavily on DVB footage during the protest, often airing it within hours of the events.

Protest groups, students and activists around the world now record their experiences on mobile phones and hand-held cameras and communicate directly via the Web, raising awareness of issues and building networks of interested activists.

Ostergaard reinforces the importance of this movement with Burma VJ. Even when the secret police eventually discover DVB's Yangon headquarters, seizing equipment and arresting its journalists, one of them is hiding in the trees, filming the event.

Citizen journalism is facing renewed pressure in Myanmar, but it's not over yet.

Despite the violent response by Myanmar's military, Burma VJ gives the audience a chance to experience the hope and commitment of the people of Myanmar, and a glimpse of what may unfold in the future. It can be seen online at http://burmavjmovie.com.

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