Thursday, February 18, 2010

Anders Østergaard: Burma VJ

At the time much of the footage for the Oscar-nominated documentary Burma VJ was being shot, its director, Anders Østergaard, wasn’t even in the same hemisphere. Wanting to open a window on the closed country of Burma (a.k.a. Myanmar), the Danish-based filmmaker struck up a groundbreaking remote collaboration with a network of underground citizen reporters, who risked torture, imprisonment and death as they shot then smuggled footage beyond the military dictatorship’s closely guarded borders.

The documentary was originally intended to be a half hour short, profiling a 27-year old video journalist (or VJ) known as Joshua who worked behind Burma’s barbed-wire veil of silence and against the strict media embargo enforced by its military government (which came to power after a coup in 1962). Using a pseudonym to protect his identity, Joshua coordinated illicit on-the-ground coverage for the Democratic Voice of Burma, a non-profit news organization based in Norway. However, when Burma’s ruling junta abruptly ceased subsidies on fuel, which caused the price to skyrocket, destabilizing an economy that was already among the world’s poorest, Joshua and Østergaard’s project took on a far greater significance.

Thousands of the country’s Buddhist monks took to the streets in the latter part of 2007, leading what developed into widespread protests against the intransigent regime. Armed with their wits and hand held video cameras, Joshua and his crew of VJs documented the saffron uprising and the Burmese government’s brutal retaliation to it from the front lines. It was the first time in a generation that the people had dared challenge their leaders, but this was very different to the last uprising in 1988. Footage captured by Joshua and his team was beamed around the world. Vivid images of soldiers viciously beating monks in the street in broad daylight were broadcast via all the major new networks, putting Burma – albeit briefly – at the top of the United Nation’s political agenda. With no room for deniability, Burma’s military leaders were shamed into making concessions. And then the world’s attention moved on.

Fast-forward to 2010, with promises broken and hard fought concessions reneged on, it might be easy for Joshua and his fellow Burmese citizens to feel despondent. However, with Burma VJ, a documentary that combines original footage with dramatic recreations, Joshua and Østergaard hope to raise awareness for the ongoing plight of the Burmese people. At the start of this month their cause was given a massive boost with an Academy Award nomination for their film in the category for Best Documentary feature.

I caught up with Østergaard, a Danish filmmaker who was previously best known for Tintin and Me (a 2003 documentary about comics writer and artist Hergé). Over coffee we talked about Burma VJ's dramatic journey from the impoverished streets of Burma to Hollywood’s glittering Kodak Theater, and what the film’s Oscar nomination means for a new generation of citizen journalists and for those fighting oppression around the globe.

Read my exclusive interview with Anders Østergaard at

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