It's tricky for any film to follow the rigid rules of a true documentary: not only should the footage be authentic, but it should be presented in the most objective manner possible. Anders Østergaard's Burma VJ: Reporting From A Closed Country (2009) follows both rules fairly well...to a certain extent, at least. It chronicles a massive public uprising that took place in the military-run country of Burma some three years ago---and at risk of simplifying the situation for brevity's sake, the citizens were tired of being treated unfairly. Local Buddhist monks were the first to serve as leaders of this uprising, which began as a series of peaceful demonstrations on the crowded streets of Rangoon---and, as we see early on, the monks were very reluctant to appear on camera.
As fate would have it, the peaceful monks and the cameras would prove to be the most effective tools for the uprising to reach global attention. Visual proof of the military's actions were captured on video---specifically, with camera phones or other types of hand-held devices---and released to the world by any means necessary, eventually reaching several media outlets. Soon enough, the government found ways to thin out these demonstrations: curfews were enforced, public gatherings were banned and video devices (and the people who operated them) were confiscated. Still, like any good rebellion, the public persisted: videos were shot in secret and uploaded to the Internet via satellite. Through cooperation with---and information from---the Democratic Voice of Burma (an anonymous group of Burmese citizens), the rest of the world has been granted access to Burma's heavily guarded interior. It's not a pretty picture, but that's precisely why it needs to be looked at.
The "VJ" in Burma VJ refers to a number of video journalists who risked their lives to capture the footage we see here, and "Joshua" (real name withheld, for obvious reasons) gets the most face time. As a representative of the Democratic Voice of Burma, he is our tour guide as the front-line footage is captured and uploaded---or, in some cases, blocked by the military. Though a number of scenes involving "Joshua" are reenacted, Burma VJ does not hide this fact: it simply recognizes it as a means to construct the story in a more concise manner and does not suffer for it. The 89-minute feature unfolds at a gradual but deliberate pace, crackling with tension along the way, as the film builds to a violent, heart-wrenching climax. It's a film that was designed to create a reaction, but also to remind us of the media's considerable power when put in the hands of the people.
Luckily, Burma VJ earns all the emotional reactions that it seeks to invoke, thanks to a carefully planned structure and...well, the knowledge that this hand-held footage is 100% authentic. Simply put, this is required viewing for anyone who appreciates documentaries on a global scale. The DVD package by Oscilloscope Laboratories provides a modest amount of support for the feature, pairing a decent technical presentation with an assortment of quality supplements. Let's take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in a 2.00:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16:9 displays, Burma VJ looks as rough as expected. The color palette appears natural and newly-shot reenactments look excellent, but that's about as far as the good news goes. Most of the this footage was shot on camera phones (or other low-grade digital recorders) and only looks as good as the source material will allow...which, more often than not, is about on par with your average YouTube clip. Additionally, the 2.00:1 aspect ratio feels awkward; much of the footage is slightly cropped and zoomed, which doesn't exactly help the situation. It's certainly a watchable documentary, but fans should definitely keep their expectations in check.
The included Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix, presented in Burmese and English, is a plain-wrap affair but still gets the job done. Recent interviews sound clean and clear, while much of the low-res digital footage suffers from source material limitations. Optional English subtitles are included, which thankfully cover both the Burmese and English portions of the dialogue.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen below, the stylish menu designs are basic and easy to navigate. The 89-minute main feature has been divided into 14 chapters, while no obvious layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed in a rather extravagant paperboard case, which includes a handsome slipcover and a brief essay by revered activist Desmond Tutu. Unfortunately, the disc itself fits inside a paperboard pocket and is susceptible to damage.
A handful of appropriate extras are here as well, leading off with a Audio Commentary featuring director Anders Østergaard and Variety film critic John Anderson. Anderson obviously serves as more of a moderator here, but these two participants have a good back-and-forth dialogue from start to finish. Topics covered include the film's inception, filming the reenactments, financing the production, recent developments and much, much more. Definitely worth a listen for fans of the main feature.
Two additional interview collections broaden the film's scope by a few degrees. These include "Fighting for Freedom: An Interview with 'Joshua'" (10:47), in which the film's focal point briefly discusses his motivations; and "Burmese Monks: Stories from the Uprising" (4 clips, 24:27 total), which focuses on two participants in a 1988 protest and two protest leaders from the events of 2007. The latter collection obviously goes into more detail than the 'Joshua' interview and includes plenty of footage from the events in question. On a related note is a brief Richard Gere Interview (4:32), in which the famed actor discusses his experiences with activism and the Buddhist faith. It's an odd fit and probably the least essential extra here.
Closing things out is Crossing Midnight (29:10), a short documentary about Dr. Cynthia Maung and other students who fled to Thailand in 1988. These brave souls founded the Mao Tae clinic, which treats Burmese refugees and has grown into a community of 500 dedicated healthcare workers. It's a like-minded piece that fits in quite well with the main feature.
All bonus features are presented in anamorphic widescreen and include forced English subtitles when applicable.
It's not often that a documentary can generate authentic tension, but Burma VJ practically defines the term. The mixture of "undercover footage" and tastefully-filmed reenactments creates an unforgettable experience, placing you right in the middle of the action as the horrifying story unfolds. It takes plenty of time to get going...but once the tension explodes, Burma VJ will have new viewers pinned to their seats. Oscilloscope's DVD package does what it can with the limited source material, pairing a decent technical presentation with a handful of informative, appropriate bonus features and an attractive packaging job. Overall, it's a perfectly well-rounded release that documentary fans will certainly want to hunt down. Highly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in a local gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, second-guessing himself and writing things in third person.