Film Review: Burma VJ at Sundance

(Editor's Note: Our roving correspondent R.J. Forman sends this review from Utah's Sundance Film Festival, which concludes tonight, Jan. 24.)

by R.J. Forman

The message about what is going on in Burma (the country is also known as Myanmar) is incredibly important. The news in 2008 sampled bits of the Burma story with a headline here and there about the demonstrations by Burmese monks, the destruction brought to the country by a cyclone and the Burmese government’s refusal of foreign aid. Then Burma dropped right back off the map.

That is, until Burma VJ hit the Sundance Film Festival.

The erudite, well-to-do and overwhelmingly white audience received the film with applause and sighs of content. After the film, the question and answer session with director Anders Ostergaard was lukewarm at best. These were the questions of people who knew nothing about what was actually going on in Burma, aside from what they’d just seen in Ostergaard's less than satisfactory documentary…if you can call it that.

Ostergaard’s film was compiled mostly of the footage gathered by the reporters working for the non-profit network Democratic Voice of Burma. The harried footage was strung loosely together with the voiceover of one of the reporters, who goes by the name “Joshua.” And to further the lack of cohesiveness in this film, Joshua appeared in silhouette with the backdrop of a desk at a window overlooking a garden. This could have been more effective had Joshua been part of the real story in Burma or had these sections not been shot on a camera with such stark quality contrast to the Burmese footage.

One of the very compelling stories of Burma recently was one about monks who went against thousands of years of traditions and got political.

Burma VJ hardly touches upon this important story. All we really learned from this film about the monks is that they marched, were beaten and one monk was killed. The film shows about 20 seconds of footage of the monk’s body floating in a river.

In addition to Ostergaard seeming to just ride the coattails of the journalists who’d actually done the work, we hardly learned anything of those whom this film was supposed to be about. There was little to no back-story aside from a brief overview of a similar demonstration that happened in Burma in the 1988. We learned that three of the journalists had been arrested and by the end of the movie Joshua was in the jungle or countryside somewhere (the film never makes this clear) but the last date sited in the film was in 2007.

For this film to debut on such a topical subject at such a know-it-all festival in 2009 an update would surely have been nice to know what has become of these journalists since 2007. Or what about those standing trial? Or the 200 plus monks arrested? Or Burma as a whole? Ostergaard could have at least provided a footnote in the credits.

Look, I get it that Sundance is where the celebrities go to play and the white grown-up AV club comes to rub elbows with them to discuss cinematography over ridiculously priced soy chai lattés, but Burma provides a real story, with real people and a real problem. Burma deserved better than this.

(For more background on Burma, please see "The Burmese Crackdown & the Chinese Connection.")

(The photo is a production still from
Burma VJ. To see a trailer for the film, please check below.)

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