Yawning Bread. 29 October 2009

Burma VJ to be shown again




In September 2007, the world was mesmerised when images of monks marching down the streets of Rangoon came into our television sets. Provoked by a doubling of fuel prices a month earlier, sending an already impoverished people deeper into penury, the monks decided that their moral calling was to represent the people against a heartless military junta.

Those images of barefoot monks with upturned begging bowls -- a gesture of resistance -- will surely be among the iconic images of our time. Alas, we know how that story ended. The Burmese army swooped into monasteries to beat up and arrest monks by thousands. Most have not been seen again.

But there is another story that is just as gripping, though less told: the story of how those images were captured. Who took those pictures? Who captured the monks in procession, the bystanders clapping in support, the soldiers aiming their rifles in readiness to shoot? Who were the half-crazy guys armed with nothing more than a handicam standing or crouching mere metres from soldiers with loaded rifles?

If you thought they were professional journalists with white skin and other identifying markers ("Press") that made them relatively safe from the shooting, you're wrong. The junta has been very strict about letting in foreign journalists. A television crew with bulky equipment is not the kind of thing one could sneak into the country.

The guys who took those pictures were the Burmese themselves, moving among the crowds with hidden video cameras. Should any one of them be spotted by the armed forces filming the demonstrations and the crack downs, it would likely mean the end of his freedom. He would be bundled into an army truck with the prospect of torture very real.

It is hard for me to convey with words the extreme risks these video journalists (VJ's) took. Being so far removed from our everyday experience, is it even possible to summon up the imagination needed to put ourselves in their place?

Fortunately, Anders Østergaard & Jan Krogsgaard compiled footage into a documentary to show us how those striking images were captured -- in effect, to tell the story behind the story. The film is called Burma VJ.

This is its trailer, though it is a deceptive one. It focusses on the demonstrations on the streets -- a moving but painfully familiar story in itself -- when the best part of Burma VJ is the story of the brave underground video journalists.


* * * * *

Burma VJ has gone on to win accolades and awards. It was given one screening by the Singapore Film Society in July this year. So many people turned up, large numbers had to be turned away.

It is now back. Maruah Singapore -- a human rights group -- will be screening it twice, on November 10 and 11. With each screening, there will also be short films about other aspects of the crisis in Burma. It is a complex country with suffering on many fronts. Finally, each evening will round off with a discussion. Jan Krogsgaard, the scriptwriter for Burma VJ, will be in town and hopefully, he will provide more insight into the courage and risks undertaken by the guys who put their lives on the line.

Each evening's program is long, but everything there is absorbing, and you will not leave the hall unaffected.

For more information about the screenings -- they are free, but prior registration is required -- go to http://maruah.org/myanmarlens/. Don't forget to send an email to register.

Another day, I will write about the hoops we had to jump through, the difficulties we encountered with the authorities, to get these two screenings organised. There's a story behind the story here too, though [chuckle] we didn't face death. And that is a big difference. It is also why, for all our frustrations with the Singapore system, we should  spare a thought, a penny and some good outrage about Burma.

© Yawning Bread