Burma VJ - Candid cameras

A new film on Burma, screened at Downing Street last week, shines a spotlight on tyranny and protest. Sheila Johnston reports

The first film ever to be screened at No. 10 Downing Street was not an exclusive preview of the next summer blockbuster.

Its shaky, blurred, grainy images, shot with video cameras small enough to be quickly hidden at moments of danger, would not win an Oscar for Best Cinematography. And yet Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country, shown last Friday at an evening hosted by Sarah Brown, is as action-packed, thrilling and suspenseful as anything at the multiplex, and vastly more moving. In fact, it is as extraordinary a spectacle as you are likely to see all year.

This remarkable film was shot by a tiny cluster of fearless young "VJs", or video journalists, operating within one of the most oppressive and secretive countries in the world, a country with virtually unparalleled official censorship (Burma is ranked 170th out of 173 countries in Reporters Without Borders' 2008 world press freedom index).

During August and September 2007, a groundswell of protest against the military junta, which has controlled Burma for decades, erupted in public demonstrations led by Buddhist monks. At least 100 were killed in the inevitable crackdown. In the absence of foreign media, the VJ's snatched camcorder images, uploaded at internet cafés or smuggled out through couriers, were the only evidence of these brutal events to seep through to the outside world. They chart a roller-coaster ride from hope, exhilaration and defiance to anxiety and ultimately, despair.

"I consider myself to be fairly well-informed, but I didn't know a thing about Burma, although it has a population of 50 million people," admits Anders Ostergaard, the Danish director who put together the footage. "Burma is a strange combination of a Third World country and a very well-organised secret-police state, and so incredibly inaccessible that, whenever anything gets out, it attracts a lot of attention. That's what got the VJ phenomenon started: the scoop quality of what these journalists were able to deliver."

Ostergaard – whose previous work includes documentaries on the Danish rock band Gasolin' and the creator of Tintin, Hergé – was in London last week to attend the Downing Street screening. The purpose of the evening was to gather support for the country's pro-democracy leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, who celebrated her 64th birthday on Friday. Ms Suu Kyi has spent 13 of the past 19 years in detention after the military junta refused to recognise the 1990 election victory of her party, the National League for Democracy. She now faces a fresh trial after giving temporary shelter to an American man who arrived uninvited at her home last month.

For Ostergaard it was "the challenge of a lifetime" to piece together Burma VJ. He was, he recalls, confronted with a pile of "raw footage shot by at least ten different people, often with no label saying where or when it was taken or by whom. Sometimes we used satellite pictures of Rangoon from Google Earth to identify the actual street corners, so that we could establish how the demonstrations developed in time. We also called in eye witnesses." It was like trying to reassemble a broken vase from hundreds of fragments. "There was," the director concludes with a touch of dry understatement, "a little bit of detective work involved."

The fragments are glued together by two devices. Staged reconstructions in the manner of Man On Wire – last year's hit documentary about the tightrope walk between the Twin Towers – give a sense of the breathless conditions under which these guerrilla film-makers worked and lived. And "Joshua", a journalist now in exile in Thailand, narrates in voice-over,

Joshua began his career aged 16 in government newspapers, but soon became disillusioned and moved to Democratic Voice of Burma, the opposition satellite television channel operating out of Oslo, for which he was one of the first recruits. He went on to co-ordinate, participate in and spearhead the VJ movement. "I have nothing on my mind," he says at one point in the film, with a touching simplicity. "I only shoot."

Ostergaard met Joshua and a number of other VJs when he travelled to Burma posing as a teacher. He says it was hard not to be overwhelmed by their bravery. "They were risking their lives to document what was going on.

"But it is important not to be too in awe of them. They felt that this was what they had to do in order to feel alive. And I wanted to say that almost anybody could be motivated in a country like this to do subversive things. Because not to do something would be unbearable."

'Burma VJ' will be released on 17 July

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'