EDITOR’S NOTE: This first person by Anders Østergaard originally appeared in an issue of UK newspaper The Guardian and has been republished with permission. His film “Burma VJ” is being released in US theaters tomorrow by Oscilloscope
“Burma VJ” was supposed to be a modest little film: a half-hour, low-key yet intimate portrait of Joshua, a 26-year-old Burmese video journalist, or VJ. Joshua had decided to do his bit for a better Burma by taking his video camera, usually concealed, on to the streets of Rangoon to document what he could of everyday life. When we started work on the project, in early 2007, the footage Joshua was able to show us was, frankly, totally uneventful: little reports on street kids, life in his village, the miserable state of the railways.
But since Rangoon is a city packed with informers and secret police, we understood the risk Joshua was taking. However slight, his footage was still a major subversive achievement. Joshua worked as a VJ for the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), the broadcaster-in-exile stationed in Oslo. We quickly realised he was an endearing guy, cheeky, wise and well educated. I felt his charismatic commentary, coupled with this footage, would open a tiny peephole on to this isolated, almost forgotten country.
Instead, we ended up crashing right through the main gate. What we got was beyond my wildest imaginings. In the summer of 2007, a few protests grew into an uprising that swept the streets. Soon Joshua and his fellow activists-turned-VJs were feeding CNN, the BBC and the rest of the world’s media with stunning videos, showing the Burmese people’s fight for freedom and the brutality of the military regime. The VJs underwent a tremendous rite of passage, turning from young, spontaneous activists into war-torn veterans of a media revolution.
Back in the editing room in Copenhagen, our lives also changed. We started off being in full artistic control of a nice little project, but then graphic footage of beatings and shootings by the military and the police began to flood in. We were now chroniclers of world history. Some of the tapes arrived in a fairly organised way, via the DVB. But even months after the uprising, shocking and hitherto unseen footage would still show up, having been smuggled out. These tapes had no labels on them, and came with no information as to where and when they were shot, or by whom.
We had to spend weeks doing “video archaeology” – working out the time and place of bits of footage from the details they contained. One of the most helpful tools turned out to be Google Earth, with its satellite photographs of Rangoon’s inner city. By matching street corners, high-rises and pagodas visible in the background of the clips with those on 3D maps, we were able to establish the development of demonstrations as they moved through the city. Slowly, the anatomy of the uprising – and perhaps, indeed, of any uprising – fell into place.
It was fascinating, with each stage clear and well defined. We saw the early, hesitant days when the first groups of protesting monks would start marching at a fast, nervous pace in silence, cautiously applauded by onlookers. The next stage was more daring: the monks would begin their religious chanting and the public joined in, an expression of their yearning for freedom camouflaged in Buddhist generalities. Then came a euphoric outburst of political slogans and direct demands to the government, which echoed through the streets. This defiance turned into panic as the military beast finally got on its feet and struck back. Even though we knew the end of the story all too well, we were still heartbroken to see all those hopes for change and liberation dashed, as the protest transformed into a fight for survival in the course of a single afternoon.
It’s conventional wisdom that, in the cutting room, films take on a will of their own: they tell you how they want to be made. But this was an extreme case. It brought home, more than ever, the rare, but incredible rewards of being a documentary film-maker. It’s about discovery rather than invention – the wonders of working with something much bigger than yourself.