Thursday, September 23, 2010

Burma VJ: Reporting From a Closed Country (Review)

Complacency in its many forms repulses me. Not just in its unaffected and disinterested guise, but due to the underlining apathy that inherently always accompanies the complacent among us. As a cinephile, I especially abhor these things in the movies that I watch, and no region is as guilty of dumbing down film than the US, where filmmakers have managed to strip-mine everything crucial about the art of movies, exposing a shallow core completely lacking depth or brevity. I've always likened cinema to art, and as such have held the belief that art should elicit a response from the viewer. Empathy, inspiration, motivation, dread, joy... even bring about base reactions in its purest examples like revolution.

Clearly I'm not the only one. Oscilloscope Laboratories owner, Beastie Boys Adam Yauch seems to espouse the same belief, distributing what I would argue to be one of the most important documentaries seen this decade, if not ever. Burma VJ, simply stated, is important, and potentially dangerous. Dangerous in the emotions that may stir up to the surface would be too much for the people witnessing what it so bluntly and haphazardly posits in your face. An uprising falling victim to a brutish state-run institution, a military junta making an incredibly potent statement against not just a peoples' right to live outside poverty, but to any sense of individualism at all.

Following "Joshua", a member of a complex but small network of video-journalists working within Burma to bring pictures to light to the rest of the world. The Democratic Voice of Burma, as they're called, captures images then using proxies tied to servers outside of the closed-off nation sends them to a headquarters in Oslo, where they're defiantly beamed back into Burma for viewing on the citizenry's TV sets. It's dangerous work due to the restrictions in place, where only military personnel are allowed to film anything outside, and capture results in arrest and a likely disappearance of dissenters. More specifically, Burma VJ chronicles about a 2 week period of demonstrations that lead up to massive protests led by the secular Buddhist monks of Rangoon and outside vying for the peoples favor and casting down their alms bowls for the junta's generals' contributions.

No series of demonstrations so openly opposing the rule of the Junta had occurred since 1988, when the military assassinated 3,000 people protesting in the streets, hiding others away in captivity for undetermined amounts of time, and imposing a strict house arrest for Aung San Suu Kyi, the people's leader and opposer of the contradictory socialism practiced by the regime. Watching the events unfold here is like looking at a moving history book, and it inspires frustration and anger and disgust. Frustration due to the apparent helplessness of the people to rise up in arms against their rulers. No matter how many citizens and monks may dissent, the fact is they don't have the arms to stand up to the military's rule. Anger because it's so honest, in both recording the peoples plight as well as simultaneously illustrating how easy Western nations really have things, yet naysayers from outside will continue to decry the immorality of our country without ever having any conception of what true oppression really means. Disgust because it's so easy to turn your eyes away from the spectacle. Since it's not our lives, that leaves us seemingly unaffected, and a majority will remain callous and indifferent.

While a lot of time isn't spent exposing the character of the unseen faces documenting this short time in Burma, the images we're left with are unsettling enough to forgive it. Seeing the faces of those documenting these happenings would mean prison, likely forever, and recognizing the selflessness that went into simply getting these pictures outside of the country is admirable. While many people would high tail it through the mountains and down river to Thailand, or into India, or even China, those that stay have often been misjudged as giving up. Rather they see Burma for its potential beauty and serenity, a tranquility that should be afforded to all of its citizens and not just the military might that's been ruling it for the last half century. More so, they see the potential for the people to eventually be free, and that's enough to carry them through each day.

Is it really art, though? Indeed. It's art in its simplest sense which I already expounded. It's affecting and substantial, a moving history of a systemic people cut-off from the rest of the world. In a place that seems typically forgotten to simply having been neglected, it's heartbreaking to see the people that strive to make a difference there, moving to watch the determination they have in just simply videotaping. That such an act would require one to run from bullets and escape arrest, let alone watch friends disappear and die is easily an overwhelming thought, and a huge majority of what makes Burma VJ such necessary viewing. Like I said earlier, dangerous even. Imagine what it could do to those captured in the same system if it can inspire such a response from one outside it...