Over the next few days we're going to be hearing a lot about big blue aliens and George Clooney and bomb-disposal experts in the Iraq war. But there's another film you should be rooting for when they hand out the little gold statues on March 7.
Burma VJ hasn't been in the headlines much. It has been making its way around the global film-festival circuit, garnering its share of awards. Still, its U.S. box office receipts to date are measured in tens of thousands of dollars, not hundreds of millions.
Let's hope that's about to change. The film is up for best documentary feature, and to be honest, I can't imagine what could possibly compete. You certainly can't beat the story line. In August 2007 a few thousand red-robed Buddhist monks took to the streets of Rangoon, Burma's biggest city, to join a nascent protest against the military dictatorship that has been crushing the life out of their country for nearly the past 50 years. Burmese culture is deeply rooted in traditional Buddhist belief, so the monks' sally represented a particularly potent challenge to the regime. What would happen next?
Ordinary Burmese have risen up before. A student-led nationwide protest back in 1988 had the generals on the run -- until the Burmese Army retaliated with a bloodbath that took thousands of lives. (The exact number will probably never be known.) When the government grudgingly responded to popular pressure by allowing an election in 1990, Burmese voters handed a solid victory to the party of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. The junta suppressed the results, threw Aung San Suu Kyi back into house arrest, and forced the country, at gunpoint, back into decades of stagnation.
News of the 1988 uprising trickled to the outside world in a few snippets of grainy film and a clutch of photographs, all precariously hand-delivered over the border to neighboring countries. The events of 2007 would turn out differently. As the monks' revolt that autumn took off, every moment was being filmed by a small squad of guerrilla video journalists -- the "VJs" of the film's title -- working for an opposition group, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), that had spent years training them for just such an occasion. The camera-wielding activists used cell phones and the Web to smuggle out their footage almost as fast as they shot it. The images they recorded didn't only generate international interest by keeping the outside world apprised of events; their video was also beamed back into Burma via satellite, thus adding fuel to the protests.
This is the story told by Burma VJ. Although the Danish filmmakers who crafted the documentary rely primarily on original footage shot by the DVB's on-scene journalists, they don't stop there. We watch events unfold through the vantage point of Joshua, a DVB cameraman who has been forced to leave Burma because he has attracted the attention of government goons. When the monks' protest begins, he's coordinating coverage from Thailand, keeping up with his colleagues back home by online chat and mobile phone. Like us, he's at once involved and remote -- a device that turns the unfolding story into an arresting mix of cinéma vérité and political thriller.