Burma's Oscar Moment

Forget Avatar, The Hurt Locker, and all the rest for a minute. Here's the story of the film that deserves to win big.

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.

"I feel I want to fight for democracy," Joshua informs us in a voice-over near the start of the film. "But I think we had better make a longer plan. We cannot go out into the streets again and get shot because we have no more people to die." The protesters of 1988, he muses, "were so brave, but sometimes I feel like they died for nothing." He wants, he says, to remind the world that "Burma is still here."

That's exactly what Burma VJ manages to do. The generals have kept their hold on Burmese society through the depressingly familiar mix of fear, force, and propaganda -- and there are the handycams of the DVB reporters, cutting through it all. We exult as ordinary citizens overcome their nervousness and join the monk-led processions. We cheer as the crowd swarms in to protect the VJs from the white-shirted government thugs who try to drag them off to jail. We marvel at the demonstrators' unforgettable chant: "May all beings living to the East be free; all beings in the universe be free, free from fear, free from all distress!" And we choke up, with Joshua, when the monks finally dare to march down the road past the home of a certain Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The VJs aren't there, so all we manage to see is a blurry snapshot of Aung San Suu Kyi standing in her gateway, almost unrecognizable as she greets the monks. "It's not a great photo," Joshua muses. "You can only see a small lady. But we couldn't see her for a long time."

Images, in short, aren't just about their literal meanings; they're also powerful conduits of emotion. And, yes, they can also lie -- as we see at the very beginning of the film, as Joshua contemplates government television broadcasts that depict a country happily united under its heroic leaders. No question, the film reminds us of the overwhelming power of the unadulterated image, such as the video footage of a monk's corpse floating in a creek on Rangoon's outskirts, just after the moment when the regime finally decides to crack down on the monasteries. Yet Burma VJ also touches upon the ambiguities that linger behind even the clearest images.

For example: Is the aspiration to objectivity a luxury of people who live in healthy societies? The VJs in the film don't even pretend to be the usual journalistic bystanders. They're perfectly happy to step in and strategize with the demonstrators. We even see one journalist literally issuing marching orders: He recommends a more effective route to a monk who's leading a procession, and the monk happily complies. The fact is that there are no easy choices when you're trying to defy a regime as vicious as the one that rules Burma. Just to take one example: The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions accuses the country's military rulers of forcing hundreds of thousands of people -- men and women, children and the elderly -- to work against their will on government projects: "Refusal to work may lead to being detained, tortured, raped, or killed."

Here's a cell-phone dialogue between Joshua and one of the activists on the other side of the border:

"People have to get arrested. They have to die. Monks, too."

"Don't say that."

"Our country is different from the rest of the world."

"I don't understand politics. But I don't want to see monks and people dying. I can't stand it anymore."

"Be strong, my dear."

That conversation, like many others in the film, is a reconstruction. Jan Krogsgaard, one of the Danish filmmakers behind Burma VJ, explains that certain key moments in the narrative weren't actually captured by the DVB journalists, so scenes were shot to fill in the gaps. He insists that the makers of the film were careful not to stray too far from the bounds of authenticity; some of the phone conversations in the film are based on the saved texts of online chats, for example. In some cases identities had to be protected. Director Anders Ostergaard even used actors in two episodes that are seamlessly presented as part of the DVB journalists' original on-location footage -- a sleight of hand that has generated understandable controversy. Time correspondent Andrew Marshall has taken the filmmakers to task for mixing authentic footage with acted scenes. In an interview with me, Krogsgaard defended the reconstructions as "entirely legitimate," saying they depict events that actually occurred but weren't caught on camera, such as a secret police raid on the DVB's Rangoon headquarters as the government crackdown escalates. (There is a corresponding disclaimer at the beginning of the film.) This is an important discussion. But I don't think it ultimately invalidates the film.

Burma VJ winds down just the way the story did in real life: The regime ultimately succeeded in tamping down the protests by arresting the rebellious monks en masse. Many of them remain in prison today. The rest of the world may have moved on, but Burma continues to suffer. At the end of February, the Burmese Supreme Court refused an appeal by Aung San Suu Kyi, who is struggling to be released in time for next year's scheduled general election. The court's move was criticized even by Singapore, which has often been reluctant to scold the generals. The outlook isn't promising.

Even the small moral victories sometimes come at a depressing cost. As Krogsgaard told me, the regime has been known to use DVB footage as an aid in identifying and arresting members of the opposition: "It's this unpleasant paradox -- that every time you succeed, someone in Burma gets a harder time." For the moment, Burma is silent once again. But the DVB's trainers haven't given up. They're hard at work, in Thailand and elsewhere, preparing the next generation of video journalists. It will take as long as it takes.

Mark Von Holden/Getty Images


Beijing's Labor Pains

Why the conventional coverage of China may be missing the most interesting story of all.

HONG KONG—Western media coverage of China tends to be dominated by two competing narratives. The first is all about economics. China, it contends, is an epochal success story. The economy is booming and national wealth is on the rise. The Chinese themselves are overwhelmingly satisfied with their lot. There's nowhere to go but up.

The second focuses on politics. China is in the grip of communist party dictatorship. People have no democratic rights. Everywhere you turn, there is social turmoil -- seething popular anger over corruption, environmental degradation, illegal land grabs, and summary arrests. Something's got to give.

To be sure, both of these interpretations contain grains of truth. But it turns out that there's another way of comprehending the reality of modern-day China -- one that captures the contradictions of the place and allows them to co-exist.

All you have to do is pay a visit to the Hong Kong offices of China Labor Bulletin (CLB), a non-governmental organization founded in 1994 by activist Han Dongfang. Han and his colleagues are pushing hard for grassroots change in China -- and they're doing it openly. But they are also doing it within the existing system, not against it. "We don't see any of them as our enemies," says Han, referring to officials of the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party. "We see all people we're dealing with as social partners."

The picture that comes through as you listen to Han looks something like this: Today's Chinese workplace is a mess, as one might expect. Safety conditions are terrible. Work-related illnesses are rife. Employs often hire workers without issuing formal contracts, making it near-impossible for wronged employees to fight back. Confronted with these problems, government agencies often look away or collude with the offending companies' management.

Yet China also has a full-fledged body of labor law, a comprehensive court system, and a growing army of private lawyers. That's where CLB comes in. It provides legal aid to embattled workers, helping them to navigate the intricacies of the labor code and urging them to assert their right to collective bargaining, up to and including the right to strike. Demands for the creation of independent trade unions are notably absent from CLB literature, presumably because unions would pose a direct and provocative challenge to the Communist Party's monopoly power.

Han's organization also defends imprisoned lawyers and labor organizers. It publicizes cases of employer malfeasance and advocates legal reform. One of the group's most potent tools is its thrice-weekly radio program, beamed into China by Radio Free Asia. (The Chinese authorities block CLB's website on the mainland, but staffers say the group manages to quietly advertise its services on other sites.) Workers call in or send emails explaining their legal travails. Then, Han responds on the air, explaining the cases, discussing possible legal strategies, and sometimes actively intervening.

Last summer, for example, a group of 170 construction workers got in touch. The men explained that they were suffering from silicosis -- a lung condition also known as potter's rot that's caused by inhaling silicone dust -- contracted at a Shenzhen building site. Local authorities had stymied their efforts to obtain compensation for their obviously work-related affliction. So, CLB staffers drew up a legal memo on behalf of the workers  that the men used to press their claims against the Shenzhen Labor Bureau. To everyone's surprise, the hitherto recalcitrant authorities offered the men a "humanitarian fund" -- giving the workers cash without admitting any legal accountability for the workplace injury. Some happily accepted.

Others, though, decided to press on with a lawsuit against the regional labor office. With the help of a CLB-provided lawyer, they accused the office of neglecting its oversight duties. "At first the workers were begging for help," says Han. "But now they see that the government bears responsibility [and] that they have rights. They've made a big jump -- now they're much closer to being citizens." It is all part of CLB's strategy to strengthen the rule of law one case at a time. "Many little differences can make a big step," says Han.

It all adds up to a powerful case for the virtues of incremental change -- a point, Han acknowledges, that has been known to fuel disagreement between him and his erstwhile companions from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. (Han was working to set up communist China's first independent trade union in a corner of the square when the government sent in the troops.) Not long after the protests were bloodily crushed, Han was arrested and sentenced to a two-year jail term. After his 1992 release, the authorities deported him to Hong Kong, where he set up CLB.

The Party persists in refusing him the right to return home. Even so, the government in Beijing tolerates most of CLB's activities on the mainland. "Other activists tell me, ‘You should be fighting dictatorship. That should be your job,'" says Han. "But I think that we have a duty to help Chinese workers improve their lives, to make them as confident as possible."

He sketches a typical scenario: "A coal miner has just died. He left behind a wife, old parents, a kid. What do you want me to tell his wife? Go out and overthrow the [Communist Party]? Or, ‘Here are your rights vis-à-vis the employer. I'll help you get a lawyer.' So I don't argue with the Chinese government. I don't argue about my right to reform my country."

In 2007 and 2008, CLB provided legal support in 600 cases. It won 95 percent of them. In modern-day China, says Han, that is incontrovertible evidence of positive change -- as well as a sobering indication of just how badly Chinese employers abuse their workers.

It also demonstrates that the Chinese authorities are increasingly recognizing the usefulness of keeping labor disputes labor disputes, rather than allowing them to metastasize into political conflicts. Ten years ago, if workers went on strike, the Communist Party sent in the police and threw the organizers in jail. Now, the Chinese government is more likely to send in a labor mediator. "Now labor unhappiness is aimed at the boss," he argues. "Now the government is no longer the target."

CLB's website is filled with hair-raising tales of cruelty, exploitation, and injustice. But you can also find intriguing signals of change. In 2008, China's civil courts accepted 93 percent more labor disputes than in 2007, for a total of 280,000. A sample headline: "A 25 year-old university graduate with Hepatitis B has, for the first time in China, successfully sued a hospital for violating his right to privacy after it gave the results of his blood test to a prospective employer." And three months ago, a long article in the magazine Liaowang, published by none other the state-owned Xinhua news agency, explained why the country needs to guarantee collective bargaining rights.

The problem is that China's pervasive corruption is eroding people's trust in the law. Popular frustration about the issue is one of the driving forces behind the rising signs of civil unrest around China. By one estimate, there were 127,467 "mass incidents" in China in 2008. In one government poll last year, 75 percent of respondents cited corruption as the number one problem facing the country. It's easy to see how the resulting cynicism could poison the country's future.

So the tug-of-war continues, and the stories keep rolling in. The bigger story is a long way from over. Stay tuned.

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