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Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Movie Review: BURMA VJ

Reporting from a Closed Country

It's a little bit difficult to critique and review a movie like this. It's like trying to say that a documentary about the Holocaust or the mass genocides in Rwanda. The whole point of such a film is to stir an emotional response from the viewer and bring them towards the sympathizing with the peoples affected by such outrageous atrocities. In some ways, to say that a documentary such as Burma VJ is not effective is to say that it's message did not reach you. In some ways, a person can assume a person who makes such a statement may be a heartless, self-centered individual. Perhaps you can see my conundrum when I say that I wasn't entirely impressed with this Oscar-nominated film.

Burma VJ, which was directed by Anders Ostergaard, follows a man named "Joshua" (his real name is not given for security reasons) who is one of the ringleaders of the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an essentially illegal television and media group who works towards broadcasting the injustices created by the Burmese government; they do this as a direct counter-attack to the constant stream of propaganda ushered forth by the government. The footage shown within this film spans the course of roughly six weeks in the late summer of 2007 where monks and public citizens alike took a stand against the government for the first time in nearly twenty years. These undercover video reporters put their lives on the line to capture this momentous occasion, taking us through the ups and the downs, the trials and the tribulations of organizing such a massive protest.

Not only is this a documentary, but you can probably see this as a foreign film as well considering we're getting a lot of the dialogue in Burmese. I only say this because, unless you're fluent in both English and Burmese, you're going to have some subtitles to read. The English-language sections of the film, which mostly comprise the voice-overs from Joshua, seemed a little bit off for me. It felt as though his lines were a little too scripted for a documentary feature. Yes, I know that voice-over like that is supposed to be scripted, but it works best when it flows seamlessly and without hesitation. Perhaps Joshua simply isn't that great of a line-reader, but his voice-over stood out so glaringly that it would constantly take me away from what he was actually saying. This does not pose well for the film's effectiveness.

Another knock against it is the constant cutaway to blatantly reconstructed scenes. Now, the film does give a disclaimer at the very beginning that says we should be ready for such scenes (all of which comprise of Joshua either on the phone or at a computer while he hides in Thailand and attempts to direct his other videographers), but they always seem a little too out-of-place from the rest of the film. I think this goes into the camera work. These reconstructed scenes are crisp and crystal clear, and they take you away from the grittiness of the hand-held camera images that are being thrust into view. If the change were more subtle, I wouldn't be writing this paragraph, but it's such a stark contrast that it almost feels like we're going from our documentary to a big-budget political thriller. Back and forth, back and forth, and I just got tired of it after a while.

All of this is not to say that the film's message did not reach me. I have known about the political turmoil in Burma for a few years, but I never really knew the true extent. Burma VJ opened my eyes a little bit more to the suffering of the Burmese people under militaristic rule. So please don't assume I'm a heartless piece of crap because I'm not throwing an "A+" grade towards this film. I think that they could have made their argument a little more effective, and it could have been a great film. Instead, it's hanging on somewhere between the range of "good" and "almost great." However, it's still worth watching considering this story needs to be told. Perhaps you'll get a little more sucked into the film than I did, but you should definitely watch it and keep yourself informed about the world around you.

Movie Review Summary:
Grade: B-
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