'Burma VJ': Documenting The Saffron Revolution

Burma VJ i i

hide captionCentral character Josh, a young documentarian, and his friends, primarily filmed with cameras concealed in bags. Click the photo to watch the trailer for Burma VJ.

Oscilloscope Laboratories
Burma VJ

Central character Josh, a young documentarian, and his friends, primarily filmed with cameras concealed in bags. Click the photo to watch the trailer for Burma VJ.

Oscilloscope Laboratories

An anonymous group risked imprisonment and possible torture to smuggle footage out of Myanmar for the world to see.

Director Anders Ostergaard pieced the footage together to create his Oscar-nominated documentary, Burma VJ.

"It took a little while to figure out how to make a film in Burma," Ostergaard tells host Neal Conan. "And then we realized," Ostergaard continues, "there was this phenomenon of citizen journalists, which were all organized by a satellite station based in Oslo, Norway, which is next to where I live in Denmark."

Ostergaard met up with several of the journalists in Bangkok, where they gathered for security training. There, he met Joshua, who became the central character in Burma VJ.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

And today, we wrap up our series on the films nominated for this year's Academy award for best documentary feature. We've already talked about "The Most Dangerous Man in America," "Food Inc," "Which Way Home," and "The Cove." Today, a film that focuses on the uprising in Myanmar in 2007, known as the Saffron Revolution. Citizens and monks dared to stage protest against the military government which tried to prevent the outside world, and indeed the people of Burma, from seeing what was going on.

But we saw it, mostly, because of a coalition of anonymous video journalists who risk prison and torture to smuggle images to news organizations around the world.

(Soundbite of movie "Burma JV")

Unidentified Female: The Democratic Voice of Burma or DVB uses satellite TV and shortwave radio to send numerous protests around the world, and for the first time, back into Burma. About 30 reporters are on the ground watching undercover. They film material then smuggle it out of the country, doing so at great personal risk.

CONAN: Award-winning director and writer Anders Ostergaard teamed up with the undercover journalist from DVB to produce "Burma VJ," reporting from a closed country. If you'd like to talk with Anders Ostergaard about the film, the situation in Burma, or about the documentary film business, our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our Web site at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Anders Ostergaard joins us now from our studios at NPR West in Culver City, California. Nice to have you on TALK OF THE NATION today and congratulations on the nomination.

Mr. ANDERS OSTERGAARD (Director, "Burma VJ"): Thank you very much.

CONAN: You tell the story from the point of view of one of the DVB videographers. He goes by the name Joshua. How did you get together with him?

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Well, it took a little while to figure out how to make a film in Burma, actually. We were considering all kinds of ways to do that for years. And then we realized there was this phenomenon of citizen journalists. We saw well organized by a satellite station based in Oslo, Norway, which is next to where I live in Denmark.

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: So basically, we were sent out to Bangkok in Thailand to meet several of these guys who were coming out for training, security training, camera training. And that's where I met Joshua.

CONAN: And his story is, well, it's a powerful one. Early in the film, he is arrested for, well, for using his camera to take a picture of a demonstration. And in those days, the demonstrations were one person, two people. This is back in 2007.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Exactly. That's how it all started. These solo demonstrators, the usual suspects, if you like, would come out feeling the unrest of the people and trying to act on that. And that's what -that was the beginning. So yes, it's true that Joshua was arrested in the beginning of the uprising and actually had to leave the country, which was, of course, a bit of a challenge to the film, the protagonist leaves for the State.

But we then realized that seeing the whole thing from his viewpoint in a safe house in Thailand was very interesting because he tried to connect to his friends.

CONAN: He was speaking constantly with his colleagues back in Burma by cell phone, by computer...

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: ...and trying to indeed coordinate their activities and, well, experiencing the rollercoaster of events. There is an extraordinary moment in the film, and this is when the monks finally joined the protest. They start going from being relatively small, onesie-twosies, into being thousands then tens of thousands. And we're going to listen to a chant that they have during their march through the city of -through the big city. And let's play it. I'm going to explain what they're saying.

(Soundbite of movie "Burma JV")

Unidentified Group: (Speaking in foreign language)

CONAN: May all the beings living to the east, all beings of the universe be free. Free from fear, free from all distress, free from poverty. May they have peace in their hearts.

(Soundbite of movie "Burma JV")

Unidentified Group: (Speaking in foreign language)

CONAN: And Anders Ostergaard, I think that's the best demonstration chant I have ever heard.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Yeah, isn't it? Yeah

CONAN: It's an extraordinary moment.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: It is a very true and moving moment. And because, even though they're actually just expressing, if you like, Buddhist generalities about you should lead your life and about the wish for peace and harmony, it's actually very precise about what people need and what's not enough - what there's not enough of in Burma. So it was a very strong political statement in that context.

CONAN: And almost any statement in Burma, we find out, is strongly political.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Yeah.

CONAN: The idea of the monks holding their bowls upside down so they would not accept alms from the generals, a very powerful statement.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Yeah, exactly, because it's - you know, traditionally the principle of - the leaders of this country are supporters, are sponsors of the - of the monks. And then, there's an understanding between - traditionally between the king and the monks. But this time around, they say that's enough, not anymore.

CONAN: And, of course, there is that moment that almost giddy demonstration through the streets of Rangoon and the people feel that at that moment anything could happen, that it's over, that in a way they have won. Yet, of course, that's not the way it turned out.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: No, unfortunately, not. As we all know, there was a crackdown and the whole thing ended. Actually within a week, it was all over. But there was a true - a moment a true liberation, the liberation of the minds, if you like, liberation from the fear that has been ruining this whole people for so long.

CONAN: And this story - these - you call them video journalists and, indeed, they are. They are reporters but they're not journalists by, I guess, a Western definition. These are activists. They are working for the overthrow of the government.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Yeah, it's a very motley crew actually of amateurs, semi-professionals and people, even people who had a background in the professional press environment who just simply swift aside along the way. So it's a motley crew, you could say. And - but, yes, they are activists and journalists at the same time.

CONAN: And one question - then we'll get to the callers - and that is there are some scenes that are recreated for the purposes of this documentary. That's always a tricky part.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Yeah. It always needs a lot of deliberation and thoughts to - can you do that and how should you do that? I felt in this - with this particular project, it was very important in order to tell the reporter's own story to do that reenactment. Mind you, there was a lot of thing we couldn't follow at the time because it would be too much of a security hazard to the people involved. And we were simply forced to reenact it later on if we are to tell their story.

CONAN: Wouldn't it not have been fair to the viewer to say in those scenes, a little caption: reenactment?

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Well, we chose to make a disclaimer, if you like, in the beginning of the film, making it clear that reenactment is part of the film. I felt aesthetically it would be too disturbing to have a blinking as or something like that in the screen among - that's the discussion. You can debate that. I think it's not cinematic to do, but that's a personal point of view.

CONAN: All right. Let's get some callers on the line. Our guest is Anders Ostergaard, his film nominated for Best Documentary Feature. We'll find out who wins on Sunday. "Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country." And Ciara(ph) is joining us on the line from Sacramento.

CIARA (Caller): Hi. How it's going?

CONAN: Very well. Thanks.

CIARA: Good. Anders, it's wonderful to be talking to someone who does such awesome work with a closed country. But my question is, what role is the younger generation playing, the students? What kind of a role is this playing and how is it affecting them to be living in a closed country like Burma?

Mr. OSTERGAARD: It's a very interesting question because I know Joshua is the main character. He's 28 by now. But he was worried about those who were even younger, those in their early 20's because they never saw anything else from the regime. They were too young to have experienced '88, which was the previous big uprising to know really about Aung San Suu Kyi and all of that. So he thought that they were a lost generation. And one of the most, you know, uplifting things for him to - having been through that was to see this younger generation coming along.

As this reporter's network broke down, they have been able to recruit 18 new reporters and they are mostly from this so-called lost generation who simply discovered politics, who realized that there's something they could do.

CONAN: So the agency is open and operating today?

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Yes, absolutely, more than ever, actually.

CONAN: Thank you, Ciara. I appreciate the phone call.

CIARA: Thank you so much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go next to - this is Terry(ph), Terry with us from Brewstertown in Tennessee.

TERRY (Caller): Yes, sir. Thank you. Mr. Ostergaard, is there any contact point for information for helping...

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Well...

TERRY: ...the situation in Burma, information-wise?

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Well, first of all, there's a wonderful organization totally devoted to the issue called the Burma Campaign, you know, I believe it's the U.S.-Burma Campaign. And you find Burma campaign organizations all - you know, most Western countries. You can also, of course, join Amnesty International for the broader human rights issue. Otherwise, I encourage people to study the phenomenon of citizen journalism which is appearing not only in Burma but also recently in Iran and other places. And my film is also a tribute to that, actually.

CONAN: Interesting that in Iran, recently they adopted the same tactic they eventually adopted in Burma to shutdown the Internet - the devices that supply the Internet so they couldnt communicate. Terry, thank you very much.

TERRY: Oh, thank you very much.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go to - this is Spencer(ph). Spencer with us from Cedar Rapids.

SPENCER (Caller): Hey there. Great to be on and I just want to congratulate the director on the nomination. I was fortunate enough to see the documentary a year ago, really powerful stuff.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Thank you.

CONAN: Where did you see it, Spencer?

SPENCER: I saw it at the True/False Film Festival, in Columbia, Missouri.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Right. A wonderful festival, yeah.

SPENCER: Yeah. And I actually just went back there last weekend for this year's edition. But - and that sort of brings me to my points. If it weren't for that festival and that I went to college in that town, I never would have seen this documentary. And I would have been like most of the people out there looking at the nominations for Best Documentary, and been, like, well, what's the point? Why do I care, you know? And I'm wondering is the role of the documentary in our entertainment culture, is it growing? Or what needs to happen for it to grow for more people to see these pieces? And I'll take my answer off the air.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Spencer.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Well, first of all, I cannot claim to be an expert on U.S. media, the U.S. media landscape. I can only speculate upon how things should - how things can develop here. I think documentaries had -has had almost a golden age actually recently, starting with Michael Moore, but also followed up by a lot of other strong titles. "An Inconvenient Truth" also had had a huge impact as far as I know...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: ...in this country. And so, I'm very optimistic about the scene in general. Of course, we don't have the marketing budgets that the big theatrical features will have, and this is very much uphill for us.

I mean, the production company who made this film are, literally, just three people trying to keep up with the demand and the interest in this film, which is exhausting also. But - and that's very much - very often how documentaries are made, by very small units with very low budgets. But we also see that interest had picked up, and generally, I'm optimistic about it.

CONAN: To see the trailer for "Burma VJ," you can go to our Web site. Our Web producer, Sarah Handel, has also put together clips from all the other nominees for Best Documentary Feature. You can see them all at npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Our guest is Anders Ostergaard, the director of "Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country."

And here's an email from Molly(ph): Are the identities of the reporters kept secret for their safety? And if not, is there a chance that the VJs will be prosecuted?

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Yes, obviously, they're kept - their names are kept secret for their safety. They have several nom de guerre, several names which they apply. And actually, we had - apart from their normal cover names, we had special cover names for this film just to make extra sure. And that's just what you need to do if you want to operate in a regime like the Burmese. It's a very real problem. And even in Thailand, where many of them work, Joshua is non-exile in Thailand. Even then he's not really safe. It's packed with Burmese intelligence trying to figure out what he's up to.

CONAN: And indeed, at the end of film, we find out that three of his VJs were arrested inside Burma and could be tried and could face life sentences for their work.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Oh, yeah. Yeah. And even if you get only 20 years, you cannot be sure to survive those 20 years because of the conditions in those prisons.

CONAN: Let me ask you. You were talking about the difficulties of making this film even on a low budget. How did you get financing? We see it's sponsored by HBO Films in this country. And there's a, you know, an alphabet soup of different national agencies...

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Yeah.

CONAN: ...that all, I guess, paid a little bit?

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Well, it tells you a bit about how documents are made in Europe anyway. It can only be done by fully pre-financing the film through the broadcasters in Germany, in UK, Scandinavia and so forth. Nobody will come in and administer money as such - as capital or such into a documentary of - at least of - in most cases, not a political film like this.

So we spent a lot of time trying to gather finances for all kinds of sources. And I think we have something like 15 or 18 investors in this film.

CONAN: But that is only after the film was made. They say - good picture, we'll show it.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Well, that's the upside. You never know what happens afterwards.

CONAN: Afterwards, yes. Nevertheless, I think to be eligible for the Academy Award, the film has to have been in theatrical release.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: And so it was. It has been traveling across the states, as in many other countries. So, yes, we fulfilled those.

CONAN: You fulfill that requirement. Well, obviously you wouldn't have been eligible if not.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Can you tell us, though, with your three-person office, what is your next project? Or do you devote everything on to this film until, well, it's exhausted it's theatrical run and you have marketed it to every broadcaster you can possibly sell it to and then see if you win some awards?

Mr. OSTERGAARD: To tell you the truth, I've been totally tied up with this film ever since it was released back in November 2008. I guess normally, we'll try to move on and leave the film to itself and move on with the next project. But the thing here is that this is a political thing. This is a big move we can make for Burma. And, of course, it's a privilege just to work with that. So that's what I decided to do, to spend that time and not speculate too much about the next project.

CONAN: It's interesting that all of the films nominated for the Academy Award, at least this year for Documentary Feature, are all political films.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Mm-hmm.

CONAN: They are all about causes. Is that a way that some people get funding for their movies?

Mr. OSTERGAARD: I wouldn't know. I mean, I couldn't say if it's coincidence or whether it's a trend. I guess it's in vogue to talk about - to be political in your films. And that goes for fiction, as well as documentaries actually, as I see it. So in that way, it expresses a tendency, I guess.

Personally, I wouldn't - I don't consider myself an activist. I'm a filmmaker. And I - in the past, I made films about rock music and European comics. And it's actually the story that drives - the material that fascinates me and makes me make a film. It's not activism as such. And I would caution against equaling documentary filmmaking with activism as such. It would be a sad thing if that's what it's all about.

CONAN: And the film should win - we've had other directors tell us - not because of the cause, but because it's the best film.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Of course. I mean, otherwise, you wouldn't really be proud of the award.

CONAN: Anders Ostergaard, thanks very much for being with us and good luck on Oscar night.

Mr. OSTERGAARD: Thank you. I'll need it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Anders Ostergaard, award-winning writer and director. He directed "Burma VJ: Reporting from a Closed Country," which is, as we mentioned, up for the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature, with us today from NPR West in Culver City, California.

And again, if you want to see clips from all five of the nominated Best Features, you can go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Tomorrow, more on the Oscars: Best Picture, Leading Actress - hey, those are overrated. Visual Effects, Sound Mixing, those are the categories where Oscar gets interesting. We'll look at the other Oscars. Murray Horwitz, our movie pal, will stop by.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

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