Story of a Burma VJ

Last week BAFTA on Piccadilly hosted the premiere of a powerful new documentary with Dame Vivienne Westwood and Richard Gere showing their support.

Now its softly spoken star, ‘Joshua’, talks to The London Word about risking his life on the streets of Burma’s capital, Rangoon, to reveal the atrocities from his closed country to the world.

Burma VJ is a raw, shocking and compelling account of the 2007 uprisings in Myanmar. Triggered by price hikes for fuel the people of Rangoon marched against the dictatorship that has ruled the nation for 40 years in one of the most brutally controlled countries on the planet.

Illegal footage, pieced together from concealed videos, tape recordings and phone calls, reveals how undercover video journalists (VJs), like Joshua, risked torture, prison and death to record and smuggle material out of the country and broadcast it via satellite to the globe.

Taking such risks meant he had to completely disconnect from his personal life, ‘because that’s why I am surviving. A lot of people know me in my working environment, but they cannot link me with my personal life. They don’t know who I am, they don’t know who my family members are. At the same time the people in my personal life, they don’t know what I’m doing. That’s why I can still survive.’

What kind of reaction have you had to the film from London audiences?

‘I went to the BAFTA screening and I got a lot of good response from the audience and then from other journalists as well. I’m advocating journalists as well to cover more about Burma, and they’re showing interest after seeing the movie, so it’s a good response I feel.

‘For the people who come to the theatre, they have enough sympathy for Burmese people already, so after they have seen it they just try to find out what they can do for Burma.’

What drives you to risk torture, imprisonment and death to bring reports of the atrocities in Burma to the world?

‘I cannot get on the stage and talk to the people and say what to do, so what I can do is through my stories only. So I try to educate the public that the first thing to establish in society is the freedom of expression. You must dare to speak to the recorders. You must dare to talk to the journalists. I give the people that message all the time and it works.

‘People (in Burma) are trying to find a cameraman to talk to whenever there is something happening. There are a lot of citizen journalists working on their own and making their own stories and taking their own photos and sending them to the outside media. So I feel like I can establish something you know. I can show the way and they can walk.’

How did you get involved in video journalism?

‘Before I worked with the camera I worked in print media in Burma, and they ran legally so they are tightly controlled. So I’m not satisfied with the situation and I try to find out what I can do, and one day for their television channel I became one of the first cameramen for them. Without training, without any knowledge about camera. That was 2005/6. Because we tried to begin in 2005, then in 2006 we start protesting.’

What is your greatest fear?

‘The greatest fear is possible arrest. The most difficult thing is to take the camera out. The moment you decide to take the camera out is the time that decides everything. Excuse knowledge and technical things, all these can be taught, but we must have enough courage to get the cameras out. And a lot of people pay.

‘I have been taken by police three or four times. I’ve been released after a few hours or a few days, but I have never been in prison. They have questioned me but after a few hours they let me go.’

How did the making of the film come about?

‘The director (Anders Østergaard) and assistant director, they have been trying to cover something about Burma…their problem is they cannot go inside Burma with a camera and talk to the people because it is very obvious for them to be there with the camera.

‘Finally the director realised there is a television station training the journalists in Rangoon and then broadcasting back to Burma through satellite, so they contacted the main station in Norway and then they direct them to me and we work together.

‘But in the beginning they try to do something like a 30-minute personal profile. I will talk about my life in the story, and that’s it. But the story changed a lot during the production time because there are students on the streets, protests against the government and then a journalist was killed. The rise and fall of my own journalism became the dramatic structure of the story.

‘We want to protect the identities of the journalists, and the people we are talking about but at the same time we want to tell as exact as possible, as detailed as possible, as true as possible. We have to balance between the facts and security.’

Are people in Burma aware of the film, and if so what reaction have you received from them?

‘Pirate businesses are very strong in Burma and they’re distributing the film. We hear a lot of people saying “do another one like this in the future”. They are happy to see it.

‘I intended it for the Indonesian audience. I just want to pass the message that although Burma is quiet sometimes, the operation there is still going on, and Burmese people are still struggling. I just want to give the message: don’t forget Burma. Pay more attention, and I think a lot of people are getting to know this. They are trying to find out what they can do. So I think we’ve achieved something.’

Burma VJ is now showing at cinemas nationwide.


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