Tuesday, December 8, 2009
This is the time of year when studios send me awards screeners in the hopes I will vote for their film. But amongst the bloated and self-satisfied entries was a small gem, "Burma VJ," a documentary from Oscilloscope Laboratories that uses smuggled footage to tell the story of the 2007 protests in Burma by thousands of monks.
After suffering through some bad narrative films over the weekend, I turned to some documentary films that I needed to catch up with before voting for a couple of critics' group awards. I watched the documentary "The Cove" and thought I had finally found the year's best doc. "The Cove" avoided talking heads and filmed lectures, and instead served up a tense and effective narrative about the slaughter of dolphins in Japan. It was a well made film that developed more like a tense thriller than a documentary and was superbly edited. So here it was, a film that was not only well-crafted but also with a point to make and a plea to viewers to take action.
Then I saw "Burma VJ." Again it's a documentary that unfolds more like a tense and urgent drama than a non-fiction film. But instead of the dolphins of "The Cove" being slaughtered and abused it was people who were the victims, human rights that were being abused, and journalists who were putting their lives on the line to get the word out to the rest of the world about what was happening in their own country. Danish filmmaker Anders Østergaard assembles a compelling and effective documentary about an informal network of underground videographers who risked their lives to film the protests in 2007 and then smuggle footage out of the country or distribute it on the Internet. I felt humbled watching "Burma VJ." Suddenly struggling with divorce, single parenthood, surly teen tantrums, and dating in my forties all seemed -- as they really are -- trivial. I felt embarrassed for not being more grateful for the wonderful life and freedoms that I have. It's also a documentary that gives us a glimpse inside a closed country to see the human rights abuses that are going on and to admire those brave people who are willing to risk everything to protest against injustices and to report on those protests no matter what the cost.
When I inquired about when the film might play in San Diego, I was saddened to discover that as of now there are no plans to open it here, even though it made the Oscar short list for documentaries and has already snagged a number of awards and nominations. Hopefully something will change and the film will get a release here in town. If not, it is scheduled to run on HBO in the Spring and to be released on DVD in the summer of 2010. Seek this one out!