Oscar Nod May Aid Awareness

Will an Academy Award nomination for a film about Burma make the world care about abuses in this tiny country?

2010-02-25
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Burma-VJ-305.jpg Poster for Academy Award-nominated documentary Burma VJ.
Courtesy of burmavjmovie.com.

WASHINGTON—The head of a Burmese media organization featured in an Oscar-nominated documentary says he hopes Academy Award coverage will raise international awareness of human rights abuses in his country.

"Burma VJ: Reporting From A Closed Country," by Danish filmmaker Anders Østergaard, recounts how the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), a Norway-based news team, managed to surreptitiously film and distribute footage of 2007 street protests against Burma's military rulers.

The protests were violently crushed by the military, with even monks falling victim to government-sanctioned violence.

DVB director Aye Chan, speaking here this week after a screening of the film at the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy, said Burma’s problems too often become center stage for a brief time before the world forgets about them.

He said he hopes the film's Oscar nomination for Best Documentary will turn attention back to the suffering of the Burmese people and to those who died fighting for basic freedoms in 2007.

“It is an opportunity to remember those who were killed,” he said.

“Plenty of people died—it is a chance to recognize their sacrifice.”

Rebuilding operations

The documentary details how the journalists, many using mobile phones or handheld cameras, managed to infiltrate the protests and show the size of the uprising.

Up to 100,000 people took to the streets at one time until a government crackdown involving violent and lethal attacks on the protesters, expulsions of foreign journalists, and the closing down of the Internet.

The final cut of "Burma VJ" was edited down from about 60 hours of raw footage shot from October 2007-January 2008.

Chan said that while the protests were well covered by international media at the time, three months later worldwide interest in the country had waned, as happened earlier after a 1988 uprising.

Burma's secret police eventually found DVB’s Burma headquarters, he said, and many of its journalists were arrested and are now in prison. Some fled the country, and others are in hiding.

Chan says they are now rebuilding the internal organization in Burma and have more than 30 reporters in the country.

Surprising outcome

Meanwhile, he cites some surprising results from the protests and the government reaction.

Junta-sanctioned violence against the people, particularly monks, prompted a split at the highest levels of the government, Chan says.

Confidential documents and photographs from government officials are now being leaked, detailing, among other things, attempted arms deals with North Korea and business dealings with China, he says.

Original reporting by Peter Sainsbury. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.

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