“Burma VJ”/ Burma Part 2
The documentary “Burma VJ”, which has done a huge amount to expose and articulate the brutal situation in Burma, was nominated for an Oscar and, on the eve of the ceremony, I had the honor of interviewing two of the film’s subjects, the monks Venerable U Pylnar Zawta and U Gawsita (that’s an interpreter sitting with them), as well as the filmmakers Anders Østergaard and Lise Lense-Møller, for HBO.
I was happy to receive this assignment because it an issue that affects me deeply. Coincedentally (or not) I wrote a newspaper article, as well as a post here, about another amazing figure in the Burmese freedom movement, Naw Paw Ray, in January. It is the simultaneous presence, in Burma, of both an incredibly exalted form of spirituality (Theravada Buddhism) and one of the most violent, tragic, and seemingly pointless, regimes on the planet, that fascinates me. How could this go down? And why?
If you’ve seen “Burma VJ: Reporting From A Closed Country”, you might recognize the young monk on the left - U Gawsita - who, during the 2007 protests that are the subject of the film, called for the freedom of Burmese democratic leader Aung San Suu Kyi. For Buddhist monks to take a clear political position is very rare, and it was at this moment that the protests, as brilliantly documented in the film, leveled up to a gut-wrenching (and historic) intensity. These popular actions were eventually crushed by Burma/Myamar’s ruthless military rulers; unknown numbers of monks (as well as regular people) were tortured, killed or “disappeared”; Aung San Suu Kyi is still under house arrest; and the atrocities in Burma continue.
Speaking to these monks reminded me of speaking with Paw Ray: their gentle, humble, yet firm conviction; their focus - despite all the horror they have witnessed - on what is positive, good, and true; and, most surprising, their lack of ill-judgement upon those who have done them, directly or indirectly, great harm. The images in the film, of these monks marching in the tens of thousands towards torture trucks, tanks and armed soldiers, are some of the most powerful I’ve ever seen. The monks are barefoot, wrapped only in their red robes, unarmed, expressing their dissent by holding their begging bowls upside-down. As they walk they chant the ancient chants of Lovingkindness (Metta) Buddhism: “May all beings be free, may all beings be happy …”*. Then the shooting begins, the robes are ripped off, end etc. These images were captured by Burmese Video Journalists - the “VJ’s” of the title - shooting in secret because objective media is banned in Burma, and risking their lives as they do so. Their footage, smuggled out, showed the world what was happening at the time and was eventually assembled into “Burma VJ” by the outstanding Danish team already cited (photo below). Although I am far from a Burmese secret VJ, I am gratified to be able to contribute some footage, and some energy, towards a peaceful resolution to the incredible human drama being played out right now in Burma.
A trailer for “Burma VJ” is below. If you go to this YouTube Channel, you can view the whole thing posted in 10 minute chunks. The film, which unfortunately did not win the Oscar (that honor went to “The Cove”), stood out among the other nominees because, among other things, it does not contain any talking heads. It is a rigorous and finely crafted work, one that lets the power of what happened, and is happening, in Burma resound to maximum effect. I should mention that, on the evening in question, I also interviewed people involved in several other powerful and important films including “China’s Unnatural Disaster: The Tears of Sichuan Provence”; “Which Way Home”; “The Last Truck: Closing of a GM Plan”t; “The Last Campaign of Governor Booth Gardner”; and “Music By Prudence” (which won the Oscar for best short-form doc). All these films, including “Burma VJ”, will air on HBO who had an amazing year in documentaries in ‘09. It is that that I was, fortunately, hired to document.
Speaking with Lise Lense-Møller (Producer) and Anders Østergaard (director).
*Classic Metta Chant:
May all beings be free from enmity and danger
May all beings be free from mental suffering
May all beings be free from physical suffering
May all beings have ease of heart.
Thanks to Erin Terzieff for the photos.
PS: One of the pieces they cut from what I shot that night which contains a small pod about Burma VJ: