Østergaard took on the challenge to make
Burma VJ, he had no idea how much he would advance the
cause of citizen journalism. A collective of 30 anonymous and
underground video journalists (VJs), The Democratic Voice of Burma,
recorded the 100,000+ protestors (including thousands of Buddhist
monks) who took to the streets in 2007 to protest the repressive
junta that has controlled the country for over 40 years.
news crews were barred from Myanmar (as the regime renamed Burma),
the internet was shut down, and domestic reporters were banned
unless employed by the state, they used handycams, or cellphones, to
document these historic and dramatic events; they then smuggled the
footage out of the country. Broadcast worldwide via satellite, these
VJs risked torture and imprisonment to show the brutal clashes with
the military and undercover police - even after they themselves
became targets of the authorities.
smuggled footage offered for free usage to the international media,
this 40-something filmmaker tells the story of those 2007 protests
and briskly shows how the Burma VJs stopped at nothing to make their
reports with dramatic results. As the director assembled this raw
footage, made on cell phones and other digital devices – and sent
through these clandestine electronic channels – they marked a new
step in freedom of expression and he has stirred a media pot that is
now percolating in other global trouble spots such as Iran. The
protestors there also captured the unvarnished images and reports of
their actions and their government's violent reaction through
Østergaard had helmed films about pop culture covering such subjects
as the Scandinavian rock band Gasolin' and the Belgian cartoon
Tin. Ironically, with Burma VJ he covered another
pop culture expression – the use of digital technology to create
user-generated content – to document a major political act of
defiance. The results have paid off in various accolades from a 2009
Sundance Grand Jury prize to an Oscar nom for Best Feature Doc.
In fact, this
exclusive interview itself was done through the cutting edge
technology of Skype – so once again the digital domain advances
another journalistic expression.
The human rights abuses in Burma don’t seem to be on the radar like
some other issues. Are you a little surprised that the film has
garnered this support? What do you think made it click?
I think the
uniqueness of the material that these reporters gathered. This
unique access and this very dramatic portrait of an uprising which
they've managed to pass on to the world. I also think some of our
own decisions play a role; our deliberate decision to tell this
story as a suspense story, using all the cinematic tools needed for
that, which I think was a good choice for the film.
did you contact the Burmese people? Was there someone who was your
liaison, or was it someone you knew from Denmark? What was the
It was pretty
straightforward. Once we decided that we wanted to work with this we
got in touch with the Democratic Voice of Burma in Oslo, which is
basically a satellite tv and radio station, and explained our
interest and they were very forthcoming. They needed the attention.
I guess they trusted us, so they sent us to Bangkok to meet twelve
of those reporters who were coming out of training.
Are they paranoid that someone might be an agent of the government?
to this. I think their biggest worry is that one of their recruits
would be an agent. They deal with this all the time and I'm sure
they made their investigations.
When you made this film what was your hope or your original
expectations for it? Do you think you can change society with it?
not. I wasn't too focused on purpose as such. I tend to go so deep
into the storytelling in itself that that's what really drives me
and I don't think too much about the function afterwards. Of course,
I can see from the old pictures that I tried to say that I wanted to
make the Burmese condition tangible, so that you could feel it and
smell it, and I guess that was my ambition, to take it beyond the
abstract interest in some other country and just be there. And that
was what I was totally committed to when I put the film together; I
didn't speculate too much on the aftermath of what might come out of
You had so many different people involved; who did you consider your
critical liaison? Who was the one gentleman that you had with you in
the States that was working with you from Burma?
That was very
obvious to me when I met Joshua, because first of all he wasn't
scared. Understandably, most of these guys would be already very
paranoid about what they were doing, so having a foreign film crew
on top of that was just too much, obviously. Joshua had this kind of
fearless attitude to everything, and he also had an intuitive
understanding of how to explain Burma; he's an excellent
communicator. And he has also a mix of qualities that intrigued me.
He was on the one hand this cheeky young guy looking for challenges
and really enjoying his cat and mouse game with the police
sometimes. And on the other hand, kind of a reflective,
philosophical guy, who could also look back and explain the Burmese
condition in a very deep way. So I was just intrigued by his
qualities as a storyteller.
How did you and producer Lise Lense-Møller define your roles? You
obviously have the directing experience, so how did she come in as
Very much in
the European tradition, I would say, in pretty much keeping hands
off the creative business but making sure to give solid financial
support. For instance, we needed some extra time, and she had the
guts to let that happen even though she was under considerable
economic pressure. So her contribution is mainly securing the
financial circumstances. Creatively, she would be less involved than
some other people.
there moments when you were worried that this wouldn't happen? It
must have been touch-and-go as to whether you had enough stuff that
would make a film, and whether it would look right. Was there a
point where anybody was in danger?
course was a big issue all the time and made some restrictions to
what we could do. We tried to work creatively with that; we tried to
make a virtue out of necessity. How can we work with people when we
can't see their faces? That led us to phone conversations as a
leading tool for the film. Otherwise, just sorting out the chaos;
the material came in a pretty confused way where we wouldn't know
who'd shot what and when, so we had to piece all that together first
before we could start telling the story.
When did you know you had a movie that would work?
I think I was
struck quite early on by the uniqueness of the material, the very
straightforward demonstration of the regime's brutality. But also
the happy moments, the optimism of the early days of the uprising,
when everybody was coming out in the streets, I think they managed
to capture that beautifully, if you consider the circumstances.
These were guys who could barely pay for the bus ticket.
How much information did you decide to put in or not put in? How
much do you reveal or not reveal about the regime and Burma's
history? How much do you assume that people know, understand or are
Much of these
decisions are made by instinct, by the kind of director you are, the
kind of storyteller you are. And as I said before, the number one
thing for me was to make people experience the Burmese condition, to
feel it, to sense it, the whole visceral thing about it. So that led
obviously to me being very, very restrictive about me spending time
on history, on more than just the absolutely necessary information.
Do you hope some day you'll be able to go to Burma without having to
be under scrutiny?
That would be the greatest strength.
Of the many people you've talked to, what are their expectations?
interestingly, in my experience the most optimistic people are the
Burmese, and that's a curious thing. I don't know if it's because of
their Buddhist education, but they seem to be the most patient and
the most convinced that some day that this regime will fall. The
uprising of 2007 was a tragedy, but it was also a reminder of what
people are actually able to do and how they're able to battle their
Was there any one person in the film that you consider the key to
getting the film?
meeting Joshua. That was a critical thing, to have somebody who was
able to give his voice to this, and to bridge any cultural gaps and
make it such a smooth and happy collaboration, to me that is a
crucial thing. And also, some of the other guys also had these
qualities actually. So basically the VJs.
you know of anybody that had a chance to speak to Aung San Suu Kyi?
there are some complications to that.
How did making this film affect you personally?
Well it made
me very busy. Putting a film together like this, first of all is
hard work, and you're so focused on doing it right that you really
don't spend much time feeling a lot of stuff. Just dealing with this
huge responsibility really takes up most of your energy. But of
course, I think what made the biggest impression on me was to watch
the uplifting footage, the hopeful early days, this moves me just as
much as it seems to have moved the audience.
In your one week in Burma what did you see there that you hope
tourists will one day be able to see?
It's a gem;
it's one of the most beautiful countries in the East. Also actually,
ironically, because of the regime things have been preserved in a
way quite different from, for instance, Thailand. It also is in
terrible decay, but the millions of pagodas, the lush green trees of
Rangoon. First of all the people are very mild mannered and gentle
and they're wonderful people.
Have you had an interest in other countries in South East Asia?
Not too much.
I'm not an expert on Burma or on Asia as such. I've done a little
bit of traveling in Indonesia, but nothing that would really put me
in a special position. I came to this as a filmmaker more than
I've met a number of the Burma refugees here in the States. It's a
tough struggle. I don't know who has it worse; the Tibetans or them.
bleak for both of these peoples. It's a good fortune that they're
both Buddhists because it helps them a lot, clearly.
really fascinating aspect to the film is your exploitation of the
contemporary technology. Your movie couldn't have existed a few
years ago. When you step back and think about the implications of
that. That must have interesting ramifications in your head.
What are your thoughts on this?
Of course a
film is not just about Burma, it's also a celebration of citizen
journalism as such. And telling people that technology is not always
a bad thing; there's a tendency to think that cameras or something
that's going to watch you – that Big Brother is going to watch you.
But it actually can also be Little Brother watching the tyrants,
which I think is a positive note. Basically, I'm every optimistic
about technology, I believe in that kind of thing, I believe in
progress through technology, so I'm happy it's a celebration of that
You obviously have to be emotionally committed when you make a movie
like this but at the same time where do you draw the line as to how
you continue to be committed or not. Obviously, you're going to go
on to do other things after the Oscars, but then you say to
yourself, "Well, do I need to come back to it, to continue to worry
about what's going on in Burma?" Where do you draw the line?
Well I draw it
just around the Oscar, actually. I hope this will be the end of my
story with this at least. Of course personally I will always be
attached to the issue on some level; you don't just quit that. I
made a lot of friends in Burmese circles and so on. But
professionally, I expect this to be the finale of almost one and a
half years of touring with this film.
Of all the people you've met from Sundance on, who's been most
exciting to you?
To be honest I
think what made the greatest impression on me was going to places
like 10 Downing Street and being welcomed. It felt very natural to
be there and to present this film, and that people connected to it
so easily, that was great.
Did you meet President Obama?
No, I never
met Obama. But of course this leaves a huge impression. Otherwise,
what touches me most about this, is when I get, for instance
recently I got a picture from New Delhi, from a open-air screening
on a street corner in New Delhi organized by some local Tibetans. So
they were sitting there in the street watching "Burma VJ" and the
street was packed. Traffic stopped; they were all just sitting there
and totally engulfed with it. They tell me that this has helped to
bring Tibetan and Burmese exiles more together in India and those
are the stories that really touch you.
Are you looking forward to the Oscar parties? Whether you win or
lose you get to go to the Oscar parties.
I guess so. I
don't know what to look forward to but it seems to be pretty
When you've gone to Oscar events like the nominees' lunch, there's
got to be somebody you're really excited to meet. Give me a fan
It was a great
moment to say hello to Danny Ellsberg. Even though it's not my
country's history that was nice. Otherwise, I wouldn't say meeting
any specific person, but what I really enjoyed about that lunch was
this kind of collegial atmosphere, like we were making this class
photo. There was a sense that superstars would mingle with other
members of the film industry without any sense of difference.
Everybody knew that film is hard work and we share this hard work,
we share this effort, and we share this commitment to the medium. So
that was very pure and nice, the atmosphere.
had a chance to build up a new film because I've been so busy with
this for a long time. So that's actually what I'm hoping to get
started thinking about once this is finished.
It will be something stylistically different?
Oh yeah it
might be entirely different. I just follow whatever story fascinates
us Let us know what you