Barefoot Reporter In Burma

Following a string of successful documentaries, Anders Høgsbro Østergaard plunged into deep water with a film about video activism in Burma. Initially conceived as a small story about personal engagement and courage, the project switched gear after the rebellion of Burmese monks in 2007, expanding into a human drama with a strong vein of high-risk journalism. The title of the film is "Burma VJ – Reporting from a Closed Country".

In late August, Anders Høgsbro Østergaard presented his still unfinished project "Burma VJ" at the annual convergence of Danish documentary filmmakers at the European Film College in Ebeltoft. Plainly, he was a bit chagrined that real-life events had interfered with his film in ways that hindered him from treating his material as freely and creatively as he had planned.

Østergaard originally set out to make a small halfhour portrait of a young Burmese video reporter, a member of an underground network of activists who frequently risk their lives to document the oppressive conditions in the country.

Then, in 2007, chaotic events involving a rebellion of Buddhist monks against Burma's military junta not only threw the local video reporters into the assignment of a lifetime, it also forced the Danish filmmaker to retool his project.

Volatile material

“To begin with, I was mainly interested in my central character as a documentarian,” Østergaard says. “He and his friends have to film with their cameras concealed in bags, which obviously is a major restriction on what they are able to document. My interest, then, was more about why they were even doing what they were doing. Why do they expose themselves to such risk? What are their thoughts about it and how are they affected by what they do? I was fascinated by my protagonist’s almost instinctive need to document the world, which apparently came before any considerations about what political goals they might serve. My film was a small, intimate, psychological affair. Then came the rebellion.”

As real life upended his plans, Østergaard quickly saw that the dramatic turn of events in Burma was putting much more volatile material in his hands, giving the film a whole other potential as an epic tale of high-political drama. At the same time, the material presented an obligation. As the only filmmakers in the world, Østergaard and his team now, had an opportunity to tell the story of the rebelling monks from a bird’s eye perspective. While everyone else had only pieces of the story, Østergaard and his crew suddenly had at their disposal an impressive volume of footage that allowed them to more or less reconstruct the whole sequence of events. Once a creative documentarian, Østergaard was now a chronicler of world history.

A broad inventory of ideas

Anders Østergaard (b. 1965) made a big impression on Danish cinemagoers in 2006 with "Gasolin’", a documentary about a singularly popular Danish rock band from the 1970s. Though Gasolin’, fronted by charismatic singer Kim Larsen, never gained a following outside Scandinavia, in Denmark they enjoyed years of Beatles-like stardom. Following its 1978 break-up, the group became part of the Danish cultural heritage. The "Gasolin’" film drew 223,000 Danes to cinemas, an exceptionally high number, not just for a documentary but by any standard.

A narrative move he employed in "Gasolin’" has become almost emblematic of Østergaard’s approach to the documentary format. The film is carried by a wealth of archival footage and held together by a series of new interviews, but Østergaard then went a step further, constructing a number of scenes with stand-ins for the four musicians inhabiting the streets of Copenhagen of shadows or ghostlike figures. The method serves both to illustrate story elements not covered by archival footage and to filmically represent how the band, even though it broke up 30 years ago, remains a vibrant presence to this day. The music lives on.

Mixing documentary footage with staged shots has been a hallmark of Østergaard's films almost from the beginning. A rare exception was "Gensyn med Johannesburg" (1996). In this relatively conventional documentary, Østergaard follows the Danish filmmaker Henning Carlsen on a trip to South Africa to revisit some of the people who appeared in Carlsen’s "Dilemma", a pioneering 1961 docudrama based on a novel by Nadine Gordimer and shot without the consent of the South African authorities.

In his next film, "Troldkarlen" (1999), about the Swedish jazzman Jan Johansson who died on an icy road in 1968 at the age of just 37, Østergaard truly came into his own as a documentary filmmaker wielding a remarkably wide repertoire of filmic ideas, including the use of staged shots. Notoriously, he recreated Johansson’s fatal car accident with a stand-in behind the wheel.

This tendency was accentuated in "Tintin et moi" (2003), a film about Hergé, the creator of Tintin, that became Østergaard’s international breakthrough. Adding 3D effects to Hergé’s cartoons let the camera explore an otherwise two-dimensional universe, while a special animation technique brought the deceased cartoonist back to life. Hergé, whose real name was Georges Rémi, was almost as famous for being tight-lipped about his thought and feelings as for his comic adventures about the intrepid reporter Tintin. Accordingly, it caused widespread surprise in 1971 when an interview by a French student, Numa Sadoul, spontaneously evolved into a four-day talk. Without warning, the cartoonist had opened the floodgates, casting his 23-year-old listener in the role of psychoanalyst and commiserator. Østergaard wanted the audiotapes of this legendary interview to be the core of his film and, after long deliberation, the trustees of Hergé’s estate finally released them. But the Danish filmmaker wasn’t content simply to include Hergé’s voice on the soundtrack. Using so-called sketch-line animation, he resurrected his subject as a speaking cartoon character, breathing life into material that, in the hands of a less inventive filmmaker, could easily have become just another dusty archival montage with talking heads.

The democratic voice of Burma

Making a documentary about conditions in Burma, a country infamous for cracking down hard on any sign of insurrection or civil disobedience, not to mention any form of journalistic activity, was clearly an altogether more daunting challenge than bringing a documentary about a cartoonist vibrantly to life in moving pictures.

Like North Korea, Burma – or Myanmar, as the country is officially known – has nearly hermetically been sealed to the outside world for years. As in most dictatorships, the powers that be, firmly control all media. As a result, most Burmese live in relative ignorance about what goes on outside their local area and, conversely, very little information leaks out to the international community.

Even so, Burma has a tiny network of independent video reporters operating under extremely difficult circumstances to gather all the concealed-camera footage as they can to document their brutal and impoverished reality. These activities are coordinated by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), an Oslo-based organisation that edits the clandestine footage into news stories, which are then broadcast back into Burma and fed to the international media. Detailed knowledge about the DVB’s activities came to us through the courtesy of Jan Krogsgaard, a Danish video artist who has travelled widely in the region and assembled an extensive network of contacts.

For obvious reasons, Østergaard couldn’t disclose the identity of his film’s protagonist, a 27-year-old video reporter known as “Joshua,” or name any of the other activists supplying this rich material. Accordingly, the film revolves around a person whose face we never see. The filmmaker answered that challenge in part by concluding that, even though we can’t see the protagonist, we can still see with him.

“It’s always exciting to crawl into another person’s head and experience the world through his eyes,” Østergaard says. “Once we’d figured out how we were going to experience Burma through Joshua’s eyes, we started debating how to connect all his footage and how to depict the circumstances he was working under. To be sure, Joshua’s has authentic footage documenting things, but often what happens just before or just after his shots is just as exciting. From this emerged the idea of the camera that’s never turned off, that keeps on rolling even when it’s hidden in a bag when the cameraman runs into a policeman, say, and slings the blarney to save his hide.”

No scoops

Nonetheless, Østergaard didn’t actually ask his protagonist to leave his camera on. Instead, as in his past films, he decided to recreate the situations around the authentic shots, including telephone conversations and other elements in the film, in close collaboration with the people involved. It seemed obvious, then, for the filmmakers at the documentary meeting in Ebeltoft to ask for his thoughts about the concept of authenticity.

“Veracity is important,” Østergaard told the crowd. “We have to provide a truthful representation. If we summarise a sequence of events or switch around shots, it has to be true to how the energies were moving around. Hence, how you experience a documentary depends on whether you decide to trust the filmmaker’s truthfulness about the material, as he experiences it.”

The discussion then zoomed in on the boundary between reconstruction and fakery:

“Put briefly, my thoughts about what to recreate and what not to recreate rest on one simple premise: not to do scoops. I can’t do anything that would outshine the authentic material. I can’t do anything that, if authentic, would make it around the world. However, I can film the internal lines, the little stories that, although they aren’t scoops, are important pieces to make my story work. In short, I recreate the internal lines, while the external lines are authentic,” Østergaard says. “Right around there is where I draw the line.”