Thank You, Google Earth

Janus Billeskov Jansen has done a bit of everything in his long career as a film editor. Even so, "Burma VJ – Reporting from a Closed Country" was a challenge out of the ordinary, not least owing to the jumble of footage shot by anonymous video reporters in isolated Burma.

Nearly two years ago, when Janus Billeskov Jansen was hired to edit Anders Høgsbro Østergaard’s "Burma VJ – Reporting from a Closed Country", the project was supposed to be a short film, of perhaps half an hour, about a video reporter in Burma. A small psychological portrait, with the director trying to understand the forces that propel someone to risk his life to get a few, relatively limited stories in the can. Then the protests of Burmese monks in autumn 2007 changed the reality of Burma and, in turn, completely transformed Østergaard’s film.

"We were able to identify ... buildings and streets ... down to the smallest detail, and also identified where and when the various shots were made."

"We were able to identify ... buildings and streets ... down to the smallest detail, and also identified where and when the various shots were made."

“The whole thing was more or less over in a week,” Billeskov Jansen says. “When we started working on the film again, in January 2008, the historical sequence of events was already in place. However, footage was flooding in now, both from Thailand and Oslo, where the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) is headquartered. Our task subsequently consisted in identifying all the new footage, dating it and sorting out what really happened – what was action and what was reaction, what it meant when the monks took to the streets and how they related to the civilian population and the military, respectively. All those things.”



Born 1951. A director and editor, Billeskov Jansen first started working in the Danish film industry in 1970. He has edited a large number of internationally acknowledged feature films and documentaries and directed numerous Danish documentaries. Since 1979, he has taught editing and narratology at the National Film School of Denmark. Billeskov Jansen has worked with influential Danish directors, most significantly a lifelong creative collaboration with the Palme d’Or and Academy Awardwinning director Bille August. Billeskov Jansen is the editor of "Family", a documentary that won the Joris Ivens Award in 2001. He is also recipient of Danish Film Academy Awards in 1984, 1988 and 1995, and an Honorary Bodil Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005.

For a start, the filmmakers faced the problem that the tapes they received in Denmark had been recorded over in Burma or Thailand, so there was no guarantee that the footage was in actual chronological order. Also, they didn’t know how many photographers had been present at the different events. Finally, it seemed almost impossible to pin down what shots had been made on what days. Then help arrived from an unexpected place:

“We discovered that we could log on to Google Earth and locate Rangoon, zoom in as far as we could go and still maintain relatively good resolution,” Billeskov Jansen says, “much higher quality images than you get if you look at Copenhagen, for instance. At first, I wondered about that, but then I tried looking at other areas where you would expect the West to have military interests and the images of those places generally looked better, too. That way, we were able to identify the locations of buildings and streets we recognised from the videotapes. After a few weeks’ work, we had mapped out the events that happened over the seven days of the protests down to the smallest detail, and also identified where and when the various shots were made.”

What was the biggest challenge in this project for you as an editor?

“Several things. Apart from the problems of identifying the footage, it made our work extra difficult that the reporters in Burma didn’t have a lot of tapes. So when things came to a head and got increasingly confrontational, they had to record on top of the shots they already had from the earlier, more peaceful phase, where all you saw was monks marching in the streets,” Billeskov Jansen says.

“Then, it was a challenge to edit footage in which a language is spoken that you don’t understand. We actually had to fly someone down from DVB in Oslo, because it was impossible to track down an interpreter in Denmark,” Billeskov Jansen says. “Furthermore, we sent some of the material as MP3 files to Thailand to have it translated there. Another problem was that we needed very exact translations, since the film would be shown with subtitles almost everywhere in the world. More than a literal 1:1 translation of the words, we needed translators with a profound understanding of the culture. So, part of the film’s editing rhythm was dictated by the simple need to give people time to read the subtitles.”

How did you, as an editor, experience the task of fusing authentic footage and reenactments into a meaningful whole?

“It’s a very delicate balance, obviously,” Billeskov Jansen says. “If the re-enactments don’t work, and the film loses credibility even at a single point, you risk the whole house of cards collapsing. Fortunately for us, the majority of people who will be watching this film do not approve of what is going on in Burma. Nonetheless, even though we had to manipulate the material – and making a film you always do – it’s important that we did so based on such in-depth knowledge of the material that we didn’t make any untrue statements. All along, we were vigilant about sticking to the truth.”

Janus Billeskov Jansen foto: Katinka Schyberg