Below is the transcript for an introduction I gave at the University of Kent on 4th February 2014 for Burma VJ (Anders Ostergaard, 2008). The event was part of the campus takeover/politics week run by Kent Union.
The screening took place in the Lupino, the university’s dedicated screening room.
Burma VJ has an unusual production history. Much of the footage is shot in Burma by activists on the ground during political demonstrations. But the film was compiled in the West, after the footage was smuggled out of the country. I am not going to talk much about how the film was made, because that will become evident as you are watching it. The film is, in many ways, about its own creation. Instead, I am going to briefly discuss some of the vital themes the film touches on.
Though the film deals with a very specific set of events from a particular place and time in history, it is an important indicator of some of the ways protest and activism has changed around the world. In particular, the film chronicles how effective the use of camcorder and video recording technology can be to political activists.
Camcorders are used in the film to expose authoritarian and institutional abuse, and to expose the often brutal reaction by authorities to direct political action. In protests worldwide we can see how the use of camera-phone footage dominates reporting on civil unrest, with much news footage comprising of pictures taken by the citizens involved.
Burma VJ is a prophetic film. The year after the film was made Neda Soltan was killed by police during an anti-government protest in Iran. Her death, captured on mobile phones by her friends, was broadcast worldwide, and was used to shine a light on events in Iran happening at the time.
In the UK, in a political climate far less intense than either Burma or Iran, we saw how footage captured by civilians can be used to hold authority to account. Ian Tomlinson died during the G20 protests in the same year as Neda Agha- Soltan – 2009. The first police reports of his death, ones which were repeated widely in the media, were that he had collapsed, and that protesters had bombarded the police as they attempted to resuscitate him. These stories were soon contradicted by eyewitnesses, and several days after Tomlinson’s death video footage emerged which confirmed that he had in fact died after contact with police, and that protestors had not thrown anything or attempted to prevent police from giving first aid. The incident culminated in a police officer being tried for manslaughter.
These incidents highlight a recent development in political activism. We have to acknowledge that the process of recording is a two way process. The police use video to record protesters – and protesters will increasingly use video to record the police. Both are vital to democratic processes. Rather than providing a full stop to this debate, Burma VJ helped to mark the beginning of a new era of political activism.