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Tuesday, October 06, 2009
A truth or a semblance of truth: A Reader on "Burma VJ"
This recently came in. With permission from the writer, Andrew Marshall, I reprint his letter -- and his valuable comments -- below. The debate on what's a truth and what's just a semblance of truth, and on the role of documentary films and moving images in the age of free information (at least in most parts of the world), will continue.
Your recent column compared Burmese video journalists covering the
2007 democracy protests in Rangoon to their Thai counterparts during
the red-vs-yellow turbulence.
But "Burma VJ," which says it is
"largely comprised" of footage shot by Burmese VJs, is the wrong
documentary to make your point.
Imagine if a film called "Thailand VJ" was released. It is hailed as
a gritty, honest, street-level account by brave handicam-wielding men
Then it turns out "Thailand VJ" is not "largely" comprised of
original footage, but at least 50 percent of it -- up to 80 percent,
privately admits one producer -- are reconstructions. Many scenes,
including a street protest, are set up and filmed in Chiang Mai. And
it's made by foreigners, to boot.
Imagine the reaction.
The uncritical acceptance of reconstructions in "Burma VJ" has been
surprising to me. “The street scenes are real; the setups are not,”
raved the reviewer for the New York Times, who didn't know or didn't
want to know about the many scenes shot in Chiang Mai. These also
include not just a protest, but also many outdoor scenes purporting
to be secretly shot at
great risk, including the raid on the DVB offices depicted at the end
of the doco.
You say the film is a tribute to the power of the handicam. It is, in
a way. More accurately, it is a testament to how a Danish (not
Norwegian) docu-drama uses sophisticated techniques to replicate and
appropriate the rawness and honesty of amateur handicam work.
My feeling is that the filmmakers are duping viewers and dishonoring the
very profession and cause they claim to be extolling.
After I reviewed the film for TIME magazine, the producer of "Burma
VJ" promised to post a version of the docu-drama on their official
website, outlining which scenes are real and which ones are
fabricated. She has not kept this promise. Is she worried that, when
people know how much of it was made up, it might lose its impact
among viewers and reviewers? I'm not even sure that the exchange that
begins your column ("How many cameras do we have?") isn't a
reconstruction too. How ironic would that be? Until the filmmakers
come clean, we'll never know.
My original review of Burma VJ for TIME can be read here:
Yours, in truth,
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