On Dangerous Ground

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Cops with an attitude problem. Wet city streets at night highlighted by small pools of light.Lingering smoke. Shady characters caught in shady dealings. This is the film noir atmosphere I love with all of my heart.Many directors and stars made film noir during its heyday, but nobody did it better than Nicholas Ray. Not only did he set up the conventions of the genre, he also worked very hard to subvert them. There is no better example of both of these tendencies then his movie from 1952, On Dangerous Ground.

The first part of the film is set in the seedy underground of New York City at night. Jim Wilson is a hard cop working a beat he is tired of. He has severe anger issues that put key witnesses into hospitals and strain the relationships he has with his partners. This section is where Ray throws the film noir tropes at you. Disaffected detective? Check. Night? Check. Super rainy for some unknown reason? Check. Angry outbursts and awesome dialogue? Check. Loose women with loose morals? Check. However, this landscape changes abruptly about thirty minutes into the movie. Wilson gets sent out to “Siberia” as he calls it because of his anger issues to investigate the murder of a young girl. By the time he gets there, the local sheriff knows who did it, but is having trouble finding the man. Through a series of events, Wilson ends up in the house of a blind woman who happens to be the sister of the murderer. This blind woman is unlike any woman he had ever met before. She seems almost self-sufficient and frank in her ideas about life. She wants nothing more than to protect her brother, even though she knows that he is not quite right.Through the interactions between Wilson and this blind woman and the town around them, Ray subtly subvert our expectations. He takes the woman of noble virtue and makes her blind. He photographs the snowy landscape in almost the same way he photographed the noir landscape. He takes a detective that was embittered with his occupation of always failing to get justice in the only way he knows how (by beating snitches up) and injects a caring streak that keeps him from going off the handle when he doesn’t get his way. Above all he gives the story a happy ending, something that is actually an exception in this bleak genre.

Nicholas Ray was able to take characters that seemingly don’t deserve any pity and make them likable. As an audience member, I was with Wilson the whole time. I balked when his partners displayed frustration with him, sympathizes with him when he sees that he has nothing left except his physical abilities and rejoiced when he found some peace and quiet in the blind woman. Ray loves his characters and therefore makes a lesser film grander. This affection for his characters give Robert Ryan (Wilson) and Ida Lupino (the blind woman. She also directed some scenes in this movie, but I don’t know which.) plenty of room to explore their characters. They do so in cramped quarters, whether it is Wilson’s apartment or the blind woman’s living room. But these spaces seem grand when these two decide to inhabit them. Everything Ryan does is in service of his character. He even makes coffee in an angry fashion. He says what he means and boils over at even the slightest indication of rejection. He feels like his a social pariah because of his profession and yet there doesn’t seem to be anything other than what he does to him. On the surface there seems to be little else to Lupino’s character other than she is blind. But once you dig a little deeper, she is able to express her ideas about being alone, about caring for other people and about continuing to live no matter what life throws at you. She mentions that she could get the condition reversed, but I can’t see her not blind.

This is probably one of the quintessential film noirs ever produced. If you have not seen it and love the genre as much as I do, I suggest you hurry up and watch it.

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Overlord

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Watching documentary footage of the devastation of World War II is something can be hard to stomach. Such widespread chaos, destruction  and faceless death can be really damaging to someone’s psyche. At some point when I watch a documentary showing me massive war destruction, I disassociate. It makes the process of watching horrible acts more bearable. On some level I know that this stuff actually happened in real life, but I am actively telling my brain that this footage is faked or dramatized. It’s also easy to do this when you don’t know any of the people pictured in the footage. To see the skeleton like creatures walking out of the concentration camps is easier to forget about when you don’t think that these people had lives, family and interests just like I do. But this is not a good thing for my brain to do. If I know that I am doing it to myself, how many other thousands of people are doing the same things? If we don’t learn from our past then we are bound to repeat it. (I still think that the Vietnam War has some striking similarities to the war we are currently fighting in Afghanistan. Clearly we did not learn our lesson about that one.) Overlord takes me to task for this unconscious/conscious coping mechanism by taking archival footage shot on the battlefields of France and Germany during World War II and humanizes one of the countless men who are nothing but cannon fodder.

This film is almost like a lyrical poem to the unknown soldier. The filmmaker takes a man and sets him in a position as a typical British solider storming the shores of Normandy. Tens of thousands of men lost their lives on both sides just in this battle alone. He was just one of the many. We see him go through basic training, make friends, fall in love ever so briefly, and generally talk about how terrible this war is. War is on everybody’s minds. They can’t stop wondering whether they are going to die, whether their friends are going to die or even what they are truly fighting for. His journey that leads to D-Day and inevitable is intercut, magnificently, with reporting footage. This footage not only shows the way these men whiled away the hours, the training they went through and the rough climates they were forced to go through, but it also showed the devastation they wrought through orders. At one point the filmmaker shows us an aerial view of buildings that had been shelled. Rows upon rows of torn apart and scarred buildings pass through the screen and I couldn’t help but wonder how many people died simply because they lived in the right neighborhood at the wrong time. I don’t know whether this is France, Germany or Britain, but I know I don’t care. War doesn’t just involve the willing, but also the non-willing and the incoherent.

We get to know this solider and we feel for him as he is sitting in that large boat being rushed to his fate. Before he boards the ship, he writes to his parents one last time saying that it is unlikely that he will make it back alive. To have that sort of premonition must have been devastating for him. And although he seems to have accepted it enough to have written to his parents about it, it doesn’t stop him from looking deathly sacred on the boat. He dissociates, much like I do when faced with an intense situation. He dreams about that girl he met, about her breasts and about how she might be waiting for him after the war. But he can’t shake that image of him falling dead out of his mind. In the most iconic image of the film (if you have ever looked at artwork of this film, you would have seen it), the filmmaker films the solider’s eye close up and projects the image of him falling over dead onto it. It is a beautifully stylistic choice.

He was able to take archival footage, the story of a young British solider and create something of supreme beauty out of it. This is why Overlord is a film worth watching.

The Deep Blue Sea

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I have complained time and again on this blog about the trouble with historical films. Although I am innately drawn to them, they usually disappoint me. The main problem with them is that they weigh too heavily on the time period, setting it up, making it look perfect, and not enough time on captivating an audience with a good story or convincing actors. If only I could give every filmmaker who was thinking of making a movie set in a historical past The Deep Blue Sea, I feel that the quality of this genre would go up.

Rachel Weisz stars as Hester Collyer. She is the wife of an important and rich judge, Sir William Collyer, in post World War II Britain. Sir Collyer is very much her senior, but is a loving man. But Hester disregards him when he falls in love with a strapping young RAF pilot whose usefulness was over after the war ended. Freddie is a passionate lover and Hester falls head over heals for him, breaking off her marriage and moving in with him. She goes in an instant from untold wealth to abject poverty. Hester and Freddie wear down their passion for each other and Freddie substitutes her love for golf and drinking. Hester is driven to suicide (which is the first scene in the film) but it isn’t because she no longer loves Freddie. She tries to commit suicide because she has too much pity for everyone around her. She pities Sir Collyer because he is unable to satisfy neither his wife nor his mother. She pities Freddie because he is stuck in the conflict, probably never to come out of it again. And she pities herself for putting herself in such a precarious situation. The rest of the story comes as a result of her decision to try to commit suicide earlier in the film.

The film uses its historical context to inform the characters’ emotions and actions. Freddie is the way he is because he was so scarred by what he saw during World War II. He also is unable to find a job because Britain was so devastated by the great war that everyone is broke or broken. So he whiles his time away in pubs, singing traditional songs as an outlet for his pain. Hester can be seen as a symbol of the whole country breaking abruptly with old ways of life where people went to proper tea and spoke in perfect accents to the harsh yet passionate new way of life brought about by the survivors of one of the bloodiest wars in history. Freddie is the new world, Sir William is the old world. But neither is quite right for the future of Britain nor for the future of Hester. This is why Hester must be cruel to Sir William and why she allows Freddie to walk all over her. She doesn’t know what else to do.

There is a scene in the last third of the movie that I feel sums up how much I like this movie and its performances. Hester is talking to Sir William on a dark and damp street late at night. Freddie interrupts their conversation with his belligerent speech. As he leaves both of them, he screams to Sir William asking him if he still loves her. A moment after this interruption subsides, Sir William says that the answer to Freddie’s question was yes. Then he passionately tells her that he will offer her anything in order to get her back. She cruelly tells him no, but holds out hope for him that there might be a future. After this exchange, Sir William dejectedly gives her a present for her birthday. Once she expresses her fake enthusiasm for the book, Sir William gets into his Rolls Royce. But before he leaves he looks at Hester. This look is filled with utter rejection and loss. He looks away and then he looks back at her again. The same look is expressed but somehow it is deeper after he does it a second time. This one look is in a nutshell what the film is about. It is about abject sorrow and loss manifested in this love triangle.

Flesh and the Devil

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When you think of silent film actresses most people think of Greta Garbo. Her beautiful chiseled face with those pencil thin eyebrows can stop any man’s throbbing heart, if only for a minute. She was an actress to be reckoned with and even for some time had a sound career, before she became fed up with MGM’s shenanigans and retired to a reclusive lifestyle. Flesh and the Devil was the film that made her famous in the States. It is also what helped to bring down her co-star John Gilbert. (drama!)

John Gilbert stars an Austrian military man right before World War I. He and his childhood friend, who is also in the military, look out for each other no matter what. They both get a leave of absence and Leo (Gilbert) goes to a grand ball where he meets Felicitas (Garbo). Their attraction to each other is palpable. In a great scene on the terrace, Felicitas asks Leo for a light for her cigarette. After he has struck a match, Felicitas blows it out and they kiss. (It’s a lot more steamy than I can describe trust me). Leo is head over heels for Felicitas and seemingly she is as well. As they are engaging in some passionate caresses, an old man walks. This man is in fact Felicitas’ husband. Her husband, outraged, challenges our strapping young Leo with a duel. Leo shoots her husband and is told by the military to disappear for a few years in Africa. Before he goes, he tells his best friend, Ulrich, to look after the newly widowed young woman but doesn’t tell him that he loves her. Ulrich was able to procure an early pardon for Leo and he rushes back to his love. But when he arrives, he sees that Ulrich had married Felicitas. (That tramp!) What is a lovesick Leo to do now that his best friend is now his enemy in love?

Gilbert and Garbo met on this set and began a whirlwind romance that resulted in Garbo leaving Gilbert at the altar. The first days of their gossip worthy romance is palpable in every scene that they shared. The camera lingers in close-ups of Garbo and Gilbert as they whisper sweet nothings to each other. The director clearly had an affection for this real life romance. Before this film was made, Gilbert was the bigger actor. With the death of Valentino, he was ushered in by the studios and fan magazines as the next romantic leading man. But after this film and a couple of others that he did with Garbo, his career faltered. The failed romance clearly had an effect on him and he didn’t have that same lusty sheen that he once had in his movies. By the advent of sound, his career was over. Gilbert was a victim just like Leo was in this movie of Garbo’s magnetism. One only has to look at this film to know why.

Foxy Brown

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My current generation knows blaxploitation movement purely as inspiration for works of Quentin Tarantino or for sketch comedies where black people strut around in crazy pimp like outfits. This is mainly because blaxploitation was a movement and a genre unique to its time. Given the swirl of circumstances that made what many consider the first blaxploitation movie popular, Sweet Sweetback’s Baaadassss Song, is not present today. The black community and most certainly the mostly white community that controls the purse strings of Hollywood don’t want to see the kicking ass women, over the top pimps or general laissez-faire sexual proclivities that populate this genre. Instead they want to see Tyler Perry make assumptions that his audience is dumb and therefore can’t tell that he recycled the same storyline from a movie he made last year. (Don’t get me wrong, white people have their fair share of insanely stupid movies, Grown Ups anyone?) I argue that the black community that has not grown up with blaxploitation as their source of entertainment are worse off for role models then they were in the late sixties right when this movement started. If one were to rectify this situation by building a more blaxploitation community, then one must educate yourself in order to see how this genre and movement became so popular. Foxy Brown is probably the best film to start with.

Foxy Brown is just a groovy young cat waiting for her man to get out reconstructive surgery so he can hide from the criminals he was working for as an undercover cop. But she has a brother. And oh how brothers can mess things up, man. This brother learns that Foxy’s boyfriend was the man who ratted out his dealer who is also his employer that he had just gotten into some shit with. So his brother turns rat for the bad guys in order to get back into their good graces. The hit men then come looking for this boyfriend and kill him. Foxy watches everything go down and knows right away who betrayed her. She must now infiltrate this den of criminals (played awesomely by a group of all white people who have a woman for a boss…. go feminism!) by becoming a prostitute and kicking a bunch of ass to take down what her cop boyfriend failed to do legally. There is a lot of bearing of breasts, snorting of fake coke, kicking ass and calling for a sawed off shotgun (my favorite shotgun!) all to culminate in some castration.

I have one reason why this film works on a level that is above camp: Pam Grier. She takes an outrageous scenario and plays it straight. There is no winking at the camera as she takes off her top for the third time in the film, no posturing as she wields her dainty pistol and no playing the victim in any scene. Foxy uses her brains as much as she uses her body to get what she wants. She is resourceful and powerful. Her charisma oozes on the screen.

This film is the perfect introduction to blaxploitation because it features all of the tropes of the genre without it being a slog. You see some action, some sweet lines delivered (including “I’ve got my black belt in bar stools” and “You pink ass corrupt honky judge, take your little wet noodle outta here and if you see a man anywhere send him in because I do need a MAN!”) and some sexiness. But these things are tempered by the ideas put forth about the current state of the black community (see Link’s speech at the beginning), feminist ideals (Foxy doesn’t need a man at all to do anything for her and all of the men featured here are either sadists or incompetent), and the nature of human needs. In other words you can watch this film and enjoy it for the surface events as equally as you can mull over the overt themes for days to come.

The African Queen

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It is no secret that Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart are my two favorite actors. So it may come to the reader’s surprise that I have never seen the African Queen, the only movie that starred them both. I couldn’t believe this major oversight myself. So once I noticed it, I set towards rectifying this hole in my film knowledge immediately.

Katherine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart play a quintessential mismatched couple. Rose (Hepburn) is an English missionary stationed in Africa at the breakout of World War I. Charlie Allnut (Bogart) is a hard scrabble shipman who escaped from Canadian boredom to become his own boss in the jungles. After the Germans come in and destroy Rose’s mission, she teams up with Charlie on a foolhardy mission to torpedo a big German ship and help the British cause. Of course Charlie is reluctant but Rose is determined to helping her home country. They go on a road movie type journey full of bumps and bruises along the way. But the plot is pushed aside for the beautiful back and forth that punctuates Rose and Charlie falling in love.

The comedic overtones in this film actually surprise me a great deal. Houston, the director, is not exactly known for his comic abilities and neither is his favorite leading man, Bogart. Houston even said that through the writing process there was no comedy present on the script, but the interactions between Bogart and Hepburn turned it into a drama with a comedic edge. Bogart is wonderful as a drunk yet well-meaning boatman. He is able to produce monologues without much interaction with Hepburn with such a beautiful affectation that he makes me snort with laughter. Hepburn is of course able to bring comedy to every uptight woman she plays, but she is able to poke fun at her persona as well. There is a scene early on in the movie where Charlie is invited to sit for tea with Rose and her preacher brother. Charlie is obviously out-of-place in this proper and polished setting, but his interference is punctuated by an intrusive growl in his stomach. He acknowledges it right away, but Rose keeps just offering him tea punctuated by an accusative “Mr Allnut” (his last name). Her delivery of the accusative offerings makes her seem both uptight and somewhat amused by this ruffian’s behavior. It is a perfect scene that hints at the relationship to come.

The combination of Houston, Bogart, Hepburn and Cardiff (the cinematographer) in the wildness of the Congo produced magnificent results. This film is more than a standard “road movie” but instead transforms itself into art. A funny, well photographed, art.

Maya Deren: Experimental Films

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My guess is that when you saw the title of my entry, you immediately pulled up google to see who or what a Maya Deren is. Let me save you the trouble. Maya Deren was an experimental and surreal filmmaker during the forties. But she is more than that. First off she was the first famous experimental female director, she was the first person to receive a Guggenheim grant for film and she was incredibly unique in everything she did. I watched her collection of experimental films that were packaged and collected together on a hard to find DVD and I was blown away by her abilities.

I will highlight two of the seven short films that she produced. The first one I will highlight is called Meshes of an Afternoon. If you have heard of Deren, it is probably because you have heard of this film. The film feels like, on the surface at least, a lost masterpiece in Salvador Dali’s body of work. The setting clearly has a Spanish influence as well as the music, Deren is dressed much like I would think Gala would be dressed at this time, and iconic images that show up in Dali’s paintings are present here as well, like winding staircases and elongated figures. But Deren is able to take the ideas that Dali popularized and twist them into a way that is uniquely hers. She brings a sense of horror to the piece that I don’t think Dali was ever able to achieve effectively. (The slicing of the eyeball in Un Chien Andalou is gross, not horrific) She does this by creating a sense of other worldliness, like a knife being taken out of a loaf bread seemingly by itself or black curtains blowing in an imaginary wind. Of course the most “horrific” image has got to be the figures cloaked in a body length cloth but with mirrors for faces. It is not necessarily the figures themselves, but Deren’s reactions to them. Each time she sees one, the setting becomes surreal and our sense of confusion is intensified. These figures are the manifestation of her worst fears. Her fear of dying. This eerie figure is transformed into a man (who was played by her husband at the time) and she dreams that he is trying to kill her. The images of a key, a flower, a knife and a mirror morph and change meaning as the short goes on. Every sequence is punctuated by dissonant sounds made by drums, guitar, and a woodwind of some sort. These sounds lend to the other worldliness of the picture. It took me a couple of viewings of the short in order to get a good grasp of what I think Deren means. But I will not spoil this adventure for you, dear reader. I only ask that you take about a half hour out of your day and watch this short on youtube twice. You will not be disappointed, especially if you like to be challenged by the images you see.

Most of her shorts are pretty short with no hidden message so it is hard for me to say anything meaningful about them. So instead of talking about each short, I will talk about one that is representative of these later shorts Deren did. Deren was interested in movement and dance. In the Very Eye of Night, she takes a troupe of ballet dancers places them against a background of rotating stars. Each dancer represents a celestial being, and they all interact with each other through their bodies. But there is something off about these dancers. They are reproduced against this star background in photographic negative. Everything that was dark is now light and vice versa. This gives the image a surreal feel and keeps the viewer at a distance. Each image is punctuated by a beautiful score that keeps in time with the dancers’ movements. This is the short I would show anyone who has doubts about avant-garde movements.

I hope I didn’t disgrace Maya Deren’s memory by attempting to talk about her films. I am pretty inexperienced in talking about experimental cinema, but I feel like it needs to have more of a light shed on it. Experimental cinema has a stigma that plagues anyone who has sat through a student film. But it is so much more than that. Experimental cinema can create real emotions, atmospheres and thoughts just like traditional narrative cinema can. It just may take a little bit more active engagement with it.

Panic in Needle Park

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Love and addiction are two ideas that have been explored extensively in film. Every drunk detective or writer has some woman pining after him. But when it is junk the two concepts can quickly lead down a dark path. In Panic in Needle Park, Helen and Bobby fall in love with each other and with junk.

Helen is a recent transplant to New York City. She sees Bobby as electrifying and completely different from the people who exist in her hometown. Bobby steals, hustles, and cops through his existence. Helen falls from him immediately and they start to live with each other. They hang out in needle park where all of the misfits and addicts waste away the day. Part of Bobby’s allure is his habit. It makes him dangerous. Soon Helen is shooting as well and their relationship turns toxic quickly. The money troubles, uneven wavelengths, and rash judgements that are associated with addiction plague their relationship. Due to Helen’s propensity to turn tricks, steal food and visibly cop from dealers gets her into trouble fast. The only way out of the trouble is to turn on Bobby. But would she risk their toxic yet dependable relationship in order to not go to jail?

The strengths in this film don’t rely on the sensational activities depicted, but on the nuanced performances. Anyone could play a junky, but only Al Pacino can play a charismatic one. He shouts, he teases and he is utterly sympathetic despite all of the mean things he does. This film gave him his first starring role and propelled him into his next role which was The Godfather. It is easy to see why he would be perfect for Michael Corleone just by watching this film. He is able to display a range that is envious. In contrast Kitty Winn plays the role of Helen subtly. She mumbles her words and internalize her struggles with junk, prostitution and the law. This performance highlights her inevitable downfall. When she first sees Bobby, you see no emotion except for a hint of a smile and a playful back and forth. Although she doesn’t declare it (until the end of the movie), every expression she makes and action she does is because she loves Bobby.

This movie is far from perfect. There are scenes that seemingly were put in just to shock the audience like the over long scene of the manufacturers cutting the junk or the infamous puppy sequence. But it is easy to overlook these annoying sequences to watch the back and forth between Bobby and Helen. In a dirty seventies New York City, Helen and Bobby were the quintessential couple.

Light Keeps Me Company

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Sven Nykvist is a large blonde Swedish man. He towers over anyone else that is present in the frame. But at the same time he seems to fade into the background, especially when he is placed next to Bergman, Tarkovsky, Allen, or Polanski. In Light Keeps Me Company, Nykvist’s son tells the story of one of the most influential cinematographers of all time.

Nykvist is associated most closely with Ingmar Bergman. He started working with him on Sawdust and Tinsel and was his main cinematographer for most of Bergman’s career. He was instrumental in creating how a Bergman film looks. Working closely with Bergman, Nykvist devised the play with the sunlight hitting the snow and casting shadows on the actors’ faces in Winter Light. He photographed the plain faces of Liv Ullman and Bibi Anderson in a way that became an art form. But Nykvist is terribly humble about his achievements. Bergman explains that Nykvist would never order anything, he would instead suggest something and almost always that thing would be spot on. He just understood light in an innate way.

Many of the interview subjects (many of whom you would recognize) posit that the reason why Nykvist was so good at his profession was because he maintained a naiveté about the world around him. He was a terribly optimistic creature despite his childhood and several lifetime tragedies. And yet there a couple of biographical aspects that are glossed over in order to paint a flattering picture of him. Merely him being away at work all the time wouldn’t be the only cause to his divorce and probably not even his son’s suicide. There has got to be something else going on in Nykvist’s mind or actions that would ensure these outcomes. I can forgive these plot holes because Nykvist was still alive during the making of this film and that the film was made by his son. But I think there is something about his personality that needs more exploring.

Overall this is a pleasant documentary about a pleasant man. No one says anything bad about him and his life story is interesting enough to keep one engaged for a little bit over an hour. There is nothing groundbreaking here, other than an interest to re watch all of the iconic films he photographed in order to see his influence on them.

Burma VJ

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Burma has been suppressed by its own military since the mid sixties. A dictatorship that is as faceless as it is brutal, they squelch any sign of rebellion to the point that everyday citizens of Burma are scared to speak out against the oppression. In mid 2007, a couple of things changed.

Mainly a group of video journalists captured the massive protests that the monks (who are not known for their political involvement) and students started over the severe gas hike that proved disastrous to many lower class people. These protests had a whiff of the kind of rebellion that was seen in the late eighties. A political activist, Aung San Suu Kyi, defeated a military candidate for a major office in their capital. The military ignored the results of the election which angered the citizens of this poor country who sought Aung San Suu Kyi as their savior after years of oppression. Massive protests started and were only quelled when several thousands of people died in the streets by the hands of the military.

However the current protests of this film had something that the earlier protests did not. Anonymous video journalists hit the streets to show what was going on in their turbulent country and smuggle their raw footage to major news broadcasters around the world. This group, called the Democratic Voice of Burma, broadcast these images back to the Burmese through a satellite located in Europe. Using only handicams, these men put themselves in extreme danger just by whipping out their cameras. But they persisted and the world learned about the atrocities that plagued this gorgeous country.

Burma VJ is narrated by one of these of these video journalists as the protests build and then climax in massive disappearances of prominent religious figures and citizens. This video journalist was not present while the protests were going on, but rather in Thailand hiding out from the authorities that seemed to be everywhere in Burma. He received the footage of the protests and talked to the people who were on the front lines of the rebellion. The main reason he is the narrator is mainly because after the protests, he was the only one left. Most of the journalists were disappeared or were sent to jail to serve out lifetime prison sentences. This is punctuated by one of the most haunting images of this documentary, a monk lying face down in a river next to a housing community. Both of the image of the monk and the action of severe sentences to these journalists sent a message to the Burmese public that insurrection would not be tolerated. But Burma is harder than one thinks to be put down. These protests and rebellions didn’t overthrow anything, but it put a crack in the infrastructure that is hard to cover up. And that alone is a victory.