The 82nd Academy Awards nominations have been announced, and Thailand missed out on a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. Yongyoot Thongkongtoon's Best of Times was submitted but didn't make the cut for the shortlist.
But Thailand and Southeast Asia are still represented -- in the Best Documentary Feature category with Burma VJ, directed by Anders Østergaard. It's the second consecutive year for a nod by a Southeast Asian documentary. Last year The Betrayal, Laotian filmmaker Thavisouk Phrasavath's story, co-directed with Ellen Kuras, was a longshot to win an Oscar.
Chronicling the work of brave dissident video-journalists during the September 2007 "Saffron Revolution" uprisings led by Buddhist monks in Burma, Burma VJ focuses on a shadowy figure named Joshua, whose real name and identity are kept secret in order to protect him from harm by the Burmese military government.
When it became too dangerous for Joshua to work in Burma, he crossed the border into Thailand and set up shop in Chiang Mai, where he monitored satellite transmissions and e-mails from his VJ colleagues in Rangoon, and forwarded footage to his Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma network, which then provided the clips to major news organizations.
It's an amazing and moving documentary, almost universally praised, though Time magazine critic Andrew Marshall has faulted the film for its use of reconstructed footage. Marshall says:
No scene is labeled as a reconstruction. Some are convincingly real, yet others are so simply betrayed as re-enactments by their wooden dialogue that soon I began to anxiously question the authenticity of every scene. I felt moved by a sequence showing protesters gathering on a Rangoon backstreet in defiance of the junta. But when I learned that it had been shot from scratch in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, I felt something else: manipulated.
I think that all documentary films tend to have manipulative elements -- some more overt than others. Some documentaries may not intend to be manipulative but they can't help it. In the case of the Burma VJ, I wonder if the reconstructed protest scene Marshall mentions was really necessary? Would the movie have less impact without it? And will the Academy voters consider it when they are casting their ballot?