The documentary Orphans of Burma’s Cyclone was last night honoured with a prestigious One World Media Award at a ceremony in London.
The film, shown on Channel 4’s Dispatches documentary strand, charts the life of a group of children orphaned by cyclone Nargis, which struck Burma’s southern Irrawaddy coast in May 2008 and killed 140,000. It was one of the worst recorded natural disasters to have hit Southeast Asia.
A team of undercover DVB cameramen arrived in the delta region two months after the cyclone and began filming the nine children, some as young as two. One of the cameramen, Ngwe Soe Linn, was eventually tracked down by Burmese intelligence and sentenced to 13 years in prison.
His fellow cameraman, ‘Z’, has since managed to flee Burma. He told DVB that the award was a “big victory” for Ngwe Soe Linn. “He does not know what’s happening; he doesn’t know what the results of his documentary are. I believe that if he knows he will be very happy. I hope I will send this information to him very soon.”
It is the second major award for the documentary, directed by Evan Williams, and wins the One World ‘child rights’ category. In 2009, the film won the Rory Peck Award, one of the world’s leading honours for cameramen working in dangerous environments.
Williams said that it was a “tremendous honour” for him but that praise must go to the “network of courageous video journalists from DVB who took huge risks to complete this documentary and continue to defy tight restrictions and possible imprisonment to tell their own country what is really happening inside Burma and also bring it to the outside world”.
Ngwe Soe Linn is one of 14 journalists currently behind bars in Burma out of a total of more than 2,150 political prisoners.
“The main concern during filming is security – even in the villages there are many informers who give information to authorities,” said Z. “We were far from town, so if we hear an engine from a boat or see a stranger we have to run, because we don’t know who is who. This fear arose every day.”
He added that developing a relationship with the children being filmed was crucial to the documentary’s success. “We have to build a familiarity with them; we know that they are likely to have been mentally affected by the cyclone so we need to know them well.”
The Burmese government was roundly condemned for its lax response to the cyclone: foreign aid was initially refused and journalists were barred from entering the region, while a number of cyclone relief workers have since been imprisoned, some for as long as 35 years.