By Ali Moosavi.
Many film aficionados’ first memory of Thailand dates back to the 1956 film The King and I in which Yul Brynner played the King of Siam (Thailand’s former name). After a bloodless revolution in 1932, Siam became a democratic constitutional monarchy and changed its official name to Thailand. Since the 1932 revolution there have been eighteen coup d’états. The most recent one being in 2014. Since that coup Thailand has been ruled by a military dictatorship with no clear date for an election.
10 Years Thailand is an omnibus film in which four Thai directors have voiced their concern and opinion through film. It was part of the Official Selection at the 71st Cannes Film Festival.
The opening film, Sunset, is directed by Aditya Assarat. Shot in black & white, it is set in an art gallery. Art has always been a soft target for attack in dictatorships. Assarat highlights the ever-ongoing struggle of artists with censorship. A group of soldiers visit an art gallery, following an unspecified complaint. The gallery is exhibiting the photographs of a well-known female photographer. The soldiers’ leader questions the motive behind some of the photos. Why is there a photo of a soldier crying in Burger King? Is it to show the weakness of the army? The artist and the gallery owner have to justify why every photo has been selected for exhibition. Assarat, however, does not want to paint a black & white picture of people. One of the soldiers is in love with one of the workers in the gallery. He is not concerned with arts or politics. He represents the ordinary Thai folk who just want to live their life in a free society.
The second segment, Catopia, is directed by Wisit Sasanatieng. He uses the metaphor format to make his point. In a world rules by cat people, one human is still around. Somehow, he has gone unnoticed by the cats otherwise he would have been terminated. Cats are encouraged to spy oon other cats to find out if they know anything about any surviving humans. We then have a cat and human chase to see if humanity can survive. Cat-people are represented by actors wearing cat masks. Sasanatieng has managed to create a tense little thriller with political dimensions.
The third film, Planetarium, is a sci-Fi fable directed by Chulayarnnon Siriphol. It starts with a quote from George Orwell. Instead of Big Brother, we have a “A Big Sister” type character who is monitoring the activities of all the citizens via TV screens in her HQ. The people have been given duties to perform and the New Youths have been trained to arrest anyone not conforming to their tasks. The offenders are brought to the Ministry of VHS where they are given the treatment; which is being sent on a trip similar to the Stargate sequence in 2001, A Space Odyssey. Once they reach the ultimate destination, they have their cloths removed and are then chopped to pieces. Siriphol uses a very colourful setting with the Big Sister and her youth army always smiling and happy to contrast with the brutality with which they are treating their citizens.
The last segment, Song of the City, is directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the well-known Thai director who won the Palm d’Or in 2010 for his film Uncle Boonmee Wo Can Recall His Past Lives. Weerasethakul’s segment, typically, is the most subtle one. A number of people are shown in a park engaged in various activities: having a sandwich, chatting, construction workers busy working, etc.; all under the watchful eye of a statue of Field Marshall Sarit. He staged a popular coup in 1957. Sarit’s stance against communism brought him support from the USA who believed that only the Thai military could contain the communist threat. Weerasethakul uses his favourite theme of memories and the effect of past actions on present life. He lets the viewers to observe the scenes, where on the surface not much is happening, and make their own conclusions as to what the people are thinking and feeling.
Three of the above directors, Aditya Assarat, Wisit Sasanatieng and Chulayarnnon Siriphol had come to Cannes and Film International sat down with them individually to discuss their contributions to this film.
How did this movie originate?
Aditya Assarat: Originally, there was a Hong Kong film called Ten Years, made in 2015. Its concept was to invite five directors to each make a 20 minute film, in which they would imagine Hong Kong ten years from now. That film was very successful in Hong Kong. After the success of that film, its producers thought that the idea could be duplicated in other Asian countries. So, the Hong Kong producers contacted me and asked if I would be interested in producing this in Thailand. In Thailand in the last ten years we’ve had a lot of political conflict. So, I thought it is an interesting time to make a film like this. To talk about politics and future of Thailand. This seemed the perfect project to do that. So I said sure, I would like to take that on. I then invited the directors and we put together a project which is a co-production between Hong Kong, Thailand and Japan.
Is the Hong Kong film also political?
It is very political. In that film all five directors provide almost a warning of what Hong Kong could become if they allowed too much influence from Mainland China. The film was banned in China. So the film is clearly political and therefore when they came to me with the project, I knew that the brand of the film is political. So, if we wanted to take it on, we would have to talk about politics. If Thailand was not going through a lot of conflict and change right now, I might have said no, there is nothing interesting going on in my country political wise. But Thailand in the last ten years has been a series of coups, followed by an elected government and then another coup. For the past four years we have been under a military dictatorship, with still no election date in sight. On paper, we are supposed to be a democracy, but democracy has been suspended. If we don’t do something about it, in ten years it will still be this way and will definitely take the country backwards.
Your segment (Sunset) focuses on censorship of artists in dictatorships. Do you think this stems from dictators’ lack of understanding of art and their mistrust and fear of artists?
I think most artists are left wing. I also think that artists, as a group, are usually the most progressive element of any society. They are the people who are always right at the edge, fighting against the so-called establishment for change. Artists are usually dangerous elements to the status quo. So it’s no surprise that usually the first people to be silenced tend to be artists, intellectuals, university students and professors. These people throughout history have been on the left. So, it’s a normal thing.
You are not painting people as black and white in the film; by refraining from making a clear demarcation between all the oppressors and the oppressed. By showing one of the soldiers to be in love with a gallery worker, you show that ordinary people get dragged into this conflict.
Yes, definitely. I am interested in film and cinema. I have never been interested in good guys and bad guys. I think for cinema to reflect real life, it’s never a clear good guy and bad guy. I subscribe to the humanist idea. People are people. They always have reasons for what they do, good or bad deeds. But I don’t paint them as good or bad people. I think in my film that is what I have consciously tried to do; to make the soldiers as good as possible, specially their captain. The actor that I chose to play him is actually a painter and owner of the gallery that is shown in the film. I wanted a person who has the feeling of the artist but is in a soldier’s uniform. So, if you notice, even when he says the things that he is saying, he understands the work. He remarks that this photo is very interesting and reminds him of this other artist’s work. It almost seems that he is reluctant to do his job. And I also wanted to show that the system of censorship destroys everybody. It destroys the artist and destroys the soldier. It takes away a bit of humanity from all of them. The thing that I find most interesting is that nobody wins with this kind of system.
Do you think that the government censorship affects the artists and maybe they do too much self-censorship from fear?
Yes, for sure. In Thailand we all work with self-censorship to some degree. That is why Thailand is never completely free because there are a lot of things that you cannot openly say or do without a lot of negative consequences. Even if it not legal consequences, there are social consequences. A lot of people attack you on social media. Sometimes you lose friends and family members. So, we don’t operate under complete freedom. It is part of our culture. We are born and bred to believe that certain things are right and correct and we must believe them to be good. This is the mainstream and you create works of art against the mainstream at your own peril.
Do you think that this film will be shown publicly in Thailand?
It is not a sure thing. I hope so. We will try to bring it to the cinemas in Thailand this summer; but of course, there is a process. You have to take it to the censorship board to get a rating. It can be banned. So we all hope for the best.
A Conversation with Wisit Sasanatieng
How did you come up with the idea of “Cat-People” for your segment (Catopia)?
Wisit Sasanatieng: Actually, I had this idea before this project happened. It is inspired by a short section in the novel 1Q84 by Harukami, which is called City of Cats. I used it to depict the situation in Thailand. If you want to survive, you have to spy on other people and find out their political opinions. Most people in Bangkok are pro-military. Majority of the middle class were not happy when we had free elections four years ago and prefer military rule. In every other country, people protest to have free elections!
If, as you say, majority of people support the military, then why don’t they conduct elections, which they would be bund to win?
Only people in Bangkok and big cities are pro-military. In the countryside they love Thaksin Shinawatra (Thailand Prime Minister 2001-2006). He did a lot of things for the poor. Every time that we’ve had elections, Thaksin’s party has won.
What is the role of Monarchy in all this?
The monarchy supports the military government. After the death of the king, his son came to the throne and made military even more powerful. Many of my friends and people I know are pro-military. I can show them my anti-military feelings. The monarchy, who support the military, are revered by the people. So, I have to keep my thoughts hidden inside me.
Is the Orwellian “Big Sister” type character in your segment meant to be a specific person or just a representation of someone with all-consuming power?
Chulayarnnon Siriphol: There is a connection to Orwell, but she is not representing a specific person. For me, she can be anyone who is in power, in any country, at any time in history, any time in the future.
What was the idea behind your segment (Planetarium), which has sci-fi elements in it?
When I was young, I used to go to the movies or rent video tapes. This is before internet. At that time, I used to think that everything is centralized. You see the news on TV, hear it on the radio and read it in the newspapers. Everything seemed to come from one center. So, if you look at what has happened in Thailand under the dictatorship, it is possible that in future, under this dictatorship, we may have to go back to the past where everything was controlled and centralized, specially the media. Everyone would have to pay attention and not break the rules. As you say, it can be compared with 1984.
Is stripping the offenders before their demise in your segment, a symbolic gesture?
For me, it is a cleansing process, ordered by the Big Sister to completely cleanse the disobedient people before termination.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine(Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).