The folly and future of Thai cinema under military dictatorship
08/11/07 (By: APICHATPONG WEERASETHAKUL)


Earlier this month, I took part in a seminar at Government House to discuss the content of the new Film and Video Act, which has been drafted to replace the existing Film Act of 1930 that miraculously continues to be in place today.


Participants at the seminar included representatives from the Ministry of Culture, Committee of Proper Media, Federation of Film Producers Association of Thailand, Thai Film Directors' Association, cineplex operators and industry observers.


Since the proposed draft would soon be submitted to the National Legislative Assembly (NLA), the seminar was intended as a last-shot attempt from those who perceive the elements of unfairness and impracticality of the new bill, to convince the government to make corrections.


I had perused the draft of the new Film Act after the censorship board, in April, requested me to cut "just four scenes" from my latest film Syndromes and a Century. That incident convinced me that the fate of Thai cinema would be irrevocably doomed if the power to censor remained with the police, and I was enthusiastic to read the draft of the new law, which was supposed to represent our new hope for freedom of artistic expression.


But my first impression on studying it was that the draft appeared to have been written in a great hurry and had many holes in it.


The Ministry of Culture often cited the fact that filmmakers and producers had walked out from preliminary meetings with state officials, and thus the lawmakers didn't receive necessary input and couldn't properly accommodate their demands in the draft. To me this seemed like crude finger-pointing which failed to consider why there had been a walkout in the first place, and whether the views of filmmakers had been given any due consideration.


There are a number of issues in the new Film Act that disturb me, and which I had brought to the attention of several round-table seminars in the past few months.


Chiefly is the clause that spells out: "Filmmakers must not make films that undermine social order or moral decency, or that might have an impact on the security and pride of the nation."


At first glance this may sound sensible, but what has always caused major conflicts between filmmakers and the authorities is the definition of "moral decency" and "pride of the nation". At the end, what is decent or indecent, or what will disrupt social order, will be decided by government-appointed "arbiters".


Because we are living in a nation that still refuses to believe that prostitution exists in this land _ there's no need to list all the vices that exist everywhere in the world, most of all in this country _ my view is that the new Film Act is not a step forward.


The underlying mentality of the law remains to exert control over our thoughts, the only difference being that this power to decide what is acceptable and what is not will be transferred from the police to a new agency to be set up under the Ministry of Culture.


I'd like to remind you that this is the ministry that never fails to come up with comical campaigns _ from encouraging citizens to dress in traditional Thai costume, to the promotion of Thai-sounding nicknames.


I understand that these campaigns might have had their origin in Unesco's urge to preserve the world's cultural heritage. But what the ministry has been doing is just the icing on the cake and a waste of our national budget, as if they still haven't quite fathomed what the word "culture" really means.


By using our tax money, they propagate empty morality and dispense "national pride" as an excuse, when in fact what they are doing is simply force-feeding what we may call "a facade culture" upon us.


At the seminar this month, participants also discussed Article 26 of the new bill, which stipulates Thailand's first-ever film rating system. As written, a movie will be classified into one of the four categories: fit for all age groups; viewers under 15 must be accompanied by a parent; not allowed for anyone under 18; and not allowed to be screened in the Kingdom at all.


In my view this last category _ which basically reads "banned!" _ is the crux of the problem.


The basis for a ban order concerns our three fundamental institutions: chart, sasana, phra mahakasat_ the nation, the religion, the monarchy.


At the seminar, representatives from the Federation of Film Producers and cineplex operators pledged that they would not permit anything "sensitive" that might harm the the three institutions, and by making that pledge, they accepted the right of the state to ban movies.


I, however, would like to take a different view and oppose the "ban" category. The measure may be effective in some countries, but it will fail here and will betray our claim of being a democratic country.


Thailand has been plagued with double standards and nepotism, and we do not want the government to stick their head in and complicate matters by using the hollow claims of "protection" and "good will".


Naturally, it is unacceptable to do anything that might tarnish the image of the King _ that is out of the question _ and there is already a law to punish people who behave thus. But the readiness of certain parties to swear to the powers-that-be that they won't touch "the nation" and "the religion" is a mark of our utter weakness; it is a testament to our fear and cowardice.


It shocked me that the Federation of Film Producers and theatre owners voluntarily dropped the subject. Instead of questioning the authority and the people who use it, instead of promoting constructive debate for the sake of development, we are so ready to let the state silence us.


Will we ever see a movie about Field Marshal P Pibulsongkram and his dictatorial rule? Perhaps Thai people do not care about "the nation" and "the religion", and we're so willing to look away from them the same way as we look away from the existence of prostitution.


What if I called my new film My Beautiful Life Under Thaksin and the Military Junta? Would they deem it a disruption of social order and ban it? Or should I simply copy one of those films that contain scenes of Buddhist monks running away from ghosts and falling into a toilet, because that's not actually bad publicity for Buddhism? Or maybe one of those movies with a lot of homosexuals shouting dirty expletives, because that's acceptable in our moral standards?


Things cannot be improved if we continue to have state-appointed "arbiters" to judge a movie. I am not a legal expert, but I believe it is possible for the government to allow the film industry to become self-regulated. An independent body can be set up to be run by professionals from the film community. Free from state influence, this agency would be responsible for monitoring and assigning rating, and it would bear direct responsibilities towards the audience, who in turn would monitor the performance of the agency. This way, the film industry will be liberated from the state's shackles and begin to have a dialogue with the public.


As the audience's tastes grow and social values change, this agency will develop accordingly _ I believe this is an index of our society's intellect.


Right now, a writer need not let the police approve what he/she will publish, likewise with painters or performing artists. But movies continue to be controlled by Big Brother (even though the high ticket price automatically limits the exposure). Filmmakers have ethics and moral codes, too, and we are always open to criticism and objection from the audience. In case a movie happens to violate a person's right or integrity, there is already a system of fair trial that will bring us to court. I believe that this is the way we exercise freedom in a democratic society.


An officer from the Office of Cultural Surveillance once quoted research that claimed Thai people as having an average education of Grade 6, and thus they are not ready to be exposed to certain materials. In my view, this claim is an insult to the intelligence of the people and an allusion that most Thais are morons. By deciding for them that they are not "ready", by playing their uncalled-for protectors, the agency is simply denying the chance of young people to grow up and develop their own judgement.


The insistence of this agency to keep the right to ban movies means they do not believe in the age-classification system. They also do not believe in allowing the people to learn from experience, because they are afraid youngsters will be addicted to pornography (which doesn't exist in this country, of course).


In short, the discussion on the rating system is not necessary if the agency still insists on the ban order. Judging from their attitude, I am not sure if this new Film Act is only a sham designed to transfer the power to control from the police to the Culture Cop.


I strongly believe that government intervention must be removed from the activities of filmmaking and screening in Siam. I am ready to be bullied by the "arbiters" picked by the people in the industry, but I refuse to be bullied and raped by the so-called "protectors" appointed by the government.


By the end of the seminar, a Cultural Ministry officer insisted that every party should support the new Film Act for now and corrections could be made later. This sounded like a cover-up, and I feel apprehensive at the state's unusual haste to rush this draft through the NLA, despite the fact that the election date has been set.


Filmmakers have always been invited to round-table seminars hosted by the government, but after a few times I began feeling like I was being used as a Referendum puppet: the invitation was a mere formality and my presence was used to justify the "democratic" process of writing a law.


The new Film Act will remain with us for a long time (the existing one has lasted 77 years and still counting), and although we've been fighting for it for many years, I know I'd rather wait another few decades for a complete, fair and sincere law, than to accept something that promises us nothing but a fake kind of freedom. Despite our protest, the final draft of the new Film Act is likely to be the Ministry of Culture's version. We, the filmmakers, the Federation of National Film Producers, and theatre owners will in this life never see the promised Film Centre or Film Funding. This government will never give freedom to the people. We are making a pact with the devil. If you're reading this, prove me wrong and I'll kiss your feet.


Director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's films, "Sud Sanaeha" (Blissfully Yours) and "Sud Pralad"(Tropical Malady), have won awards at the Cannes International Film Festival.

    














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