THE HUMAN FACE OF TRAGEDY
(By: Kong Rithdee)
Uncompromising documentary examines the troubles in the South, using the abduction and subsequent death of an innocent teacher as a focal point
Humanist before it is political, soul-searching before it is Thaksin-bashing, Polamuang Juling (Citizen Juling) is perhaps the most important documentary about our Deep South dysfunction to come out since the outbreak of violence in 2003. The movie has been made quietly, almost spontaneously, and the next question is whether it will get its deserved exposure, either on television or in the cinema, without being subjected to the tyranny of censorship at a time when the political climate is dizzying both in Parliament and on the street.
The title makes it clear that this is an unblinking report into the brutal case of Juling Pongkunmul, an art teacher who was abducted and severely beaten into a coma by terrorists from Gujingruepo village in Narathiwat in May 2004. Travelling into what many believe to be the heart of darkness, the filmmakers - artists Ing K and Manit Sriwanichpoom, and Democrat party list MP Kraisak Choonhavan - use the Juling incident to hold up a mirror to the complexity of our southern malaise and the bankruptcy of the justice system that has betrayed the trust of the citizens. In an intertwining storyline, the doc stares back into the aftermath of the scandalous horrors of Tak Bai, Saba Yoi and Krue Sae mosque, before traversing the Siamese latitudes to a village in Chiang Rai, the hometown of Juling, to show us that the tragedy of being a Buddhist or a Muslim is sometimes not as bitter as the tragedy of merely being a citizen in this strange, deeply troubled land.
"I believe the moving picture can help to expose what's happening down there, because over the years, we've heard such an impossible amount of lies," says Kraisak, a former senator who's long worked on southern issues and was a staunch critic of the Thaksin administration. "We've been lied to to the point that it's not even possible for us to imagine what the truth actually is. Sometimes we need to hear blunt statements, otherwise we'll continue to take everything for granted.
"Every year I get to speak only once - in the parliamentary session," continues the MP, laughing. "Perhaps I can say something more in the film."
"Above all this is a movie that 'listens' to the southern people," adds Manit, a photographer whose pictures are known for their sardonic, anti-establishment wit. "Most people have not paid attention to what's happening, because we've grown impotent to all the bad news about the South. This is a complex issue that reflects the state of the entire nation, and I think that we need to take time to listen and to try to learn about all its aspects and implications."
Citizen Juling runs for 220 minutes, its human face emerging through on-site conversations between Kraisak and villagers, headmen, students, teachers, eyewitnesses, Muslims, Buddhists, imams, local politicians, friends and relatives of Juling, friends and relatives of the "suspects" arrested by the military, wives of those killed at Tak Bai and Krue Sae, and so on. The tapestry is rich and sad, revealing and perplexing. The film makes no effort to hide its distaste for the way Thaksin Shinawatra mishandled the conflict, but it doesn't make the pretence of being privy to "the truth". Instead, it shows us that the process of trying to find the truth is perhaps more important than actually finding it.
The idea of the documentary came to Manit and Ing when they attended an exhibition of Juling's paintings organised by Kraisak in June 2006. At that time, Juling was still in a coma at a Hat Yai hospital, and the shocking violence committed against her had come to symbolise the senseless atrocity of the "southern people" that provoked an outpouring of anger and bewilderment from the entire country. Believing that the cultural media can foster understanding, Kraisak, then a senator, organised a photography exhibition at Parliament House and assembled paintings by Juling and other southern painters to show as a separate event at Queen's Gallery.
At the exhibition, Ing met a visitor who was driven to tears by Juling's paintings - or more likely, by the story of this idealistic northern woman who, against everybody's advice, packed up and went to teach art at Gujingruepo school in Narathiwat's Red Zone with the conviction that, since she was doing good for her country, there was nothing to be afraid of.
After months in the ICU, Juling passed away in January 2007. She was 24.
'After meeting her, I realised that even though city people may not be able to relate to the southern people, they should feel related to Juling, and her story can be the door to explore what's happening in the South," says Ing, an artist and activist. "It touches me that she sounds like a kind of Don Quixote, a person guided by her idealism. In many ways, her actions reflect the Thai belief in the pillars of chart, sart and kasat - nation, religion, monarchy."
In the early 1990s, Ing made a documentary exposing the environmental damage inflicted by a golf course, and in 1999 her vehement satire of Buddhist monks, Kon Krab Mah (literally, "men who bow to dogs") was banned in a high-profile saga that involved policemen storming the theatre to prevent the screening taking place.
But, Ing says, what drove her to make Citizen Juling was less the pang of moral indignation than the need to present the complex emotional landscape of the region, and perhaps of Thailand. "That's what I told myself when I started, that this is a film about emotion," she says. In the film, we meet Juling's parents outside the ICU, and they speak calmly about how they don't want to hold grudges against the people who harmed their daughter. Then we meet the father of one of the boys killed in the notorious - and quickly forgotten - massacre of the Saba Yoi Muslim football team, who breaks down in tears while imploring the authorities for long-delayed justice.
Meanwhile, there are people who speak, with the same sincerity, about how they fear the southern people because of "their veils" and because "even the name of Juling's school sounds scary." Equally stunning is a maverick imam in Songkhla, who speaks eloquently about how it pains him to see his fellow Muslims "fighting over power, instead of fighting to improve the religion."
By confronting the divisive environment - and pointing out that this is the consequence of a failed policy - the doc pushes past the platitude of a "reconciliation message" that risks hiding unpleasant realities behind the land-of-smiles myth. And that's only possible because Kraisak's presence opened many doors to Ing and Manit, who followed him with a camera as the then-senator made a trip to the southernmost provinces to inquire about the case.
As the air is thick with mutual mistrust, it's impossible to imagine any random person wandering into some village with a movie camera expecting to be greeted with co-operation - or to be greeted at all. It's even worse if that person, say, is escorted by authority figures, like soldiers or policemen. Kraisak's status as a politician who publicly speaks against the authority has earned him the trust of the southern people mired in the sense of prolonged injustice, and somehow they open up to him.
"If anything, the movie stresses the point that the justice system of this country is not functioning," says Kraisak. "The South is an extreme case, but it's a microcosm of what's happening everywhere in Thailand."
And it will be no small injustice if the movie goes unseen by a wider audience. Manit and Ing are concerned that the film's daunting length, over three-and-a-half hours, will dim interest even from alternative movie houses, though they believe it's possible to divide Citizen Juling into a series for TV.
But it goes without saying that their principal concern is censorship. Since the new Film Act, which will introduce a ratings system to Thailand, is still to be delivered from the womb of the Culture Ministry, the process remains with the police. The police consider each film along with a group of representatives from the government and cultural agencies, who can demand filmmakers cut scenes they deem "inappropriate". Nevertheless, the new Film Act still retains the right of the state to cut or ban films that may disrupt "national stability" - deliberately open phrasing that can be applied to films that do not play in favour of the powers-that-be, especially ones that have a political edge.
"Let's see what we can do, but it's my dream to show this small movie to Thai audiences in Bangkok," says Ing.
Maybe in the the rest of country too. Despite the many southern faces we encounter in the film, it is a burly northern man who springs out to capture our attention. A Thai man of Akha origin speaks with a mixture of grief and fury about the plight of hilltribe people: the persecution, the fear, and yes, the state injustice that has left a wound inside his soul. "We're also victims," he says. What citizen Juling faced, we realise, may not be so different from what we, and other citizens, are facing.