Friday, April 11, 2008

Confessions of a Mute Cineaste

Sometimes not being able to understand Thai is a real drag.

Last night is a case in point. I was excited to learn that "Syndromes and a Century," the new film by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, was being shown at a special screening at Siam Paragon Cineplex. "Saeng Satawat" (the Thai title) was voted the best film of 2007 by critic David Answen of Newsweek but it had been banned in Thailand. Now the director was showing a special "Thailand's Edition" of his film with the censored images blacked out.

Before coming to Thailand last August, I had seen Apichatpong's "Tropical Malady," which won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2004, and I found his surreal style of film making mysterious and intriguing. "Saeng Satawat" was one of seven films commissioned by the New Crowned Hope Festival, part of Vienna's Mozart Year in 2006, and it premiered at the Venice International Film Festival. Film Comment voted it one of the best films of 2007. I added it to my list of must see films.

But it ran afoul of Thailand's archaic Film Act of 1930. Apichatpong submitted it to the censorship committee a year ago and was ordered to cut four scenes. When he refused and cancelled the film's release, the censors retained the film print because they said the director might secretly show it. (The censored scenes were quickly available on YouTube.) Apichatpong decided to appeal to the board last month, and was ordered to cut two additional scenes.

The original scenes the censors found objectionable show a young monk playing a guitar, a group of doctors drinking whiskey in a hospital basement, a doctor kissing his girlfriend in a hospital locker room, and two monks playing with a radio-controlled flying saucer. "Drinking whiskey in a hospital is not proper conduct by medical professionals,'' one examiner said. "Sure, doctors can kiss their girlfriends. Doing that at home is all right, but doing it in a hospital is inappropriate.'' A senior officer of the Culture Ministry told Time magazine: "Nobody goes to see films by Apichatpong. Thai people want to see comedy. We like a laugh."

That quote was on tee shirts being sold at the Bangkok screening yesterday by members of The Free Thai Cinema Movement which was jointly formed by Apichatpong, the Thai Film Foundation, Bioscope magazine and a number of artists and media activists. They gathered over 5,000 signatures in an online petition to end the practice of censorship and to implement a ratings system. Although a bill containing the ratings system was passed in December, the government maintained its right to cut and ban films. Apichatpong published "The folly and future of Thai cinema under military dictatorship" in the Bangkok Post, calling for an end to censorship and respect for freedom of artistic expression.

In an interview in the London Guardian, Apichatpong (whose friends call him Joe) called the 1930 censorship act
a vague statute that forbids the promotion of bad morals. In practice, that means films dealing with sex, religion and politics are taboo. But violence isn't. That's why you can see plenty of horror movies and comedies in Thailand, but very few political movies. Some film-makers say they have had to pay to get their films passed for exhibition.

The government's justification is that the Thai people aren't educated enough to deal with serious issues. The Ministry of Culture says the average Thai is educated to the level of a sixth-grader in a US school, and isn't ready for art-house or political movies.

Instead of removing the cuts demanded by the censor, Apichatpong decided to turn this "decree of amputation," as he calls it, into a form of protest art. Where the six "inappropriate images" are supposed to be, the director will either leave black or scratched frames for the entire length of each shot. The shortest one lasts a few seconds and longest seven minutes. "I'd like the audience to feel that they're forced to be in the dark, while the scratches signify an agent of destruction," he says. "If censorship is still with us, then maybe this is how we should watch the movies." At the Siam Paragon Cineplex the Thai Film Foundation is sponsoring an exhibition on the "History of Thai Censorhip." In addition to the tributlations of "Saeng Satawat," the exhibit traces movie censorship in Thailand and its connection to the country's politics since the time of King Rama VII ("Anna and the King of Siam" in all of its versions is still banned here).

Some of the exhibit was labeled in English, but most was not. Although I was told the film was subtitled in English, the discussion in the hall outside the cinema was confined to Thai. I stood among a large crowd of enthusiastic cineastes (some wearing tee shirts saying "No Cut No Ban") confined to my mute cage. After two hours, I went to the screening, exited to be finally seeing what all the tumult was about. It was scheduled to start at 8, but the audience trickled slowly in, and fifteen minutes later the director entered with a microphone to discuss his creation and its turbulent fate. I'm sure it was informative and fascinating to the Thai audience, but I found myself nodding off. So this is a story without a punch line. I cannot tell you how I liked the movie or what effect the censored scenes had on the audience. I got up and went home before the movie started.

"Saeng Satawat (Syndrome and a Century)" is playing for two weeks and I hope to finally see it when I return next week from Chiang Mai and Pai after the Songkran holiday. Pim and I will sample the festivities in the northern metropolis before heading over the hills to the little backpacker hangout where Eric and Get have added a new hotel, Indiana Cottages, to their Mexican-Thai restaurant, Happy Yim. I spent a pleasant few days there several years ago and am looking forward to seeing how the valley not far from the Burmese border has grown. An article in the Bangkok Post yesterday by Denis Gray adds Pai to Luang Prabang and Angor Wat as "Lost Gems," Asia's "once unique, remote places" that have been spoiled by mass tourism. There's always a naysayer who bemoans the passing of the "good old days." Change happens, Denis. He's upset because "the global migratory tribe appeared in droves, dragging its own culture along."

I have a page full of notes on subjects I'd like to write about. I saw "Fitna," the short film made by Dutch legislator Geert Wilders who juxtaposes verses from the Qur'an next to scenes of destruction around the world caused by terrorists flying the banner of radical Islam. My friend Marcus found it not as terrible as news reports would have you think, and I decided to see for myself. Wilder's film inspired mass protests by Muslims around the world, similar to those in the wake of the Dutch cartoon controversy and the poor schoolteacher who innocently named a teddy bear Mohammad. And don't let's forget the fatwa against Salmon Rushdie calling for his death because of his book Satanic Verses which supposedly insults Mohammad. It's apparently still in effect. For as long as I can remember, I have defended Islam as a religion worthy of respect and have argued, along with many good-thinking people, that the "Islamofascists" have perverted the religion of submission to the will of Allah. But I am beginning to think that the problem is rooted in their sacred text, a book much bloodier and more violent that the Old Testament of the Jews and Christians (which has some pretty horrifying passages in it). Muslim fanatics, who call for a Holy War against the West, find support in their holy book. What if there were no such thing as moderate Islam? While there are secular Muslims in Turkey and a few other places (Saddam Hussein was more secular than religious), most followers of Allah appear to be intolerant and threatening to those of other (and no) faiths. This is scary. Is jihad personal or political? I intend to look into this.

There have been a number of articles locally and on the internet about the rising cost of rice and other staples on which the poor depend to ward off hunger. There are hunger riots going on right now in Haiti. Thailand is the largest rice producer in the world and is looking at emergency regulation against exports to prevent a possible famine in the country. Others not so fortune are trying to find alternative sources. Prices for wheat and corn are rising as fast as barrels of oil, and the dollar continues its slide while America stumbles into recession (even Greenspan, who probably bears much of the responsibility for it, now uses that term). Israel cuts off fuel supplies to the Gaza Strip in another retaliation for attacks by Hamas, and neither of the two Democratic candidates show much interest in offending radical Jews (where are the moderates?) by agreeing to negotiate with Hamas, the legally elected government of Gaza. And in Washington, George Bush remains in denial. Will my native land ever recover (although if you read Howard Zinn, it never had anything to recover from)?

Happy Thai New Year.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


"The prophet, prayer and peace be upon him, said: The time [of judgment] will not come until Muslims will fight the Jews and kill them; until the Jews hide behind rocks and trees, which will cry: O Muslim! There is a Jew hiding behind me, come on and kill him!"

Sahih Muslim book 41, no. 6985