Monsoon phenomenon: the much-feared rainbow halo around the sun
(“Artit Song-Glod”—Umbrellaed Sun) over Bangkok, at 10:17 AM on 29 June 2017
(“Artit Song-Glod”—Umbrellaed Sun) over Bangkok, at 10:17 AM on 29 June 2017
Bangkok Love Letter
Tuesday 6 June-Saturday 22 July, 2017, Bangkok
Dear Foreign Friend,
Just over a year ago I started writing these letters to you, prompted by the mindboggling travesty of the witch-hunt against artist Sutee Kunavichayanont. What a year it’s been. But despite our drastic loss of an adored king & the instability that brings, during the past 12 months the high drama of change & democratic crisis seems to have shifted from us usual suspect banana countries to the centres of empires.
Welcome to the 24 hour alert news cycle, a time of constantly digesting shock developments in a perpetual state of moral (and eventually material) emergency. This is how we lived under the Thaksin regime. Exhausting, isn’t it, when your government insists on crossing every line & there is nothing you can do.
Current events abroad and at home fill me with increasing admiration for Shakespeare, who like us lived in interesting times. He is just awesome. As the genius in the study of evil, personal and social, that he was, he knew there is nothing worse than rulers who sow hatred. I’m referring to Act 4 Sc 3 (51 – 117), the infamous, tediously sanctimonious yet pivotal “English Scene” in ‘Macbeth’. Just about every director of every film adaptation and theatrical performance worth his salt as an entertainer cuts out this scene without a second thought. I was sorely tempted to. This was a real struggle between God and the Devil, namely my conscience. Everyone I consulted said keep the scene. It’s a vital discussion on the nature of power, at the heart of the play. We can’t make a Thai Macbeth and skip that scene in good conscience.
In a play vibrant with intense imagery, it’s a boring talking heads scene that goes on and on and on. But we need this discussion, so it stayed in. It was in fact the first thing we shot, in the fountain courtyard of Harry Bunyaraksh’s fantasy house standing in for Malcolm’s palace in exile, on a boiling hot day at the end of March 2010; in fact as the red shirts gathered in the city centre.
Essentially, Shakespeare says through the lips of Malcolm and Macduff that anyone however flawed—a sex maniac, an avaricious usurper, whatever monstrous thing, is acceptable to rule over the land, but not the man who divides the world with hatred, as portrayed by Malcolm’s self-denouncement:
“Nay, had I power, I should
Pour the sweet milk of concord into hell,
Uproar the universal peace, confound
All unity on earth.”
Long-accustomed to being divided, Thai people now face additional complication in our social life in the form of foreign friends who are similarly divided. Just as Thaksin & anti-Thaksin people can’t breathe the same air, Trump & anti-Trump people can’t be in the same room at the same time either.
For some, their plight has made them more sympathetic to the Thai predicament. Yet in the first blush of shame & rage they have little time for the problems of others, as they struggle to co-exist with people they now find morally repugnant & intellectually suspect.
Now they know that politics turn personal when a moral line is crossed. It becomes a spiritual matter of life and death of the soul, when our rulers take the world beyond the sanity line. Every interaction is poisoned by it.
“I’m so happy Trump has won!” crowed a Bangkok cabbie to me on a recent taxi ride. “I was so afraid he’d lose. I prayed & prayed [pavana] for him to win. He’s exactly like Thaksin, it’s incredible, must be divine design. Serve them right, America! Now the farangs will know how we have suffered all these years.”
If he sounds overly bitter to you, imagine a language barrier between your culture and the rest of the world which only hears Trump’s really fake news. Accordingly the world condemns all anti-Trump Americans as anti-democratic evil elite. As Hitler knew, rinse and repeat a lie as “Truth Today” often enough and it becomes the truth. The powerless cannot hope to dispute it. We have no access.
Many of these farangs are very offended, perhaps rightly so, by the Thai people’s barely disguised glee over the Trump phenomenon. How can you revel in such dark joy over this apocalyptic development? This is no joke. The world might really end, you know. Etc. Well, for one thing, we are still suffering from a daily assault of fake news & misdirection by dogs who intentionally bark up the wrong tree. This is not conducive to forgiveness, never mind National Reconciliation blablah.
Even without a total language barrier, Indian friends living under Modi still suffer from spin despite their wide use of English. I listen to my friends; it tallies with the rising fundamentalism I saw on my last trips there; I’m not going to doubt my friends’ first-hand experience just because as soon as he was elected the New York Times said that Modi the blood-stained ex-Minister of Gujarat is not so bad. I have enough respect for my friends’ heart and mind to believe them and sympathise with their pain. I’m not going to call them names like anti-democratic evil elite or some such hateful or dogmatic label.
Dogmatic and hateful really mean the same thing, don’t you think? An insistence on your own version of reality above and exclusive to all other versions, leads to the propensity to deny everyone else’s right to their own freedom and dignity, because they upset the Dogmatic One’s flimsy underpinnings of his reality.
Is it hate speech if I confess my first reactions when I saw the AFP news photo of the lynching, sorry, the lashing of a gay couple in Aceh, with the B-movie worthy Masked Divine Punisher bringing the Wrath of God upon two shivering men at the darkest hour of their soul, and in an AP photo from the same event a hijabbed auntie claps her hands, cheering and booing with apparent satisfaction, as if to remind us of the hurtful Turkish proverb: “A woman for duty, a boy for pleasure (and a melon for ecstasy)”.
The most charitable reaction would be the compulsion to rescue those two men, throwing soft blankets on them and taking them away from such a benighted land, never to return. The next reaction is not so charitable but still human: I would heroically grab the Mask Punisher’s wrist, twist the whip out of his hand and rip the mask off his face. Next comes the bestial urge to forget all that and concentrate on the true object of complex rage: the cheering auntie. I think we always hate our own kind gone bad first.
This is why I have no hatred for evil rulers; even Thaksin is an abstract idea to the ordinary person. But someone of my own tribe: a fake freedom fighter, a writer gone bad, a woman oppressor, a gimmicky filmmaker, a whore academic and any other enslaving slave from the PR juggernaut makes me feel betrayed by my own kind. My dark fantasy for the cheer-leading Aceh auntie is to kidnap her to a remote location and exorcise her of the vengeful demons that have perverted her psyche so badly that she, the oppressed, turns into the oppressor, as if only too glad to find someone more ‘unclean’, more worthy of oppression than her. Then there is the most monumentally shameful reaction of all, and the wish was gone up with the thought before I knew it was there: another tsunami should come and cleanse the land of these evil people.
Is it hate speech to explore our psyche in this way? I think we should be allowed to follow such thought trajectory, explore every plotline, every sick twist, with the natural flow of our feelings, so long as we don’t act on them. This is how true horror movies are made, and what they are ultimately for. This is how horror movies are watched. As the great and venerated cultural exorcist Stephen King says, horror functions as the psychic leeches for our soul, sucking out our bad vibes, keeping us sane. As the moralistic tone of the conversation becomes a real drag, more than ever we need this honest confrontation with our fears. Never mind the dogs barking up paper trees and all the phony squeamishness.
There’s been plenty of poetic “hate speech” as well in an ongoing war of verse between three master poets, with poet laureate Navawarat Pongpaibul and the “Thai Bob Dylan” protest singer-songwriter Surapol Jantimatorn (Nga Caravan) on one side and his former comrade and colleague Visa Kantap (“October poet gone to the dark side” as a red shirt leader) on the other. Interestingly, it’s inspiring some people to try their hand at writing poetry. This is wonderful regardless of the vitriol in the content, perhaps a wonderful return to the way Thai people used to woo or chide or deride each other, which to this day colours our speech with lyricism. Here’s my 2 pence then:
In this great darkness
shine a light
or better yet
be that light.
Sages intone high overhead.
Down here we hate and hate and hate.
Yes who will save
the heart from drowning
in this ocean of lies?
Those who make poison surely
deserve to die.
Meanwhile as one of Yingluck Shinawatra’s many dates with destiny nears with the verdict announcement for the rice-pledging scheme liability case looming on 25 August 2017, the surge of spin is climbing to a deafening roar; eg. how Yingluck “offered” the amnesty bill in hopes of national reconciliation; how voters were “beaten” by protesters (instead of the truth that literally millions had taken to the streets & the opposition had boycotted the elections because parliament had failed entirely; meanwhile far from beating people up, a protest-leader was assassinated (yes, shot through the head by a sniper) in broad daylight in the Bangkok suburb of Bangna). Or how democracy was destroyed by “insincere” and “endless, often violent demonstrations in Bangkok. They thought the best way to ensure that the government stayed in the right hands would be simply to ban the poor from voting entirely*.” (*Gwynne Dyer, Bangkok Post OpEd, 26 May, 2017).
In the same column, the writer extolled the brave, resilient people of Manchester, how at a rock concert “they had a minute’s silence for the victims, and then they rocked.” Clearly, to him, we are not human-beings like his people, who are superheroic salt of the midlands & cool rocking Londoners, while the literally persevering millions who shut down Bangkok are some kind of subhuman anti-democratic evil elite. We’re not a nation of human-beings like his, but a fairyland of archetypes, each with its special function as defined by usefulness to the master race. The degree of contempt & hostility is quite extraordinary, as if these writers no longer care about appearances any more.
I think I welcome this. Surely it’s a good day when everyone’s had enough & to hell with appearances. Risky as it seems, such a scenario might indeed be the only cure left for the boundless falsehood the world has wrapped itself in. Mummified, straitjacketed, unable to express ourselves except to cut our way out with something sharp.
But don’t give in to the impulse. In these times of political correctness as scripted by spindoctors, the world is not what it was & jokes are always in poor taste. Witness the fate of the US comedienne who lost TV jobs after posing with a severed Trump dollhead.
Letting off steam & self-expression are lumped in with hate speech. Name-calling is infantile but it’s not always hate speech. Slander is always hate speech. Spin is hate speech. The victims’ sense of outrage & injustice is a natural reaction to falsehood. Lies bring injustice & undermine democracy. Surely we should be focusing on the veracity of the words, their intent & context instead of obsessing on form & suppression, but the spindoctors’ job is to ensure otherwise.
A portrait of departed King Rama IX in his jazz musician mode on the Bangkok Art & Culture Center building by a street artist collective, wheat pasting technique
With all the apocalyptic drama, my nephew & his friends have been preoccupied with The End, compulsively checking news of Trump & North Korea. They’re young & terrified that The End will come before they get to do anything. For their generation of Thais, Seoul is much more real & culturally relevant than London. They laugh at themselves for being scared but they know that mad men rule the world & the threat is real.
Amidst all this, a strange horror movie in broad daylight for a while managed to capture much of the free-floating anxiety. I refer to the Case of the 3 Black-Hearted Beauties (“Sam Suay Amahit”-Daily News), in which 3 K-pop dolly lookalikes, all karaoke bargirls, strangled & dismembered a friend, another K-pop lookalike bargirl who was furthermore a police informant responsible for sending the ringleader’s drug-dealing husband to jail. Add to this witch’s cauldron their bisexual aura & luxurious lives as flaunted on social media (selfies with wads—no, towers, of cash; Gucci loafers), along with the Chief Black-Hearted Beauty’s reputed obsession with Chucky, the B movie doll possessed by a dead serial killer, and we have here the perfect social lightning rod, hate-object, idol. Their youth (24-28), their possibly surgically-enhanced charms, ‘big eye’ contact lens, their apparent insatiable appetite for fun, mark them as such, but their sex most of all.
For many, these belles dames sans merci are our own nightmare children, poison fruit of the years of moral rot, of absolute materialism & our bankrupt school system; a perfect embodiment of narcissistic lack of empathy. This especially applies to the Chief BHB, whose nickname ‘Priew’ is the Thai word for ‘sour’, as opposed to sweet, meaning ‘sassy’ or even ‘wild’ when applied to a girl: the long dark luxuriant hair, the pale vampiric face in knowing selfies, the Chucky t-shirt & the wink. Then after the arrest, the matey snapshots with the cops, all smiling & posing as with a celebrity in one, here flashing a V for victory while wearing a facial treatment mask (obviously to revive the complexion after being on the run in the unluxurious Burmese borderlands). But the prize goes to the 3-shot of them putting on make-up as they readied themselves for their public and the flashing cameras.
The girls’ shamelessness riles up prim responses from those who pass as politically-correct as well as the more conventional moralistic type. Why are the media dwelling on their antics, their lurid photos & videos?!?! But of course everyone’s dwelling on these incredible images. The BHB are exhibitionists who obviously love to be seen & we love to see. Where is the conflict of interest here? How else are we going to understand? Not through hypocrisy for sure.
Another portrait of the new King Rama X at a temple in north Bangkok,
on the way back from the Administrative Court
on the way back from the Administrative Court
If I seem overly obsessive with freedom of expression, it could be because I face my own day of destiny just 2 weeks before Yingluck’s D-Day. After 5 years and 2 days exactly, the verdict in Administrative Court case #1321/2555: ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ producer plaintiff #1 & director plaintiff #2 against the Film Censorship Board defendant #1; the National Film Board defendant #2 & the Ministry of Culture defendant #3, is finally going to be announced on Friday 11 August 2017. I had my day in court a couple of weeks ago on 5 July, reading a prepared final statement. I’ve pasted it below for those of you who care about freedom and cinema.
You’re more than welcome to join us on 11 August at 10 AM, Court Room # 10, Administrative Court, the Civic Centre on Chaengwattana road. It’s a Friday and the start of a long weekend with the Queen’s birthday just one day later, but we’d love some moral support for the underdog if you’re around.
Hope all is well with you.
With Love from Bangkok,
Statement to the Administrative Court on 5 July 2017
by plaintiff # 2, director of the banned film
‘Shakespeare Must Die’
‘Shakespeare Must Die’
[Administrative Court Case # 1321/2555: ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ producer plaintiff #1 & director plaintiff #2 against the Film Censorship Board defendant #1; the National Film Board defendant #2 & the Ministry of Culture defendant #3. The statement below, read aloud to 5 judges in court, is translated from Thai.]
I believe the law exists to preserve dharma [harmony in tune with natural balance] in society. This is why I’m forced to fight for what is right, despite knowing full well that to struggle against those with the power to rule over the destiny of Thai cinema is not something any filmmaker would willingly do, in an industry ruled by the very few with boundless power while all the rest are entirely without negotiating power.
When a film is banned, it’s a life sentence. Far more severe a punishment than meted out to drunk drivers or even vote-buying politicians, who are only temporarily banned, even though they cause enormous national harm.
Worse, the use of a banning law that wields power according to the personal deliberation of 7 board members entails the risk of power abuse against the intent of the law, and unethical injustice through discriminatory use of the law at the whim of those who wield it.
As may be seen in the later case of the film ‘Fah Tum Pandin Soong’ [‘The Sky is Low, the Land is High’; official English title ‘Boundary’] which clearly proves that I was intentionally unjustly discriminated against, when there was a reversal of the ban against the documentary, the film board demanding only the minor removal of some sound to overturn the ban without the film’s makers having to file an appeal in any way whatsoever.
The case of ‘Fah Tum Pandin Soong’ clearly demonstrates to me and the public that the process of deliberation by the National Film Board lacks neutrality & equality in practice, and can be shortcut at personal whim.
The bypassing of the appeal process, which producers of ‘Fah Tum Pandin Soong’ did not personally file and proceed themselves but carried out by the board itself, meant that after the banning order was issued on 24 April 2013 it was overturned on 26 April 2013, or merely 2 days later. This is unprecendented in the history of film censorship. The board members told the media that it was all a misunderstanding by the sub-committee, and further claimed that the said film had applied as a DVD (for distribution and rental), not as a theatrical release. This is entirely false, as after receiving a rating of 18+ (not even 20+), this film was immediately released in a cinema in the normal way.
The ‘Fah Tum Pandin Soong’ case clearly shows that the film censorship process is subject to political interference. The announcement to ban the fil was made at a press conference on 24 April 2013 by Mrs Prisana Pongtadsirikul herself, then permanent secretary [highest bureaucrat] of the Ministry of Culture. It’s impossible that a civil servant of such seniority would’ve been ignorant of the correct procedure of film censorship. Without a doubt the reversal of such an order could not have been made except by those with power above the Culture Ministry’s Permanent Secretary.
Examination of the content of the documentary ‘Fah Tum Pandin Soong’ would reveal that the film creates a negative image of the Abhisit Vejjajiva government in the violent political events of 2010; this being the political opposition party to the Yingluck Shinawatra administration which was in charge of the country at the time, the permission to show the film therefore directly benefits the government.
The reverse is true of the content of ‘Shakespeare Must Die’, a direct translation of an ancient 400 year old play ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth’ by William Shakespeare, which might have upset the feelings of some politicians at that time, since the film reflects upon the fate of a megalomaniacal ruler of a country.
Apart from direct legal evidence proving that the banning order against ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ is an illegal abuse of power, lacking in standard and neutrality, the issue concerned is cinema, a branch of art and media. The implications and ramifications are therefore complex and subtle with a wide-ranging impact on society. Please kindly allow me the time to explain the consequences, both to myself and to society at large, arising from the misuse of this law with no sense of social and moral responsibility.
With the Court’s permission, I’d like to bring forward certain conclusions gained from the experience of having my work banned—a labour of love which so many of us strived and toiled with all our strength, our money, our hearts and years of our lives to create to the best of our ability.
I believe that the case of ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ does not merely concern “one horror movie” and our personal pain and damages. It is a model case on the question of what it is to be human, and is therefore in the public eye and concerns the public’s interest, with the potential to ignite or douse the hopes of a large number of people, both the filmmakers and the audience or the general public.
The use of Article 26(7) of the Royal Edict on Film & Video BE 2551 has an impact on our profession, menacing, oppressing and destroying the life and morale of not only the maker of the banned film but also demoralizing for every Thai filmmaker, harming the potential of cinema as a “creative industry” which every government claims to support and promote.
Aside from the fundamental issue of human rights—the right to pursue a profession and the right to freedom of expression, which all other media in Thailand enjoy except cinema, robbing Thai filmmakers of their rights and freedom and dignity, the negative impact on cinema as a creative industry must also be considered. Clause 7 of Article 26 lends itself to wrongful exercise of power, discrimination and the destruction of persons which the government at the time deems a political enemy, further undermining Thai film producers’ sense of security in their investment and profession.
So long as 7 faceless people in a dark room continue to have the absolute right to rule on the destiny of films that filmmakers have devoted time, money and morale to for many years, there can be no free flow of ideas and investor confidence. With everything dependent on the personal deliberation of these 7 people, filmmakers have no insurance and legal rights and protection, which other professions enjoy as a matter of course.
This being so, investors dare not invest in screenplays that ‘differ’ from what they’ve seen, or that has any original thought. For this reason filmmakers are afraid to think and to be creative. This is a significant factor holding back Thai cinema in a state of paralysis, so that “Thai cinema can’t seem to really get a move on”, as we like to complain, as we are doomed to recycle nonsense, unable to explore any of Thai society’s problems or its dark side, unable to touch relevant content or even be inspired by our own history.
Meanwhile most of the world has the right to take or beinspired by any point of view and way of life, by the whole world and its history. You may observe that nations with the highest degree of freedom of expression also have the strongest cinematic culture and film industry, able to attract viewers all over the world. Their products are able to transcend language and cultural barriers because they’re based on screenplays conceived in freedom of the imagination.
It’s impossible for Thai cinema to compete in the market place with these fortunate souls. Because the Thai government and Thai law send Thai filmmakers into the boxing ring in ball and chains.
The Government Should Befriend Artists
If Thailand wishes to gain income from art, Thailand must trust artists, including filmmakers, the same way we trust doctors in medicine and chefs in the kitchen; trust teachers, police and soldiers to carry out their work professionally, work that the average man doesn’t know how to do. You must trust the specialists in their field.
Thailand must trust artists; stop regarding artists as a toxic and dangerous enemy. This unfriendly attitude is not conducive to a creative atmosphere.
Thailand must dare to allow Thai art to evolve and flourish according to its natural flow. Art comes from inspiration that artists receive from various things in the society around them coupled with their own reactions and response, distilled and crystallised through personal experience, depth of wisdom, understanding and feeling, which is then expressed. Art that is born of such a true and natural process in this way, that can flourish without pressure and set boundary, undisturbed and interfered with by outside people who really don’t know their stuff, this is art that is potent and alive.
Art, including cinema, that has as its source a set agenda and limits pre-ordained by the government, meaning art under state or other control, is lifeless art. Everyone can sense this undeniable truth.
Lifeless art doesn’t sell, because it is unable to touch the viewers’ hearts and minds, unable to inspire and generate constructive discussion that leads to an enhanced ability to ponder and analyse problems. Because art that is dead cannot inspire and strengthen the audience. This is why Thai cinema is unable to reach its potential, unable to earn as much for Thailand as it could do. True art cannot exist and cannot be born without freedom. Controlled art is lifeless and uncommercial.
Reasons of Good Governance
From past experience, it’s clear that the banning of a film is dependent upon the prevailing political atmosphere and corresponding ethical values, which tend to shift according to the character of the people who come into governmental power. Worse, since the Prime Minister is the chairperson of the National Film Board, the politically all-powerful may order any film to be banned at any time, right over the heads of the censor board members, by exploiting Article 26(7) as a political tool.
This is another factor that erodes filmmakers’ security of life and property, and promotes opportunity for bribery or power abuse above the law, through the power of a law that contradicts present day reality.
Impact on the Audience
Apart from the people’s loss of opportunity to see a Shakespearean film that received funding from them, the taxpayers, other deep repercussions remain:
1. The Deep Impact on Democracy
Instead of banning films that the censors deem as social toxin or divisive, Thailand should give every side the opportunity to make films that reflect their individuality and point of view.
If Thailand had the courage to have faith in its own citizens in this way, the Thai audience would be exposed to every point of view and taste, which is naturally a positive thing for the development of true democracy in Thailand. If we keep on banning each other’s thoughts and feelings, we will never understand each other.
2. To Build Cultural Tolerance and Immunity
Lack of freedom of thought weakens Thai cinema so that it can’t compete with or fight the influence of the advertising and public relations industry, which by its nature only coarsens the heart and mind with materialistic obsessions, leading to the myriad social problems that we see around us today.
Thai films of quality and freedom would help to build mental immunity, which would bring a balance between the material and the spirit in Thai society.
As well, freedom of thought would create a cultural diversity in Thai cinema, a good thing for both commerce and the evolution of cultural forbearance, in the readiness to experience opinions and tastes that differ from what each person is accustomed to; this is the foundation of democracy.
3. Confront Reality
Present-day reality including online means no one can block any communication, any longer, anywhere in the world. In this light it is nonsensical to ban films. Not only is it ineffective in blocking information, it further enfeebles the country and the culture. It is a great loss for Thai society that the national intelligentsia [as in “the part of a nation that aspires to think independently”- Oxford Dictionary] is barred from taking part in the national conversation.
We’re forever saying how worried we are that Thai people have grown more stupid every year. Each time we check, Thai children’s average IQ falls ever lower, so that it is now below the global mean.
I did not make a Shakespearean film out of a desire to look cool or because I worship Western culture. It’s not something you’d lightly decide to do on a lark, merely to shame a politician.
Shakespeare does not belong only to England but to all the world. His work is a priceless cultural heritage of man that teaches us how to analyse others and ourselves. I would like to know why, for what possible reason, Thai people must be denied this legacy of mankind, which the rest of the world, people of all nations, have enjoyed for centuries? How many more times will a Thai film be made from a Shakespeare play? This one is the first and could well be the last.
Thai people have always been receptive to popular Western culture, especially the unbeneficial, the trite and inane as well as the harmful; junk food and poison of all kinds. Why then are we not permitted to enjoy the cream of it—that which is an antidote to poison, cultural vitamins that would fortify the public’s immunity against weakening influences—the part of their culture that made them a superpower while we crawl around in the dust? Can you imagine an England where Shakespeare had never been? Why do we welcome only their junk culture and keep out their best?
Impact on Ethics and Spirituality
Please allow me to quote part of a statement I made to the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand on 5 July 2012—this very day, 5 years ago.*
In modern times, the cinema of a nation is the child of that culture’s imagination.
All other mass media are at least legally protected. In theory, TV, radio, newspapers are free. But film is not. Movies can be banned. The brainchildren of filmmakers can be prejudged as social poison by seven faceless people in a dark room and summarily executed.
Why are movies so feared? Our film legislation is supposed to protect the public from cultural poison, yet its effects have been exactly the opposite. It harms not just filmmakers like us, but the public. We have an enormous untapped wealth of stories to tell, but we’re forced by law and by fear to limit ourselves to shallow themes and treatments. We are not permitted to examine ourselves: our cultures, our wounds of history, our very soul.
The public is fed a diet of superficial dramas, horror and action. Imagine not being allowed to use chilies in Thai cooking because it is deemed too strong for our stomach, and being force-fed the mental equivalent of kiddie meals all your life. This is the state of Thai cinema, and therefore the state of the Thai public imagination. Censorship keeps us bland and weak, stupid, slow-witted and hypocritical—all the things that Thai people are traditionally not supposed to be.
By trying to control our imagination, the Thai state sees all the arts and media through the prism of propaganda and social engineering. The state believes that you can socially engineer The People to be Good by showing examples of Goodness and Decency and suppressing all examples of Evil and Indecency.
This is why the censors think my version of ‘Macbeth’ is a “disgrace to Thai public morality and the Patriotic Dignity of the nation,” as well as being violent and divisive. They really don’t understand that you can learn from a bad example: a man who could have been great who loses it all through his insatiable greed and ambition. In ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Shakespeare Must Die’, we essentially watch a man examine himself and then deciding to self-destruct. That’s exactly why I chose to do ‘Macbeth’. Shakespeare does have the potential to be especially disturbing for Thai people, precisely because he is the best antidote to propaganda, to the bombastic mindset. Shakespeare is deeply spiritual, deeply moral, yet totally non-judgemental, non-moralistic.
Countries that enjoy freedom of expression in all the arts, including cinema, are able to counterbalance, and build up social immunity against, the overwhelming onslaught of mindless commercialism and political manipulation. There’s almost nothing in Thailand to counterbalance the seductive power of advertising and the spin of corporate and political PR machines. So most Thai people are not media literate. We’re fed a constant diet of TV soaps, gameshows and advertising. We don’t stand a chance. To me, this is the root cause of our current problems. How can we have a peaceful society with real democracy without media literacy? This is why film is deadly serious for me.
Cinema is seen as nonsensical, yet toxic. What of megalomania, injustice, legal discrimination, oppression and threats? Are these not far worse social perils? Denial of the truth, denial of self-knowledge, is surely far more dangerous than any movie, especially the first and only Thai Shakespearean film that the Ministry of Culture itself funded so that Thai people would have the chance to experience the work of “the world’s poet”.
That is what art is for: to know ourselves. That is what true artists are supposed to do; to help us explore ourselves, especially our darkest, darkest dreams, so we can be horrified by them and know ourselves. Thailand is lost precisely because it keeps its imagination in chains. Without a free national cinema, a country cannot ever be free.
Final issue: Lifting the ban is beneficial for the nation’s image
The order to ban and then to uphold the ban on a Thai film made from an immortal play regularly taught in middle schools all over the world for generations, made international news causing derisive amazement all over the world. The lifting of this banning order would therefore have a positive effect on the Thai government’s democratic credibility.
In the long term, any government with the courage to make history by ending the banning of film in Thailand would receive warm admiration from all corners of the world and Thai society. Thailand would have a democratic and friendly image for investors and tourists. For the government that ends film-banning, the gain in terms of image and good will is immense, with no loss to the state whatsoever since the rating system would still be in place.
If any film transgressed any law, such as Article 112 (Lese Majeste) or slandered anyone, specific criminal and libel laws exist to deal with any such transgression.
In three years I’ll be sixty, well aware that any struggle for freedom and dignity for Thai cinema is unlikely to bear fruit for me personally given the limited time and strength left to me. But I cherish the hope that our children’s children, film lovers and filmmakers alike, will have the chance to enjoy a brighter future, life and career.
Respectfully and Truthfully,
Miss Smanrat Kanjanavanit [Ing K]
Director, Editor and Play Translator
SHAKESPEARE MUST DIE
Links: *Ing K at FCCT**Chronology of events
A pioneer of environmental investigative reporting, Ing Kanjanavanit is a filmmaker, painter & bilingual writer, best known in Thai for the cult classic travelogue/handbook for environmental activism, ‘Khang Lhang Postcard’ (‘Behind the Postcard’) under the nom de guerre Lharn Seri Thai (136)—‘Free Thai Descendent/Force 136’, to evoke the Free Thai Movement against fascist forces during World War 2, which fought for the Allies then after the war was betrayed by the Allies. Sadly, she no longer attends Free Thai merit-making rites, not since Thaksin’s redshirts appropriated the name & equated Thaksin with Free Thai leader Pridi Banomyong, which is a travesty & a sacrilege.