Only light and memory
Interview by: Ben and May
This is a record of a conversation between Apichatpong Weerasethakul and the participants of the workshop conducted by May Adadol Ingawanij and David Teh at Khon Kaen University in the northeast region of Isaan, where the filmmaker had studied, on August 15, 2010. The article that May and David wrote after this visit can be read here.
Q: What are your thoughts on death, ghosts and the afterlife, and why are they important to your films?
AW: I approach this in several ways. I believe in the existence of ghosts but it's not something we can prove or explain. Another ghost for me is film that's been shot on film. This kind of film isn't like video, it lacks the live quality of video because you have the film strip which needs to be developed. Old films, or the film strip itself, is like a time machine.
Film preserves the human soul or spirit. For instance the 1960s Thai movie star Petchara Chaowarat is still beautiful when you see her on film today. The other way I think of ghosts is that Thailand is a society filled with them. In the past most societies had constructed types of ghosts to maintain social order, such as the ancestral ghost or various types of beneficial and harmful ghosts. But in contemporary Thailand there's been a shift - humans have been turned into ghosts. There was an incident a few years back when a student painted a very critical portrait of monks with beaks like crows, which resulted in a demonstration by Buddhist monks demanding that this painting be taken out of an exhibition. So what happened there was that monks, who in the past might have been seen as exorcists of ghosts, were now exorcising humans. People can now be made invisible, like ghosts.
For instance, VIPs such as the Prime Minister or other important people have roads blocked off for them when they travel in cars. On the road, we have to wait until they go past before our cars can move again. We have to act as if they don't exist in the same world as ours, which turns them into another kind of ghost. Then there's also the other class of people who have been made into ghosts.
Q: There are often strange beasts and other beings in your films, or they feature people who are migrants. What is your implication here?
AW: Khon chai khob or 'marginal people' is an issue that's become very fashionable in Thailand, but it remains a serious issue, especially the way people are given a reductive treatment. For instance, we think Thailand is more liberal than other countries in its acceptance of the third sex. Yet people here make films that have straight men acting as gay characters, or else gay characters can only be comic sideshows. So long as this kind of thing exists, then gay people are still at the margins. Migrants, or even those who think differently, are pushed to the margins too. This society deludes itself by saying there's only one correct way to think, and so it creates many strange beasts.
Q: In Uncle Boonmee there's a princess character who wants to be beautiful, and is willing to give up her possessions for it. Is there a concealed meaning behind this scene?
AW: This answer might sound a bit theoretical. 35mm film has the limitation that each reel allows a a projection duration of no longer than 20 minutes. This is the kind of detail that filmmakers know. The final print of Uncle Boonmee consists of six reels of film, and each reel has its own character, though the audience wouldn't necessarily be able to detect this. The second reel consists of the nighttime dinner scenes, an homage to old Thai films. The fourth reel is the princess's story, which references the fables we grew up with - 'romance of the throne'-type stories on TV soaps and so on. Each reel shares the same concept, which is death. In the princess's story the transformation she undergoes is to give up her possessions.
It's possible to interpret her story as being about feeling estranged, uncomfortable in your own skin. Or you could link it to other issues, even ones that are 'unspeakable' here. Another example are the Monkey Ghosts that have fled into the jungle. They're quite like the people of Nabua who had to go into hiding in the jungle [during the crackdown on communist insurgents between the 60s and 80s] because they were not accepted or they felt too fearful to carry on living there.
Q: In Uncle Boonmee there's greater emphasis on production and compositional set pieces, compared to the improvisatory feel of your earlier works. In them, the dialogues were charming, and there's a purity to the improvisation. But in this film there's more emphasis on the symbolic dimension and on narrative storytelling.
AW: It's probably related to my searching at different points in my life. When I made Dogfahr (Mysterious Object at Noon) I was in a very experimental phase, trying to understand the properties of this medium I was holding in my hands. I wanted to make the medium catch what my eyes were seeing exactly. I felt that film was like a living person, someone you could get to know. In later work I became more relaxed about this. I see film as film. I still play with medium specificity by emphasising to the audience that you're watching a film, an illusion. When we watch Hollywood narrative films we're drawn into identification with the figures on the screen as if they're real people. The plot events make the audience absorbed and stimulated. To me this is only the surface, this is what I'm happy to draw from this type of film. For my own work I feel there's more subtlety now, in the way I comment on, or pay respect to, what it is to make a film. What I'm probably saying is that there's less of an emphasis on the question of process for me now, there's a less intense insistence to the audience that what they're watching is the process of making a film.
When I made Dogfahr it was a crazy process [laughs]. I was young too - if I could have married the camera I would have done so! I had to do many things myself on that film. In later films there are the influences of other people. I have a DP because there's a certain image I want to achieve but I don't know how to do it myself. I have a sound designer. The later films are personal in the sense that I come up with the concepts, but the process of shooting isn't personal. I have to oversee the whole thing, I direct more. In more recent works there's less of a raw feel, but in terms of feelings or concepts they're more mature.
Q: With the Primitive installations I feel you're making a commentary on people's modes of perception. You use a mix of photographs, videos, and other objects, as if to make a commentary on cinema as well as on what you're doing. For me it's largely a work about process, so I wonder whether there's really anything more to the project than that.
AW: Maybe that's the case. It's about my immersion in the process of doing that project. The audience gets something from seeing the finished work, but there's much more else besides for me. I drove around searching for the location myself, I looked for actors myself too. So I feel more like I'm in a performance piece and the film is only one of its outcomes - a documentation of the performance. Saeng Sattawat (Syndromes and a Century) was the same. Driving around looking for the location or picking out the wardrobe is like doing art. This process is different from studio filmmaking where somebody else would get all this prepared for you so that all you have to do is point and make the selection. That's why I regard my work in a very personal way, as if my works are my children. When Saeng Sattawat was censored it became very personal because I felt, How dare you do this to a child of mine? That's why I reacted strongly.
Q: In Uncle Boonmee, shining light on things is a way of making them disappear, or projecting images is a way of remembering, or not. The people in your story "only want to know the future." Perhaps I'm wanting to see a criticism, but if there is one, it's the way Thai contemporary culture generally, when it looks back, doesn't look back in a detailed way. Primitive is a project where political and social history is more explicitly engaged than in your other work. Do you feel the moment is right to use detail more?
AW: Yes at the same time I question how far should I go in providing these details for the audience. Sometimes I use my gut feeling, this is what I want. When I worked in this village and people asked me, if people see this artwork, will they know about our village's history? I say no, [laughs] on the surface, no. So it's different from classical painting or something, where it's there on the surface. For the history, you have to read the catalogue. I just show my experience, my interpretation, but I actually don't mind if people know the history or not. If they're curious enough to want to dig into it afterwards, that's good. But it seems like it's not my responsibility to talk about it in this political way.
Q: You use the Thai word for 'play' (len a lot when talking about your artistic process. In the case of the Primitive project, on the surface the emphasis on play would seem to contradict the other way you talk about the work - as one that comes from greater political engagement. Why is play so important to the way you work?
AW: I could probably use another word to describe what I do, but to play is a form of happiness. It's like filmmaking - at heart, this is playing, constructing a make-believe world. At the same time the word len in Thai has many levels of connotation. You can play for the sake of having fun, or you can play in order to make something happen. It's like [as in one of the videos in Primitive] dressing up the teens in military gear, then having them perform the act of shooting someone. The process creates a tension, as a form of play this performance isn't serious yet it's also saying many things.
Q: The other thing I'm interested in is the way you work with non-professionals. To invite them to come play with you implies a certain responsibility on the part of the filmmaker, especially if they're people who have been denied visibility in society. In the Thai case this issue is made more critical by the social gap between the filmmakers, who are mostly middle class, and the marginal subjects in their films. How do you deal with the ethical implications of working with people who've been turned into 'ghosts'?
AW: I think about this quite a lot, whether I'm turning their lives into something I sell. Primitive didn't come out of my experience of living in Nabua, I was only there for a few months. In fact, the reason I focused on the teens rather than the elderly people in the village was because I could relate to them better. We could talk about music, for example, as something that we share, something to break the class barrier. When they were planting rice I didn't go into the paddy field with them. I didn't want to show that I could be like them, that's not the point. I shot them planting rice instead. They don't know how to shoot films, I do. It's like we each have our professions but we also need to break down the class barrier between us. Whether we succeed or not is another matter.
I wasn't sleeping in Nabua. My team stayed outside the village, partly for privacy and partly so we could have work meetings. I didn't want the kind of hardcore integration where I'd have to be drinking every night with the teens, sleeping in their village. That would have made me feel as if I was lying to myself. There's a gap between us, but the point is to find a way of working without feeling as if I'm exploiting them. That's why there's a spaceship in one of the Primitive videos. [This is a wooden spaceship sculpture built in the village itself.] I used the spaceship building as a gimmick to give myself more time there. I accumulate experience from making the spaceship, and have time to think about the script, or what I need to do to create a piece of work. At the end of the day my work comes from my own perspectives.
Q: How much were you relying on the fact that you grew up in Isaan? I'm always a little uncertain whether I ought to describe you as an 'Isaan person'. You grew up in this region yet occupied a privileged social place in it. You went to school on the grounds of this university we're sitting in today, for instance.
AW: That's right, I'm different from what we might think of as typical Isaan folks, but this difference interests me. Initially I might have approached their difference as something exotic: these people have what I lack. Even though in terms of physical distance I grew up living near them, I don't have what they do.
In working with people who are socially different from me, I place a lot of importance on spending enough time with them before the actual shooting begins. I also bring in my own team; my crew are like my family. So when we go into a new place to work, it's as if the people there have their own families and I have mine. My thoughts don't just come from me but also from the actors or my art direction team and my editor. Sometimes when I'm making a film they will tell me doing this or that doesn't belong to your film, don't do it! I don't know how different this way of working is from an academic one, going into the field to interview people and taking information from them. I go into a place to generate moving images I can take away. The question of class difference is unavoidable and it's something I think about in this context. Isaan people are at the root of the things that affect me. They're the root of the red shirt phenomenon and the recent political demonstrations. If I hadn't gone into those places, if I had stuck to my natural territory, I wouldn't have experienced the other dimensions.
Q: How did you see yourself when you were growing up here in Isaan?
AW: I didn't think of myself as an Isaan person, but back then this kind of regional demarcation wasn't so present. I'd describe myself as a Khon Kaen person, with embarrassment actually. I used to go down to Bangkok to buy videos or to get extra tuition when I was preparing for the university entrance exams. Whenever I said I was from Khon Kaen people would laugh, 'Oh that's so far!' This was about twenty years back, so it wasn't that long ago, but people would still laugh. This became a bit of a chip on my shoulder, it was something I disliked about Bangkok. It made me decide not to go to university in Bangkok.
But at the same time, in Khon Kaen I was growing up in a kind of bubble. We lived on the hospital grounds, my life was the hospital, the cinema and the school. These places didn't link up with the outside world as such. I'd go to the clinic with my dad and I would see the villagers coming in for treatment. Of course we were of a higher social standing than the people who came in for help. But that aside, it was a valuable thing to experience because it taught me to see these people differently. I saw that their lives weren't like the idealised image of agricultural society, and that they weren't ignorant and naive in the way the Thai media continues to portray them. The villagers who came to the clinic lived with very complex problems, such as mafia dominance. Their world was like a microcosm of urban society. It wasn't about agrarian innocence. If back then prozac had been available they would have taken it. Later on my dad also became an MP, and so thanks to him I saw the day to day business of politics up close, how tainted it was.
Q: How politically aware were you back then? For instance, what did you know about the massacre of students and radicals that took place in Bangkok in 1976 when you were growing up? You would have been about six when it took place, did the adults talk about it?
AW: In 1976 all I watched was cartoons. I didn't know a thing. In the society of the hospital compound it wouldn't have been something you talked about. I got interested in politics quite recently, during the era of Thaksin [Shinawatra, PM between 2001-2006]. With the availability of the internet, and the experience of studying abroad, I came to regret growing up with so little knowledge of historical realities. When I speak about politics, I can't do it with full confidence because I lack in-depth knowledge. As an adult I try to read around to make up for the weakness of my schooling in this regard.
Q: You've become a public figure in Thailand now, which means having the power to represent certain groups. Aside from the fact that when you speak, you're mainly expressing your personal opinions or conveying your personal experiences, are there any groups you feel you're able and willing to speak on behalf of?
AW: At the end of the day probably not. When I speak about politics I'm only representing myself. I don't think in terms of belonging to a group. But when it comes to cinema, I have spoken out. Mostly I've given press conferences in protest against this or that nasty business going on in Thai cinema. This is something I know about so I feel able to speak out. I've drawn attention a few times to certain alarming developments.
Q: Lastly, can you talk about the people you cast regularly in your films and videos, such as Auntie Jen [Jenjira Pongpas, in several features and shorts such as Uncle Boonmee, Blissfully Yours and Morakot ]? What are her special qualities?
AW: That's hard to say. Initially my interest was about what they had that I lacked. This quality came out during screen tests. For instance, Tong [Sakda Kaewbuadee, in Uncle Boonmee and Tropical Malady (2004)] had worked in a 7-Eleven store, in a bar, as a labourer. Auntie Jen has been through a lot in her life. She wrote about some of this in the artist's book I made as part of the Primitive project. I felt I was living in a bubble and these people were teaching me things, teaching me to admire or not admire life [laughs]. That was when we first worked together. After a while they became like my adopted family. It's not that I think of them as the best of the bunch. If I'd come across a Mr. X at the beginning he would have had his qualities too, and he would have been developing over time.
This interview was conducted in Thai and first appeared in an Italian translation in Segnocinema, November-December 2010.