Friday, 16 January 2009

Interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul on "Mobile Men"

First of all, we would like to ask you where the story that you tell in your movie comes from.
I have been interested in a topic of extinction for a while, the extinction of species, of voices, of tradition, and of cinema. Thai society on the surface looks peaceful, however, there are so many injustices going on that contribute to the elimination of “the other”. The government uses the terms such as “Preservation of the Thai Values” and “National Security” as pretexts to destroy different opinions, beliefs, and cultures. I come across too often news about discrimination and violence towards minorities. In 2006 and 2007, at the peak of the military-controlled regime, five provincial governors in Thailand have issued regulations that prohibits migrant workers from leaving their designated housing at night, prohibits them from using mobile phones, and from gathering together outside of their houses in groups of more than five. The decrees are specifically enforced on the workers from Burma, Laos, and Cambodia, despite the fact that Thailand has migrant workers from various countries. Even though there are strong protests from human right groups, until now the decrees have not been nullified. This decrees led to the unsightly episodes such as extortions by the police and the arrests of migrant workers who participated their cultural events at the temples.
In my recent short film, the main actor is played by a migrant worker from Shan state in Burma named Jaai. The shooting of this film provided me a great opportunity to learn from his stories. He is one of the lucky ones who have decent jobs and are contented with the new living condition. But there exist many others who are still living in the opposite circumstances. For this film project, Mobile Men, it is a portrait of Jaai. By the act of making the film, I would like to instill and capture his confidence and dignity. It is not about storytelling, but about a man who is full of life.
With regard to the topic that was given to you, which aspect struck you the most? Are there ways in which you were already addressing it in your work? 
Justice. After the censorship of my last feature, Syndromes and a Century, I along with my peers formed a group called Free Thai Cinema Movement to petition our government to put an end to the law that denies the basic right of filmmakers to express, and of the audience to receive unfiltered information. At the moment, a new law has been implemented with an introduction of a rating system, but it still gives the government power to arbitrarily cut and ban movies. The experience showed me the complex layers of a society that can be guided by a handful of people that operate on fear.
Human rights are real, something you can feel on your skin, and not something abstract. In a film, the artist and director – just like the poet – creates a personal universe that is drawn from his or her own life in one way or another. Can you help us understand the link between your short film and the experiences that led you to make it?
Making film is the most liberating act for me. I often work with the same crew and actors who become good friends over the years. So every time we are making a film, it is like a carnival. I would like to introduce Jaai into this world of ours. We are creating semi-parallel universes – of real life and of imagined life. These two lives are at times cross path. I put real people’s gestures and stories into a film. It is true that Human Rights are real, but the “presentation” of the topics is always subjective. I try to convey this idea of “no boundary” or at least “less boundary” between the making and what you see.   
We think that culture in general and cinema in particular can help people to better understand the importance of human rights in their own lives. What do you want to provoke in the wider public with your film?
In Mobile Men, the cinema is a tool to create self-awareness. It is important for one to be proud of one’s own existence and recognize it in the others. Here the situation is choreographed as a movie-making game to celebrate youth, beauty, and dignity. The film honors simple gestures that mark individuality through visual exchanges. I hope the viewers realize that, when the actors and a director are holding a camera and shoot, we are destroying a discriminating barrier. The pickup truck simulates a small moving island without frontiers where there is freedom to communicate, to see, and to share.
In most of the films created for this project, we see signs of clashes deriving from cultural diversity or caused by limitations imposed on individuals that curtail their freedom in different ways. What do you think is the reason for that?
Nature. Before films, there were, among others, words, drawings, even in architecture, that display resistance. In temples sometimes you see hidden paintings at obscure corners the images that were prohibited. We always find a way to express, especially when there is a pressure.
This project involves artists and directors, people who usually work with very different languages. What do you think are the differences between artists and directors in their approach to the creative process?
I have been labeled as both an artist and a film director, and I have nothing to complain. Even though in my kind of work, both practices deal with moving images, they are still different animals. While an installation is about space and interaction, a film is an immobile dream. In the cinema theater, I am a dictator, a hypnotist with the audience fixed to their seats. In the installation space I allow them to explore the work in their own path and time. However, I am learning from both kinds of work and I feel more and more the existence of a wall between the two. At the same time it is apparent that this wall is crumbling.    
Now let’s talk a bit about you. Who is Apichatpong Weerasethakul?
I am a person who is practicing art and film. I grew up in a northeastern town in Thailand called Khon Kaen, where there was nothing except the hospital (where I stayed with my doctor parents) and 4 theaters (where I got lost in other worlds). After my hospital years, there was a period when I indulged in Architecture and travel. A fortuneteller told me that I would constantly be on the move. But I survived 10 years in Bangkok. Now I have just moved to live in the north, in the city of Chiang Mai. 


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