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Thailand has woken up

Apitchatpong Weerasethakul, the Thai film maker who has just won the Palme d'Or in Cannes, talks to Cristina Nord about the political situation in his country and his films.

taz: When did you leave Bangkok?

Apitchatpong Weerasethakul: Yesterday. And I arrived here last night. I almost couldn't leave because the situation is getting worse and worse. My passport was in the centre of town, in the most dangerous zone, so nobody was allowed in. I got a substitute passport from the Ministry for Culture and had to turn to the embassies for help.

In getting a visa for the EU?

Yes. First, I approached the French embassy, but they had closed, but put me on to the Spanish Embassy. But on the way to the Spanish Embassy, they told me that they were closing, too. The situation is changing by the minute. The Spanish referred me to the Italian embassy. So I drove to the Italian embassy and they quickly made me the stamp. I think they also closed a few hours later because the violence downtown was spreading. That day, the leader of the Red Shirts surrendered which caused an outbreak of chaos and violence in many parts of the city. When you drive out of town on the express way you see a lot of cars leaving the city, and a lot of black smoke. It's like a movie. And I felt strange to be leaving.

On the website of the Bangkok Post it said that everything would be open again by the end of the week, that banks and airports up an running as normal. Can this information be trusted?

Well, the Bangkok Post is okay, but we do not know the whole situation. The disruption comes from different fractions of society, especially from the underprivileged. People might just set fire to a department store because they are on drugs. Teenagers are venting their anger, and official buildings are being burnt down throughout the country. So I am not sure how easy it will be to return to normal because there is more than just one source of the problem.

The Red Shirts are particularly strong in the North. You grew up in the North East and all of your films are set there. What is this region like?

In terms of weather and agricultural conditions, things are pretty harsh. The people are poor. It's the poorest region in the country, so a lot of people moved to Bangkok, for work. And they are looked down upon with their different dialect. All my films are spoken in the North Eastern dialect. Thailand's poor are extremely susceptible to political manipulation – it's as easy as vote buying. And the health care and education systems leave a lot to be desired. This, I think, is the main cause of the violence. I think it was only a matter of time before unrest broke out. It's a civil war, a class war. But it is more complex than that, because the poor make up most of the Red Shirts, but there are the rich people too, and the politicians have different motives to the poor.

What is your opinion of the situation?

The situation forces you to rethink your beliefs, your judgement, your morals. It's like Spike Lee's movie "Do the right thing". I am still asking myself what my position is on the whole mess. I am not happy about it all but I think is an important event. Thailand has never seen a class war like this and it sends a strong message to the government. In France there is a culture of people taking to the streets, but not in Thailand. The government has been quick to censor the news, and restrict what can be shown on television. But in the age of the internet and twitter you know this is not the truth. People have educated themselves. And the masses are united in their consciousness: we have been taken for fools, we have been subjected to government propaganda for as long as we can remember, and this is an awakening.

Your last film "Syndromes and a Century" was also censored in Thailand.

Yes, using a very old law. But when it happened, we formed a movement, Free Thai Cinema, and organised seminars and protests. We helped to create a new law with a rating system, which is what we wanted. It's not perfect, the government can still intervene to ban a movie, just by saying it is a threat to national security. The terminology used is so broad that it can be applied universally, but particularly to political films, films about the separatist movements in the South for example.

So you feel your freedom of expression is limited?

Of course, yes!

You said in an interview not so long ago that your earlier work was more personal and now you wanted to make it more political. The installation "Primitive Project" which you showed in Munich was a step in that direction. What do understand by political?

I still make personal films, but the political situation has entered my personal space. It's all politics: sexuality, the personal sphere, freedom of speech. Right now it's about the freedom of Thai people, my freedom, which has been invaded, which has been threatened and restricted. "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives" (trailer) is like my previous films, but it has adjusted to the new situation, it is aware.

It is about remembering – is there a political dimension to remembering

In Thailand, yes. Because of the manufacturing of memory. Or rather the things you are not allowed to remember. "Primitive Project" was set in Nabua in Northeast Thailand. It is a village that was occupied by communist insurgents and also by the government. So it was at the centre of a conflict.

... without wanting to be?

Exactly. The people were forced become communists. If they got stopped by the police and asked whether they had seen any communists and they said no, they would be beaten up. And if they said yes, I am a communist, they would be killed immediately. So they had no choice but to go into the jungle and become communists. This started in the '60s and went on until the early '80s. And no one wants to remember it today.

Your new film came out of this. Its protagonist remembers everything.

While I was making the film, the remembering aspect retreated into the background. I was concentrating much more on the actors, on their reactions to the dying Boonmee. I wanted to give the audience plenty of space to imagine different scenarios.

Animals, spirits and humans all coexisting.

The Northeast where I grew up is strongly influenced by Khmer culture. This means animism and the belief in the transmigration of the soul. Animals, humans and plants form three forms of life that are in constant circulation. I hope this comes over in the film.

The little stories that are woven into the film – the one about the princess and the catfish for example – are they local legends or did you make them up?

I made them up, but they are based on things I grew up with, the old television programmes with royal costumes, talking animals over-the-top plot lines.


Apichatpong Weerasethakul was born in 1970 in Bangkok and grew up in Khon Kaen im Northeastern Thailand. He studied architecture there before moving to study film at the Art Institute of Chicago.

He made his first feature-length film , "Mysterious Object at Noon" in 2000. It was followed by "Blissfully Yours" (2002), "The Adventures of Iron Pussy" (2003), "Tropical Malady" (2004), "Syndromes and a Century" (2007) and now "Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives".

Cristina Nord is a film critic for the taz

This interview was conducted in English but was first published in the taz in German on May 25, 2010 - let's talk european