There’s a common Thai expression, ‘open your eyes, open your ears’, meaning that one should be receptive to new things. The idea is that doing so will prime the mind for knowledge and sharpen the intellect, or at least broaden one’s worldview. It’s an expression that should be applicable in all kinds of situations. But some Thais, believing that theirs is a developing nation, tend to use it in reference to travelling to ‘developed’ countries, where, in their view, new things worthy of their attention await.
More than a few Thais used to labour under the illusion that they understood their compatriots well enough, but they have had their eyes and ears opened by the conflict between the country’s conservative and liberal factions (the latter often called ‘pro-democracy’ in the context of Thai politics, perhaps because the entrée of liberalism has never officially been recognised in Thailand), and by the coups d’état of 2006 and 2014. These coups were carried out to preserve the conservatives’ hold on power and keep any intellectual awakening at bay, although excuses of peacekeeping and ridding the country of corruption were invoked.
It is clear that many in the middle and upper classes support far-right ideologies and back the dictatorship. They do so to a point that defies logic, ignores justice and disregards human rights. Disdain for freedom – a concept condemned as ‘Western’ and incompatible with the Thai style of coexistence – and rejection of progressive ideas have left many heartbroken and without hope for the future. The sobering realisation of the situation is a sort of eye- and ear-opening that turns the old expression on its head. People’s ears have tuned into a naive arrogance, and their eyes are seeing an intellectual blindness that holds humanity in disregard.
Through his or her creations of beauty and imagination, the artist supposedly polishes away the roughness in people’s minds and leads in the search for truth
This reverse opening of the senses is everywhere, including in the arts, where the romantic idea of the artist still pervades: the artist as a contemplative, sensitive being who stands for freedom and integrity. Through his or her creations of beauty and imagination, the artist supposedly polishes away the roughness in people’s minds and leads in the search for truth. In fact, many of Thailand’s prominent contemporary artists were once thought leaders, revolutionaries, challengers of the establishment, fighters for the people; in the past they had even demonstrated against dictatorship. Now, however, they have turned into microphones and paintbrushes for conservative ideologies. They work in the service of the junta and embrace a regime that lacks transparency and that uses the country’s resources to benefit select groups. Many of these artists played a direct role in ‘inviting’ the military to stage the coup when they joined the People’s Democratic Reform Committee’s cause to drive away an elected government.
Thailand’s artistic circles are now packed with members who are a far cry from the ideal artists they admire and wish to be. These people are attached to the system of patronage, are obedient to and tamed by power, kick the oppressed when they are down, curse those who have been stripped of their freedom of expression and turn a blind eye to the junta’s foolishness and deception. Dressed as eminent creators, they use their positions as artists to propagandise far-right ideologies.
We live in a system that curtails freedom of speech by instilling fear through false accusations and wrongful imprisonments. It is no wonder that Thailand appears to be in an artistic dark age
We live in a system that curtails freedom of speech by instilling fear through false accusations and wrongful imprisonments. It is no wonder that Thailand appears to be in an artistic dark age. Liberal-spirited artists have become bound by fear and shame that bring with them self-censorship. A poet has been murdered. Writers and actors have been imprisoned. The military keeps an eye on art exhibitions and academic seminars, and issues warnings accordingly. This rule-setting for culture by way of pressuring artists to close their eyes and ears in exchange for safety has stifled an art scene that would, under a democracy, be ready to flourish.
Still, even in an era where many of the ‘old-guard’ artists act as wardens of a dictatorship that shows no sign of returning power to the people as it had promised – ’soon’, it had said three years ago – still, a light has started to emerge in a dark room, on a little oblong screen that gives free rein to a new generation of filmmakers, who are mostly still in university.
Thai university students have shown consistent interest in the short film as a creative form since 2000. It may be the form of art that is exhibiting the greatest variety in terms of form and content right now. A key showcase for the talent in this area is the Thai Short Film and Video Festival, which has been organised annually since 1997 by the Thai Film Foundation. The latest instalment ran from 29 August to 10 September at the Bangkok Art and Culture Center, with over 600 films entered for competition this year. A good portion of these commented and reflected on – or vented frustration over – the military’s seizure of power as well as openly questioned conservative ideologies. Expressions of this sort are rare in other branches of the arts and are nonexistent in mainstream media. It appears the Thai short film is shaping up to be a space where, in Walter Benjamin’s words, ‘a new realm of consciousness comes into being’. It is looking to be the artistic machine with the power to wear away the myths and fear created under the junta’s rule and supported by far-right ideologies.
A standout film that picked up a prize at the festival was Bangkok Dystopia (2017), directed by Patipol Teekayuwat. The work was among the most successful at showing this new realm of consciousness. The plot involves a brief friendship between a teen boy and a woman in the sex trade. They meet on the evening of the 2014 coup d’état, when the military-imposed curfew means the two have to get off the bus they’re riding in. Amid an atmosphere of eerie emptiness, they walk together in the night, feeling unsure of their ways and distrusting even each other. The boy is going home late because he has a troubled relationship with his father, and earlier his teacher had cropped his hair due to its failure to comply with school rules. The woman fights with her lover on the phone and gets into an argument with a soldier they encounter along the way. Riled up by the soldier’s disparagement of her profession, she gives him the middle finger and swears at him. Scenes of conflict like this one are commonplace in contemporary cinema, but in the current climate, where the junta dominates with fear, the scene stuns with its audacity. The almost-half-hour film uses a handheld-shooting technique and the dimness of street lights to create a mood of hazy, aimless disorientation. The film ends with a near-surreal scene in which the boy, crossing the street, has to wade through dozens of dead pigeons that lie fallen, inexplicably, in piles around him. The symbolic scenes employed by Teekayuwat to tie the story together may be obvious, but it is precisely their bluntness that ends up communicating the pain of the times. In a country that holds the record for the highest number of successful military coups in contemporary history (the most recent one, in 2014, was the 12th since Thailand became a constitutional monarchy in 1932) and that, even during periods of supposed democracy, has always been under the obscure rule of the privileged class, clarity and directness are necessary. They are gestures of courage that cast a glare in the eyes of those in power.
The repeated history of coups and military dictatorships is a constant reminder that the privileged class will not stand to have the people’s due rights returned to them
Everybody’s Fine (2017), directed by Thanakrit Duangmaneeporn, is another film from the festival that gives credence to the idea that short films could be crucial to the cultivation of a new critical consciousness among a younger generation. The film, a realistic, moving depiction of a small, relatively poor family from Chiang Rai province, in northern Thailand, neatly examines self-reflection in a world layered with questions. The mother in the story, Ning, is left to care for her elementary-school-age son alone as her husband, although innocent, has been incarcerated for years. But he writes with good news: he could receive a royal pardon and come home by year’s end. In a later scene, Ning brings her son to visit his father at the prison, and they share a meal among other families doing the same. The father makes conversation with his son in good humour, but the boy struggles to come up with things to say to a father he barely knows, even as he is eager to connect with him. Shortly after their visit, the coup of 2006 takes place, and Ning receives another letter, which she opens while her young son is lying with his head in her lap. The beauty of the scene lies in the fact that the content of the letter is never revealed; it is communicated merely through the trace of his handwriting on the back side of the sheet of paper and through Ning’s tears that fall onto her son’s cheek. The father’s fate takes a turn because of the putsch: in this country, justice is not for the ‘little people’. The repeated history of coups and military dictatorships is a constant reminder that the privileged class will not stand to have the people’s due rights returned to them so that they may be the masters of their own destinies. In complete contrast to Bangkok Dystopia, Everybody’s Fine is simply and quietly shot, and tells the story efficiently and without stylistic extravagance. Duangmaneeporn uses realism to express the mood to beautiful effect. In his hands, all the ‘smallness’ of the film ends up creating a powerful effect, much like the clap of thunder in the film’s final scene.
Commercially, the Thai film industry might be going through a crisis as a result of changes in technology and of the repetitiveness of the movies that come out of the studio system. But those same factors are allowing the new generation to use filmmaking as a means to find a way out of the dark tunnel in which we find ourselves, and to do so without being hampered by the business side of the industry. These new artists may not take to the streets to protest like the student groups who were their predecessors. But times have changed, and we cannot expect the mode of calling and fighting for freedom to remain the same. In this iteration of ‘opening your eyes, opening your ears’, what Albert Camus called ‘the flame of lucid courage’ may be burning bright within rectangular frames in the dark.
From the Winter 2017 issue of ArtReview Asia