Thai independent filmmakers were out in force at the 47th International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), which ran from January 24 to February 4 this year. From veterans to a new generation of young and upcoming directors gracing the red carpet, European audiences were treated to a diversity of shorts, features and installations from the Kingdom, which explored a gamut of topics including sleep, politics, hypnotism, family, nationalism and immigration.
Held annually in the port city of Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the IFFR is one of the biggest audience-oriented film festivals around the world, known for championing experimental and progressive independent cinema. This year, the festival welcomed shorts by five Thai filmmakers—visual artists Korakrit Arunanondchai (With History in a Room Filled with People with Funny Names 4), Pathompon Tesprateep (Confusion Is Next, Song X) and Prapat Jiwarangsan (Destination Nowhere), recently-graduated filmmaker Nakhen Puttikulangkura (When the Rain Is Falling Down) and the award-winning Sorayos Prapapan (Death of the Sound Man). Korakrit’s film was one of three winners of the Ammodo Tiger Short Competition at the IFFR, marking the first time a Thai filmmaker has received the festival’s highest award for short films, worth €5,000.
Those attending the festival included Pathompon and Nakhen, who were visiting the IFFR for the first time. Pathompon was part of the IFFR’s newly-launched platform Frameworks, which introduces emerging visual artists, while Nakhen was present for the international premiere of When the Rain Is Falling Down under the Voices Short programme. They were joined by Sorayos, who was at the IFFR for the fourth time to screen his well-travelled short film Death of the Sound Man, which debuted at the Venice Film Festival and won the Best Director award at the Singapore International Film Festival last year.
The only Thai feature-length film screening at the IFFR was political documentary Homogenous, Empty Time, co-directed by veteran director Thunska Pansittivorakul and photographer Harit Srikhao. Thunska was returning to Rotterdam after a four-year-absence, since screening his first fiction film Supernatural there in 2014.
Adding to the buzz this year was the homecoming of seasoned IFFR favourite Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who was there to present Sleepcinemahotel, a one-off video installation project-cum-fully-operational hotel which he specially created for the festival. Located on the third floor of the Rotterdam World Trade Centre, Sleepcinemahotel was fully booked for its entire five-day duration. For ¤75 a night, guests could check into a communal dormitory space and sleep in beds alongside a large circular projection screen, which played 120 hours’ worth of carefully-curated footage contributed by the EYE Filmmuseum and The Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision. In the morning, they were encouraged to note down their dream experiences in a “dream” guestbook.
Sleepcinemahotel is clearly an extension of Apichatpong’s previous enigmatic works, which consistently blur the lines between sleeping and consciousness, dream and reality, past and present, and light and darkness. “I’m interested in science. I would like to explore more about how our brain works in dream time. Sleep is something that we experience daily, and it’s a line that is very interesting—from the way we fall from conscious to unconscious, or something in between,” he muses. “The time now is always divided between science and art. We tend to categorise things, which is something I feel we should eliminate between what is called art, what is called cinema, what is called science.”
Having established himself as one of the pioneering Thai directors who succeeded in breaking out of the nation’s studio system, the 47-year-old continues to be a polarising figure both at home and abroad. His films are as spellbinding as they are confounding, with sedate pacing, non-linear structures and dreamy phantasmagoria, not to mention containing allegorical riffs on the political and social state of Thailand—though Apichatpong, who has always been a vocal critic of censorship, admits he is not proud of filming in such a “metaphorical way.”
For instance, his latest feature Cemetery of Splendour (2015) is about a group of soldiers who are plagued with a mysterious sleeping illness. The film’s central epidemic has been construed by critics as a metaphor for Thailand’s ills under military dictatorship. He says, “It’s almost an excuse, like cheating, when you have to resort to other means to say another thing. So sometimes I feel like I don’t deserve to be called an artist, because I censor myself, and when I censor, I feel shame.”
Apichatpong has shared an intimate relationship with the IFFR over the last two decades, beginning when the festival’s Hubert Bals Fund awarded him a grant for the documentary Mysterious Object At Noon in 1998. The IFFR has since championed and screened many of his films, including supporting his Palme d’Or-winning film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives for script development in 2008.
As Apichatpong is joined by a growing crop of younger independent directors on the international festival circuit, he believes it has become more challenging for his peers to establish their own distinctive voice today, especially with the inundation of visual images in this digital age. “When I started out, we only had a very crude form of email, there were no mobile phones, no Netflix, video cameras were expensive. It was a situation that forced us to be very careful with images. You could be more focused,” he says, adding that he considers himself lucky for the lack of technological distractions then.
Unsurprisingly, the director considers film authorship the most integral aspect when he forms an opinion of a film—something he sees in compatriot Pathompon, who is going against the grain by shooting with deteriorated 8mm and 16mm film stock. Apichatpong selected Pathompon for the IFFR’s inaugural programme Frameworks, which provided the latter a ¤10,000 grant to finish his single-screen audio-visual artwork Confusion Is Next, which made its world premiere at the festival. Apichatpong says of Pathompon, “He has a fascination with light and abstract forms in his early video works; watching them inspires me to make films myself. And when everyone is going digital, to make a movie using film is almost like a kind of resistance.”
Pathompon Tesprateep—Confusion Is Next
Confusion Is Next is the third film in Pathompon’s trilogy of shorts shot using film stock, preceded by Endless, Nameless (2014) and Song X (2017), the latter of which also premiered at the IFFR. Each film is inspired by the first 17 years of Pathompon’s life, growing up in a military family in northeast Thailand. They feature striking images of soldiers in uniforms and explore themes such as hypnotism, escapism and authority. “Living in the military camp was peaceful and organised, totally opposite from the outside world. It was a kind of utopia. Which is why I had a culture shock when I went to university to study fine art, because the people I met in the creative field had very different ideologies,” recalls the 39-year-old director.
This exposure to new perspectives was what eventually compelled him to express his long-suppressed ambivalence about the military environment he was raised in through filmmaking. “I grew up with this uncomfortable feeling all the time. I had a lot of questions about the military system when I was young, but I wasn’t conscious about it then. Listening to rock music helped me, it was mainly therapy.”
The avid musician, who is currently the drummer in rock band Assajan Jakgawan, first kickstarted his career by directing contemporary pop music videos. But it was only during his time studying for his master’s degree in fine art in London in 2010 that he reached an artistic breakthrough with the adoption of analog film that would define his status as one of Thailand’s most promising experimental filmmakers. “I saw a lot of great works from artists in the UK that used celluloid and analog material. This opened my eyes and made me realise the many possibilities to make these works,” he says.
As there is no photography lab in Thailand with the capacity to develop 8mm or 16mm film, Pathompon’s cinematographer hand-processes the film for him. The director also relies on donations of expired film stock from universities in Thailand, as well as contributions from individuals. “I love the texture of hand-processed film—there’s a dreamlike quality to it, some parts of the footage are clear and others blur,” he says. For his next project, Pathompon is in the midst of developing his first feature with film, though he is unsure how long he intends to continue using the material in the future. “When I first began, I didn’t think that I was going to continue to make movies using film all the time. I just tried to see if it would work or not. So I’m not sure about my five-year plan yet, though I do hope not to go digital. Filmmaking is like life, it changes all the time.”
Nakhen Puttikulangkura—The Rain Is Falling Down
Similarly, the desire to re-contextualise the memories of his own past through filmmaking spurred the premise of 23-year-old Nakhen Puttikulangkura’s second short, When The Rain Is Falling Down. The work, which premiered at the Thai Short Film and Video Festival last year, follows a young woman, Fon, who is closing down her father’s design company after his death in order to build a hostel. For Nakhen, who recently graduated from the School of Digital Media & Cinematic Arts at Bangkok University, the film is a bittersweet throwback to his childhood. His father, a photographer, used to own a popular post-production studio specialising in television commercials below his family’s home, which was on the second floor of the same building.
Business and family life intermingled within a singular locale, and as a young six-year-old Nakhen would spend most of his days after school in his father’s studio. “The office was always very crowded with 40 to 50 people. My duty was to sit next to the switch and be in charge of turning on or off the lights for photoshoots. I also managed documents and was a messenger who would deliver messages from one end of the office to the other,” he recalls, adding that the time he spent there led to an interest in photography in his teens.
But tough times hit after his father had a stroke and business suffered. To keep things afloat, his father made the painful decision to convert the post-production studio into a food packaging company instead. These stark changes are manifested in When the Rain Is Falling Down, with poignant shots of abandoned scrap items piled up in a desolate room, movers shifting furniture out to make way for the new, and a sole photograph of an office on the wall as the only tangible memory left of Fon’s father’s closed company.
The film also lightly pokes fun at Thailand’s long-held superstitious beliefs. In a memorable scene, Fon’s mother refuses to remove a snake from the house because she believes it is the reincarnation of her late husband, who appears to her in her dreams as said reptile. Nakhen explains, “There are many people in our country who still believe in the supernatural, like ghosts and stuff. I don’t believe in that, so I want to make fun of these elements—many people in the audience laughed at the right parts at my second screening, so it made me very happy.” He is currently working on his next short film which will also be inspired by his family, this time about his grandfather.
Thunska Pansittivorakil & Harit Srikhao—Homogenous, Empty Time
Moving on from the Thai shorts at the IFFR, Thunska’s latest feature-length documentary Homogenous, Empty Time examines the spread of collective nationalism across Thailand according to the concept of homogenous empty time, as conceived by German-Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin. The theory, which was later referenced in the book Imagined Communities by Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson, asserts how nationalistic ideologies originate from within an area where people share a homogenous consciousness.
Through interviews with teenage boys, military cadets, village scouts, Buddhists, Muslims and the students of a Christian boarding school, Thunska and Harit observe the institutional power structures in place within Thai society. The film was shot between the 2014 military coup and the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2016, at a time when nationalism in the country was supposedly at its peak.
“No matter which province you come from in Thailand, no matter what religion you have as a Thai, everybody thinks the same. They share the same ideologies in present time,” explains Thunska. “Before I read Anderson’s book, I could not connect some things in Thai society. But meeting Benedict Anderson in 2005 changed something in me and I could understand things around me better,” he says, adding that he made the documentary to pay homage to the late Anderson, who passed away in 2015. Six of the nine episodes shown in his film were actually aired as part of a television documentary (In the City) that Thunska was working on in 2014. But he decided against submitting a portion of the footage to the broadcasting station, instead choosing to re-edit some of the existing footage into a new film, on top of shooting three new episodes.
At a late-night screening of his work in Rotterdam, the director was frank with members of the audience about the likelihood of Homogenous, Empty Time being released in Thailand, given its overt depictions of institutional brainwashing and state oppression. Like Apichatpong, the 44-year-old has never shied away from taboo topics such as homosexuality and politics through his provocative and controversial films, which also contain explicit nudity—his 2009 gay documentary This Area Is Under Quarantine was banned in Thailand for its biting political commentary.
“It’s not that I want to make something deliberately controversial. I just want to make films that other people have no interest to take on, something that other filmmakers cannot do,” Thunska says. But he also expresses hope that Homogenous, Empty Time will one day reach the eyes of his fellow countryman and leave a mark in Thai history, even if it happens long after his death. “With the situation now, it would be impossible to show this film in Thailand. But nowadays, people can watch films made 100 years ago. I lost 30 years of my life knowing nothing about my country. If people can only live till the age of 60, then I have 15 years more to live. So in this next 15 years I hope to make as many films as possible with the hope that 100 years from now people in that era can go back to study them.”