Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Manit Sriwanichpoom on Thai film censorship

The case of the Thai film, Syndromes and a Century, by Apichatpong Wirasetkul, a well-known director and a Cannes film festival winner, brought the censors back into the spotlight (at least for the six or seven thousand people who protested on the Net!)

It was not only the director. Thai filmmakers working both inside and outside the system, film lovers and those who cherish their civil rights and freedoms under Thai democracy had all had enough of the irrational use of power by state officials using an antique law from 1930 to censor the nation’s films. The law comes from a pre-democratic era and is still be used to abuse the rights [supposedly] enjoyed by Thai people under the constitution.

The committee which reviews films, i.e. the Board of Censors, warns that ‘this movie is made from the producers’ imagination. Many behaviors may be unsuitable: use your own judgment in going to see it.’ And they asked the director and the producers to remove four scenes:

1/ The scene of a doctor having a drink in his office, a scene which begins as the doctor pulls the bottle out of an artificial leg.
2/ The scene where the doctor embraces and kisses his girlfriend in his office, from the point where the embrace begins to the point where his trousers begin to bulge noticeably.
3/ The scene of a monk playing a guitar outside a pavilion.
4/ The scene of an old monk in a public park playing with a flying toy airplane. This is the last scene in the film.

You can guess why the censors cut out these scenes. They feared the impact on vocations for monks and doctors. (I wouldn’t say impact on any particular institutions – the film shows actors doing things – not the details of the places or philosophies to which they are attached in the film.)

You may ask how possible is it that any of those censored scenes could actually occur in the real world –
a doctor taking a drink in his office or kissing his girlfriend and getting an erection as a result; a monk playing the guitar or an old monk playing with a remote controlled toy airplane – I think such scenes don’t even begin to compare with what actually happens in the real world, or with what we see on the television news daily.

Did a doctor ever really kill his wife, cut her up in little pieces and throw them down a toilet? Did a monk ever take advantage of women followers? Did such things make us lose faith in these professions altogether? I think not. People use their heads; they can discriminate between a good and a bad monk, between a kind doctor and a cruel one, between what is real and what is entertainment.

It’s only the censors who can’t discriminate. They think what they see on screen is real, so they have to control it. Scenes which they think ‘have a character which disturbs or upsets or sins against order and good morals’ as the committee perceives them.

This time K.Apichatpong didn’t accept the censoring committee’s reasons, which were so unconvincing. Unlike the first two times with the movies สุดเสน่หา and สัตว์ประหลาด, he agreed to cut scenes of nudity and sexual intercourse. But with the latest set of unreasonable reasons – how could he accede? Whoever makes a film about any profession will have to get the OK from those professionals? This is running amuck.

Many years ago I witnessed arguments like this in the art and culture committee in the parliament. The regular advisor had said they should cut a scene in which a monk was doing things with a corpse. They said it was not proper to have such a scene. But the director said he got the story from the newspaper; he hadn’t dreamed it up! The advisor, who had a doctorate in Buddhism from abroad, retorted to the director, “We cannot control [that monk], but we can control you.”

So it is not surprising that there are no movies about bad policemen (except in the hired gun movies of Than Muey – he can get away with it. You’ll have to ask him how he manages it.) Or, if you have a bad policeman, the uniform must be weird, and not look like a Thai policeman. It must look more like a Burmese or a Laotian, Khmer, Indian or Hong Kong Chinese, or some other distant race. But Thai police in a Thai movie must be good. Only good. They catch bad guys and are the ones we can depend on, like those other eternally good guys in Thai movies – monks, judges and doctors.

Thai movies don’t reflect the real world. White movies have bad police, judges who take bribes, impious clergy and murdering doctors. And they attract all the money of Thai moviegoers because there is some satisfaction in seeing justice happen at times within the space of two hours….the justice we dream of having some day in our own Thai society.

How and what does one count as ‘having characteristics which offend against or might offend against order or good morals’? Or does it end with…’or has impact on [the] security [of the nation]? How do they draw these lines?

When you can’t find a clear line, it’s a problem for those who are working. Things get slippery and uncertain. Standards are fuzzy, rising and falling with the awareness of censors. As with the double standard of Thai breasts and white breasts. Thai breasts are blurred but white breasts are bared. Thai censorship becomes a joke.

At one level, they reflect an attitude of ‘them and us’ – people are not equal. Thai people are human, but whites are not, or vice versa.

Especially concerning opposition to liquor, cigarettes and violence, the censors treat Thai people like children to the point that censorship becomes ironic, embarrassing and tasteless. Not only nudity but cigarettes, drinking, the gun to the head – all is blurred till the film becomes confusing.

When standards are so movable, there seem to be gaps or loopholes advantageous to those in power, who can get money or put pressure on whom they chose, or challenge them, as we have often heard. Nuisances are not tolerated: they are simply put down.

What is very strange, however, is how the old Movie Act, which dates back before the change of government in Thailand, keeps a foot so firmly on the neck of Thai movies and Thai people. The government today calls itself democratic but doesn’t seem to feel anything about this act, and appears to have no thought about seriously trying to amend or do away with it.

On 30 May, just past, the Network campaigning for greater freedom for movies held a seminar, ‘From Censors to Ratings: A Possible Way Out.’ There was a member from the committee which is preparing a draft act on film and video and a representative from the Ministry of Culture hosting the drafting of the new act which is being prepared to present to the Cabinet and from thence to the legislative assembly. If the new legislation passes, it would replace the 1930 act.

The important content for the private sector – for film directors, indie moviemakers and film lovers, I think, is that Thai movies will rate themselves according to the viewer age they feel is appropriate for their film. This sort of standard is used in many countries to protect viewers, especially children and youth, from films which have content and examples which are violent or require explanation from an adult. With such a system in place, why would banning still be a possibility? Why is this threat still present in the new draft? Restricting the film to certain theaters ought to be enough because there would be very few viewers. Banning a film kills it and is a violation of civil rights.

Some people are saying that the new bill is more repressive than the old one. Dictators in Armani suits.

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