Monday, May 24, 2010

Opposing the Use of 430 Million for [more] Naresuan films

Manit Sriwanichpoom. “Opposing the Use of 430 Million in Tax Revenues to Create the New ‘Naresuan’ Episode,” in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siam Rath Weekly News, 7 -13 May, 2010.

In the midst of violent protest demonstrations and terrorist acts by red-shirts against the government of Aphisit Vechachiwa with no few wounded and killed, there has been a disbursement to the Thai Khem Kaeng [‘strong Thai’] project. The money came through two ministries, i.e. Culture (100 million baht) and Commerce (330 million baht) – a total of 430 million – earmarked for the production of a historical film on the legend of King Naresuan, episodes 3 and 4, directed by Than Mui, i.e. Mom Chao Chatri Chalerm Yukol.

When I heard about this, I couldn’t help but think in terms of the red-shirt political discourse on ‘double standards’ and prai-amaht [peasant-nobility].

The background information goes this way.
In August of 2009, PM Aphisit Vechachiwa participated with Than Mui in riding elephants out to announce that the government would lend support to filming episodes 3-4 of Naresuan. Then a budget of 480 million popped up unexpectedly at the Ministry of Culture ( a figure which approximated the announced cost of Than Mui’s film). That budget was supposed to support the film and video-making industry as part of the government’s ‘Creative Economy’ program. Said budget was to be disbursed in two allocations. The first money to arrive was 200 million baht; the remainder will come later.

Rather than announcing that this 200 million was simply being passed through the Ministry of Culture for the making of the Naresuan film (i.e. no one else would be able to lay a finger on it), the disbursement arrived in the name of the ‘Creative Economy’ program (not for the Naresuan budget). That is the origin of this funding.

The budget was supposedly to support Thai films as a whole
, and there was scuffling to get a piece of it before anything ever actually arrived. One feels for the bureaucrats and ministers who had to try to negotiate while not letting the whole sum of money go to the Naresuan project.
The Ministry of Culture presented the project as offering some support to Thai video and film makers, designating the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture as the host for the project.

To allocate the budget, a 21 member subcommittee was appointed. Many people could not help wondering if the committee was set up simply as a ritual to please the public. Two thirds of the committee were civil servants who know virtually nothing about the Thai film industry. The other seven members were from the relevant private sector. (It reads like a farce from the start.)

What happened was that almost 300 video and film projects were submitted (I myself made a submission and was rejected…not that I’m protesting for that reason…Please read on!) Only 49 of the 300 applicants received funding. Naresuan took 100 million, a full half of the first allocation. The second largest bite was 8 million. What do you think? (You can get more details at

First, if you didn’t know that there was a prior claim made ensuring that the Naresuan film would win, you would have to ask what standard the subcommittee used in considering their awards. Why does it indeed look like a ‘double standard’?

Second, when you know that this budget was planned and directed for Naresuan from the beginning, it means that half the budget is already spoken for right from the start. But we should thank the Honorable Minister and the bureaucrats for their tireless work in making it possible for some poorly connected filmmakers - a very few of them – to receive some budget to actually make some films. Why should there be a protest? The small projects which were funded should be satisfied with the ‘half-cake’ that the 48 of them got to share.

Besides the 100 million for the Naresuan film, the subcommittee did not make any official statement about any ceiling to be placed on the total amount of budget which could be requested, i.e. that different filmmakers could not receive funding in excess of some specified amount; or about how many film projects could be submitted in the competition for budget by any one film camp. One reason would be that a large film company would get about 19 million baht net. This is a way of shutting out opportunities for small filmmakers. So, after all, this event gave the state’s money to heavily funded private players full and up front. So you actually could call this, “The Project of Promote and Strengthen the Old Power Structure.” It is not a project to make Thai people strong, not a project which would support the making of films that encourage Thai people to use their heads.

As for the government, it doesn’t look so good. The 200 million allocated to the Ministry of Culture had a problem. The ministry’s funds didn’t move for two days after the announcement of the results of the considerations on 30 April, 2010.

Mrs. Bachima Thanasanti, Director of the Intellectual Property Dept. was interviewed by phone on the Nation TV channel program, ‘Kom-Chat-Leuk.’ She stated that 330 million had been allocated by the Cabinet on 9 April for a project to create Thai historical and cultural films and to honor the monarchy, i.e. King Naresuan. It was an event, indeed, with a committee which knew nothing [about the Thai film and video industry] dispersing the funds of the Ministry of Culture. They hadn’t realized that this funding package was already earmarked for Naresuan (if we are to believe what they said about their own actions.)

It is very strange why the government must use two ministries to disburse these funds, even as they say it is the policy of PM Aphisit. Why not put the entire sum directly with the Ministry of Culture? It is possible that the government was looking for a legal way of giving money for the Naresuan film which did not conflict with bureaucratic procedures? Formerly, that film received funding from the lottery bureau – 700 million baht. As for the Taksin government, the donor, has already been sued. This government must be careful to let us see the strangely transforming methods of handing out money.

It is quite clear: the so-called project to support the film and video industry was basically random or accidental.
It wasn’t in the least a determined effort to promote a creative economy. And the 280 million remaining – don’t get your hopes up! The protest by me and my fellow film makers, critics and film lovers is only about the committee’s funding decision, which is just the tip of the iceberg. We never go deeper beneath the surface to ask what lies beneath.

Getting back to the main point here, the policy of the Aphisit government was to support the ‘Project to Make Creative Historical and Cultural Films.’ If the government were sincere, they would be let the public learn about it, participate, and express their opinions about whether the state should be taking out money to create films like this or not. If they think it is appropriate, how much budget should they use? What kind of history should the film portray and from whose point of view?

As to the legend of King Naresuan the Great, it has already been told in two episodes using money from the lottery. The owners of the film have giant movie sets which have become tourist attractions: they are really raking money in on that. As for the equipment they used such as cameras, lights and costumes, they rent them out (another source of income). The government hasn’t gotten the legal property rights to any of this. They still don’t seem to learn any lesson. Now they are taking more of the taxpayer’s money and investing in this story again. I don’t know what new thing they are hoping for from parts 3 and 4, when the director is the same one as before. The story and presentation can hardly go any further than the first two episodes. From an investor’s point of view, the first two parts lost more than 200 million. Most of the audiences for these films are Thai, i.e. domestic. They haven’t sold in world markets, compared with Ong Bak, which also cost less to make. That means that there is a very good chance that the government will lose money on these new films, not less than 200 million baht. And there is a condition to share the earnings from ticket sales, 50 – 50.

The more the Thai government inefficiently lets such things continue, the more it means that virtually all the money will be lost – poured into this single set of films.

Taking 430 million baht from the ‘Thai Khem Khaeng’ [ ‘strong Thai’] program to invest in these films - that is ‘private sector khem khaeng,’ i.e. one individual party gets stronger. And isn’t that favoritism? It’s just taking money from the public purse and putting it into someone’s private pocket. No sweat…

If the movie flops, no one will complain. No one has to answer for the use of public funds. (This is sure better than borrowing.) Why didn’t they share the money more fairly? Give a chance to a lot of talented filmmakers who weren’t able on their own to approach the funding source.

At this point nothing is too late. PM Aphisit Vechachiwa and his government could still put the use of this 430 million on hold, and put an end to this losing scenario. If they really want a historical film, as they said they did, we have many talented filmmakers and a lot more good history worth telling to choose from. You can be sure it would be exciting and interesting, and not only to Thai markets. Why not give these other creative people a chance?

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