Wednesday, May 23, 2012

‘When Shakespeare Must Die,’ Manit Sriwanichpoom

‘When Shakespeare Must Die,’  Manit Sriwanichpoom in the Silpa Wattanatham column of Siamrath Weekly News magazine, Yr.59, Vol. 31, 20 – 26 April, 2012.

            A time of extreme excitement and emotion, seeking reconciliation in the Puer Thai government: it ought to be called ‘coerced reconciliation.’ That is, the voice of the majority drags the minority toward its goal.  The whole Thai parliament is altogether tainted and polluted, their dignity and honor stained, in order to manipulate the wrong committed by a single individual- Taksin Shinawatre - to prevent one single person from being convicted. 

            It is not surprising then, that the Board of Censors voted 4 – 3 (not unanimously) to ban Shakespeare Must Die, the first Thai film adaptation of the immortal play, The Tragedy of Macbeth, by the world’s premiere poet, William Shakespeare, because they feared the danger to themselves if they allowed the story to be released and shown everywhere. (The whole Thai parliament prostrate themselves and surrenders their power. Who, then, are the censors? What power do they have?) The committee gave their reason for enforcing their decision as follows:

            [The film] has content which instigates divisiveness and disunity
            among the people of the nation, according to the rules of the Ministry
            specifying the character of films and videos.’ B.E.2552, Article 7(3) / 2009.

The judgment was, therefore, not to permit the showing of the film. It
has been categorized as banned from screening in the kingdom under
 Article 26 (7) of the law on films and videos, BE 2551/ 2008

The Tragedy of Macbeth is a story of a military commander who desires to be elevated to a position of unlimited power and who is unhinged by fascination with black magic when witches let him know that he will be the future king.  Incited by his wife, he assassinates the king in order to establish himself as the new ruler.  He then rules with a mad lust for power and leads his country into a dark age of fear.  He, himself, does not find happiness.  He must use violence without end in order to preserve his power.

            Khun Samanrat Kanchanawanich, a director of independent films, translated the play, adapted it, and turned it into a chilling contemporary Thai ghost story.  She made it accessible to the enjoyment of Thai people by giving it the form of a familiar ‘likay’ performance.  She created two worlds within the play: the world of contemporary reality and the world of the theatre.

            In the play’s real world, there is a country (unnamed) and a president (referred to as ‘The Leader’).  He is a ruler with a mad lust for power.  In the play’s theatre world, there is a small company of actors who dare to bring the Macbeth play to the stage. In a parody of the protagonist, they change the name of their play, ironically, from ‘Macbeth’ to ‘Make-det’[‘make’sounds like the Thai word for ‘cloud’; ‘det’ sounds like the Thai word which can mean ‘severed’ or ‘absolute’].

            In the film, one actor takes both parts as the real life ‘Leader’ and the dramatic character, Make-det. At the end of the film, the two worlds converge violently.  When the subordinates of the Leader are dissatisfied by the play, which parodies their boss, they bring in a gang of thugs in red headbands to beat up the audience.  Then they drag the director of the play out (he is played by Chatchai Puipia) and lynch him, beating his corpse with a chair, just like the well-known photo from October 6, 2519/ 1976.  The Leader then declares martial law, detains the rest of the actors in jail, and punishes those who challenge the dictator.

            When asking for support from the Office of Contemporary Art in the Ministry of Culture, as part of the government’s ‘Thai Khemkaeng’ (‘strong Thai’) project of Aphisit Vejachiwa in 2010, this film was opposed by some members of the [funding] committee.  They said that there were some dangerous things in it which might offend The Institution – especially the scene in which Make-det commits murder in order to ascend to the throne.  In my role as creative director for this film, I had to bring in some of the scenes and footage so that the committee could see that the film sticks with the original play by Shakespeare.  The audience does not witness the actual assassination.  There is only a conversation in front of the king’s bed chamber between Make-det and his wife arguing about the unnatural act they have committed.

            I really don’t understand why our film couldn’t show the actual assassination. So many Thai movies refer to historical stories and there is blood all over the screen. So why can’t our film do the same? Why would it be considered insulting and critical?  Fortunately, Shakespeare did not emphasize physical violence. His violence was more psychological, more imaginative. Our film received funding of three million baht.

            We survived suspicions of being insulting when we requested funding. We met the same charge again about being libelous from the Censorship Board. For example, Lady Make-det wears a string of green jewels: they said it was [a reference to] the Blue Diamond.  I didn’t know what they were talking about – that it had to do with ‘higher echelons.’ And they said, as well, that we libeled the red shirts.  They feared that the film would libel the red shirts because the villain in the story wears a red bandana on his head.  None of the committee dared actually pronounce the name of Taksin Shinawatr. 

            As to the villain’s red head scarf, it is one aspect of the production design.  It is generally accepted in countless textbooks that there are two primary colors associated with the play, Macbeth, i.e. black referring to darkness and red for blood. We also added gold, suggesting power.  If there were a scene in which the director of the play is violently murdered, the villains had to wear red, like the executioners in old Siam and in folk theatre.  Pink, yellow or purple just don’t fit.

            The reference to the image from 6 October, 1976 was an inspiration.  The villains cheer gleefully as the underling of their leader uses a chair to thrash the corpse of the director of the play.  At this point, the camera focuses on the faces of the mob in order to provoke a feeling of shock and repulsion that even such a crowd could bear to watch the atrocity.

            The film tries to say that in whatever conflicts and contests for political power between old capitalists and old elite with nouveau riche capitalists and prai [i.e. peasantry], the common people are always the prey. They are manipulated, stirred up to fight against and kill each other.  I don’t understand why some committee members had a problem with the historical images we used. There are other films in which images from the October 6, 1976 event have been used. And those films were not banned from showing in Thailand.

            Regarding the actor who reminds people of Taksin, in fact, the action and the dialogue all come from studies of dictators around the world, not just Taksin.  Certainly, Taksin has leadership characteristics that resemble a dictator, and many Thai people approve of that.  In order to avoid the problem of too narrow interpretations, the author created the name for the country in the film.  The names of all the players are fictitious in hopes that the audience will look at the film without clinging to preconceived ideas, that they would enjoy the performance, the colorful sets, the cinematography and the editing.

            The film is 172 minutes long, about 3 hours. The Censorship Board looked at the film three times and met and debated three times.  Some on the committee admitted that they felt heavy-hearted and couldn’t sleep.  I pleaded with the committee to let the film pass and to allow the people use their own innate good sense to analyze and critique the film, just as the committee themselves had done.  A collective response will then arise.  That would be better than just banning the film, which would be international news: the Thai government bans a film based on a play by Shakespeare!

            It is sad that the committee, instead of being courageous and allowing our film to be shown discretely in local theatres, they instead came down hard with an extremely harsh ruling.  The 2008 act on ratings emphasizes the selection of audiences.  They asked us to rate the film for age 20 and up. We accepted that, although age 18 would be better.  But the committee decided to ban it, to forbid it absolutely, which was international news.  People round the world were taken aback that the Puer Thai government and the nor-por-shor, which like to say how democratic they are, why do they still ban movies?  Especially Shakespeare’s Macbeth.   All over the world, students as young as 15 years of age are reading Macbeth in their classrooms.

            As I said to the Censorship Board and to media representatives, our film is a teaching about morality and ethics.  The film analyzes and studies the lust for power, the fight between darkness and light, good and evil, so we asked for a rating of ‘sor’ [‘songserm’ / promotes learning] i.e. contributing to knowledge and should be recommended viewing.  We didn’t want people to look at it thinking simply that it is a film satirizing Taksin and the red shirts.
The film has to transcend its time, Taksin, the redshirts and myself.  The creators of the film are not immortals.

            Whichever political sect you ascribe to, to the powers that be, to a democracy with a king, or to a republic, human beings will always defecate, fall in love, be greedy and full of ignorance.  The film is being called anti-Taksin – anti-red shirt, or  charged with seeking a change of government (as the members of the Censorship Board said).  The film borrows personalities and some elements from contemporary society.  Is there no need to investigate and ask ourselves if we are not partly to blame for the critical problems of today?  If that’s the case, then it’s a very sad story.

            I’d like to cite the words of Khun Samarnrat, the director, regarding the Board of Censors before their decision to ban the film. She expressed the standpoint of one who works in the arts and who loves and cares for her homeland.

            “ Whatever party holds power, the rest of the country – the
       government bureaucracy, doctors, businessmen, teachers or artists –
       they all must do their duty, acting responsibly for society, for themselves
       and for future generations.  Our country must stand, and it can
       only stand through virtue.”

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