Sleepy Consciousness of Thai Documentary Film

Chalida Uabumrungjit

My interest in documentary film came gradually over the years from having the opportunity to see “good” documentaries at various film festivals. It became more obvious when I had the luxurious opportunity to come to YIDFF as a jury member for New Asian Currents in 2001. At that time, I realized that documentary has its own place in the world. However, I would never have come to the point of questioning my understanding of Thai documentary film without having had the opportunity to research documentaries in Japan for six months.

Why is it that my consciousness about Thai documentary film is so blurred?

In order to bring back my consciousness, I asked Dome Sukvong, who I could say is the sole film historian in Thailand, about Thai documentary film. “We don’t have documentary films,” said Sukvong, who is also founder of the National Film Archive. Ironically, there are more than 4,000 films classified in the “documentary” category in the archive collection. So it was interesting to hear him deny the entire existence of Thai documentary film.

In his opinion, documentary film should be “creative” and “critical.” However, most of the so-called documentary films in the collection are merely actuality records of places and events. He personally feels that these films are significant in terms of historical evidence, but hardly reflect the creativity of the persons who made them. The filmmakers only play the role of cinematographers. There might be some exceptions, but not many. His claim serves as a declaration of how rare good Thai documentary films are.

In order to investigate other people’s consciousness, I asked a few friends about their perceptions of Thai documentary film. I discussed this with Panu Aree, my friend and a filmmaker who also shares my passion for documentary film. He told me “we can’t totally say that we don’t have documentaries, but everybody says documentary film is boring. Nobody thinks that they can make enjoyable films from reality.”

I think Apichatpong Weeresethakul, who is the same generation as myself, gives a good summary of the characteristics of Thai documentary film, saying “we have always thought that documentary film is boring. What we see in the classroom is actually boring stuff. We had no opportunity to see challenging documentaries as we grew up. And now it jumps to Discovery Channel. We missed the gap that has Federick Wiseman or other great British documentary films. So we have a very limited scope of what documentary film is, what it can be.”

So it could be that consciousness of documentary film is not totally absent, but rather documentary film has a bad image and we just want to forget about the works that we have known.

In order to find out what makes documentary film in Thailand so uninteresting, I have to go back to its roots. I think the definition of documentary film in Thailand is somehow distorted. Maybe it came from the word “sarakadee,” which is used for documentary film and non-fiction writing. According to the dictionary definition, “sarakadee” means “stories written from fact, not imagination.” Thus, the definition of documentary film in general has a tendency to focus on providing facts and avoids a critical perspective, which might be considered to be part of the imagination.

I do not want to put all the blame on Sarakadee Magazine (“Features Magazine”), but somehow the popularity of the magazine distorted the concept of the word “sarakadee.” This prestigious magazine contains many well-written articles on cultural and environmental issues, and tends to define people’s concept of documentary film. Many documentary programs follow the magazine’s lead for content.

Looking back on film history, documentary film is not unknown to Thais, but it never played important role beyond being informative. When the Tropical Film Service of the Royal State Railways was established in 1922 to produce films for exhibition in commercial theatres and to sell for home use, one of the main purposes was to make documentary films to disseminate information for the state. After the war, the United States Information Service (U.S.I.S.) played an important role in setting up a film unit to produce documentaries under the label of “information and educational films,” with an underlying anti-communist agenda. Not only did they produce their own films, but the U.S.I.S. also distributed film equipment to the government unit to encourage the production of documentary films in support of their ideology.

When the first TV station in Thailand started in 1955, it seemed to open a channel for documentary films to be shown. Alongside the social and economic development plan, tourism received tremendous promotion and support from the government. Many traveling documentary programs were produced, such as Travel over Thailand with Ovaltine (“Tio Muang Thai Pai Kub Ovaltine”), Along the Railway (“Song Kan Thang Rot Fai”), and Thai Treasure (“Moradok Kong Thai”). These programs also strengthened the concept of documentary film as “nature and culture films” serving tourism promotion campaigns.

In a way, Thai documentary film in the past was always controlled either directly or indirectly by the agenda of various authorities. So it only revealed a kind of half-truth reality. There has always been an emphasis that “only good things should be said” for the sake of the country.

I think the unconscious repression in Thai society is also related. Even though Thailand tends to be proud of always being independent and never having been colonized by Western countries, repression has always existed in Thailand. There are many taboos in the social code that create a system of self-censorship prior to control by any authorities.

The only period during which I think Thai society enjoyed full freedom of expression was during the short period from 1973 to 1976. The student uprising at Thammasat University in 1973 against the military government was only the point of explosion after long-term oppression. It was the point in time when I think there was the greatest possibility for critical work to be produced. However, although songs, plays and posters were widely created, only a few critical films were made during this period.

One such film is Tongpan (1975), a Thai-U.S. co-production under the group Isan Films. It is a semi-documentary about Tongpan, a peasant from the province of Kalasin who lost his land because of a hydroelectric dam, and was invited to join a seminar at Thammasat University in Bangkok. The film includes the actual seminar with many elite intellectuals, such as Sulak Siwalak and Sane Jammarik.

Another film is The Women Workers of Hara Factory (“Kamakorn Ying Hara,” 1976) by John Ungpakorn, now a senator and AIDS activist. It represented the voice of the labor worker, and was shown around factories and encouraged labor workers to stand up and fight against injustice. However, a few months after the film was made, the October Massacre of 1976 occurred and the old military was back in power. Students at Thammasat University accused of being communists were brutally killed by both the military and right-wing groups in a frightening surge of violence. This massacre froze the seed of freedom, and many students fled into the jungle. The public was shocked with fear and confusion, so society became, once again, silent. Freedom came to an abrupt end.

Nonetheless, there were a few important documentaries made during this period, which need to be mentioned here. “!” (1976) by Suraphong Pinichkha was entered in the documentary film competition organized by the Bank of Bangkok. This film is a montage of children in Klongtoey Slum with the children’s nursery rhyme “Pray to the moon” (“Chanchaoka”), and speaks out against poverty. There was disagreement among the jury since some jury members considered this film to be leftist. It ended up receiving the special prize, while the winning film was a politically correct documentary about teaching democracy in schools.

On the Fringe of the Society (“Prachachon nok,” 1981, screened at YIDFF ’89), produced with the support of the Catholic Commission for Human Development, was directed Manop Udomdej with Pinichkha involved as editor. It is about the fight of two lower classes in the midst of injustice. They were accused of being communists and had to fight back on their own. Although the filmmaker himself denied it as a documentary, it has always been selected to represent Thai documentary film.

Meanwhile, Pinichkha started his own project, Chinatown Montage (“Sampheng,” 1985). It took him six months to shoot the footage of Chinatown in Bangkok, and he intended to use no narration. When the film was finished, in order to appeal to the Bank of Bangkok cultural center, he made another version with excessive narration.

Among the many filmmakers making documentaries, only Pinichkha was conscious of documentary film. He tried to make other documentaries without success and finally moved into making commercials, while Udomdej entered the film industry. Neither of them continued working as documentary filmmakers.

After looking back on the history of Thai documentary film, I can accept that Sukvong’s conclusion about Thai documentaries may be correct. Thai documentaries are so few, almost none, in the past.

Now, the only place for documentaries is television. Television documentaries thrived in the 80s, with the coming of video technology. Many new production companies were established to make documentaries. However, TV censorship was strict and prohibited critical content from being broadcast. To avoid problems with censorship, producers tended to produce educational programs. It is only recently that TV programs have more freedom to touch upon some critical issues. With the green movement in early 90s, almost all TV documentaries turned into nature programs. During that period, the quality of documentary film has been raised, but only in terms of production quality. The content was still limited to nature and culture concepts.

Last year, Panorama Documentary, one of the main TV documentary producers, even established a documentary channel on cable TV but it did not last because it was hard to provide programming to run the channel 24 hours a day.

I notice that there is more dynamism in TV documentaries lately. There are more programs that challenge and investigate sensitive issues, which was impossible in the past. However, I haven’t seen enough to judge how much has changed for TV documentaries these days.

Nonetheless, in spite of the limited perception of the audience and the lack of freedom of expression by documentary makers, it is not totally hopeless. With the emergence of short films and independent films in recent years, a space has opened for documentary films to be made and seen. Although documentary film in schools is still conventional, interesting documentaries are being made by students.

Amazing Thailand (1998) by Panutta Yoosuksawat and Soraya Nakasuwan of Chulalongkorn University, critiques the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT)’s policies and confronts the local TAT officer in Pattaya. Karen Po (1999) by Lanchana Satrnu of King Monkut Institute of Technology uses folksongs as narration to explain the Karen’s rituals and beliefs about rice. March of Time (“Kan,” 2000, screened in New Asian Currents at YIDFF 2001) and March of Time 2 (“Kan Kon 2,” 2000) by Uruphong Raksasad portray the simple life of an old villager in the north of Thailand facing changes of the new world. In addition, there are many films dealing with reality as the main element in filmmaking, such as Grandpa (“Ta Kub Lan,” 1998) by Boonsong Nakpoo and Motorcycle (2000) by Aditya Assarat, which reflect rural life by using local people as actors.

There are a few filmmakers who incorporate reality in their work in an interesting way. They are not pure documentaries in the conventional sense, but rather lie between fiction, documentary and experimental film. For example City of Angel (“Muang Nang Fa,” 2001) by Sirawat Nakintranon is a collage of his nude photos of real prostitutes with fictional dialogue, and Looking through the Glasses (2001) by Patana Jirawong asks “if John Lennon were alive, how would he see Thailand?”

There are a few filmmakers who are quite conscious of documentaries and continue making them. After many self-reflective short films, Thunska Pansittivorakul recently made Voodoo Girls (“Huajai Tong Sab,” 2002), a documentary about himself and his best friends regarding the subjects of love, sex and relationships. Some people say his film is not a documentary. At any rate, he enjoyed exploring what happened in front of the camera although sometimes it was quite different behind the camera. He still wonders what reality really is.

Panu Aree is another filmmaker who consistently makes short documentaries. He has made eight short films over three years. His first film, Once Upon a Time (“Karn Lakrung Neung,” 2000, screened in New Asian Currents at YIDFF 2001) combines his childhood memory about Dan Neramitr, the popular amusement park which was to be closed down while he was filming, with the testimony of people’s memory about Dan Neramit. He also includes text from publications about the amusement park with his family (father, mother and brother) in the present day in the background. The film is a multi-layer collage of memories juxtaposed against one another.

Most of his films focus on individuals around him, for example himself (Once Upon a Time), his friend (Destiny), his colleague (Magic Water), a maid in his office (Parallel); however, he explains that an individual’s story can also portray the entire society. It is his way of understanding himself through making films. Moreover, the main message in all of his films is that “life will go on, no matter what happens.”

Among these recent works, Apichatpong Weerasethakul seems the most promising. He refers to documentary as “a reflection of reality according to its maker. It is not the truth (and will never be), but it is a representation of the person behind it.” In all of his films, he picks up ingredients from reality and cooks them in different ways. Bullet (1993) uses archive footage of news reports; 0116643225059 (1994) uses sound recorded from the telephone with his mother’s portrait; thirdworld (“Goh Gayasit,” 1998, screened in New Asian Currents at YIDFF ’99) includes sound recordings and footage from his own film shoot; Like the Relentless Fury of the Pounding Waves (“Mae Ya Nang,” 1995) includes radio drama and street scenes; and for Malee and the Boy (1999), he attached a microphone to a boy as he walked around.

Weerasethakul says “making films is like sketching a diary, a big continuous one. To me, making films is part of my existence. So I try to put real events, things actually seen or heard on the screen. So the films become like a record. And also events that occur during the shooting, during the pre-production and production are sometimes put in the film—so that I can remember these things later when I see it on screen. It is like preservation of memories.”

When I first saw Mysterious Object at Noon (“Dogfahr Nai Meu Marn,” 2000, the Runner-up Prize in the International Competition at YIDFF 2001), I was impressed by the street in the first scene, which looks so normal, like any small streets I am familiar with, but has hardly been seen in a film before. I also like the way he always includes ordinary people like merchants or workers, who are usually too simple to be included in film.

Weerasethakul explained “I am interested in class distinctions in Thailand. It is very obvious—you can see it on TV soaps and advertising all the time. I do not necessarily like to portray only lower-class people in my films. It is more of what I know best and can be tuned in more naturally. I feel that I can connect with their feelings and atmosphere—and it is challenging to present it truthfully, in a way that contradicts what is available in Thai media. Thai society to me is quite oppressive, no matter what class you are in. But it is like a mute oppression that occurs with the lower class people. That is what I am seeking in film. It is not about being poor. But more about their outlook on life and the result of oppression. I hope I will be more comfortable presenting a broader spectrum of people in the future.” With the success of his latest film Blissfully Yours (“Sud Sanaeha,” 2002), though it is not a pure documentary, we still can see his high ability in using reality as raw material.

The popularity of independent film opens up chances for new kinds of films to approach reality and also increases the chance for more creative and critical films to be seen. After a long period of dormancy, the consciousness of Thai documentaries will soon be awakening to a fresh new day.


Chalida Uabumrungjit

A film archivist, project director of Thai Film Foundation, and festival director of Thai Short Film and Video Festival in Thailand. Researched Japanese documentaries for six months during 2002–03 through an API grant from Nippon Foundation.