Acclaimed Thai filmmaker Anocha Suwichakornpong’s latest movie, Before It Gets Dark, deals with themes such as democracy, history and the act of forgetting. The film opens with a scene of a film director staging a re-enactment of the bloody 1976 Thammasat University massacre, where the Thai military and police attacked and killed scores of student protesters. It is a provocative opening statement, to say the least, especially given Thailand’s current environment. Here, she talks to the Tropicalist about the importance of not practising self-censorship.
Trop I once read an article by a Taiwanese journalist about the challenges faced by artists under communism. She argued that when you’re trying to express yourself in a repressive regime, the quality of the art almost becomes secondary to the bravery required to go up against the authorities. Do you agree? In your film, it’s very oblique, you’re not making a straightforward statement.
AS I’m not sure if I agree. First and foremost, I see myself as a creative film maker who grapples with history and its cyclical nature. It’s not the case that I made the film abstract so that the censors wouldn’t understand it. I am an artist, not an activist.
And actually, some people couldn’t even believe that my film made it through the censors. The opening scene certainly could have gotten me into trouble.
I feel that as an artist I have a responsibility first and foremost to be truthful to my art. I can’t censor myself.
I don’t sit there thinking about how to sneak my film past the censors. It’s detrimental to the thought process, honestly.
Trop What would you have done if they had censored the movie?
AS I would not have released it.
Trop But then nobody would have seen it.
AS You know, the film maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul decided not to release his most recent film because he didn’t want to subject himself to censorship.
At the time, I was not happy with his decision, because I felt that there was a chance, however miniscule, that it might have passed the censors without any cuts.
When I finally saw the movie outside Thailand, I understood why he didn’t want to show the film in Thailand.
There was a real danger if he had released it. No one would have been able to protect him had the military decided to arrest him. Apparently, threats had been made against his family before.
The tragedy was that here was a movie made by a Thai film director for Thais, which could be seen by anyone outside Thailand, but not by the Thais themselves.
Trop Well, as an art film maker, surely you must have heard the criticism that you are making films for the festival circuit and not for the Thais. How do you respond to that?
AS I say that I make the films I want to see.
Look, there is an audience, it’s just not going to be mainstream and that’s the situation of arthouse films anywhere in the world.
But with this film especially, no matter how many places it’s been shown beforehand, it’s really important to me that it is shown in Thailand. It is a movie about Thailand. I’m not making it for an international audience.
I’ve already had a screening for the Thai press, but so far the reaction to the film has been one of confusion. There have been Thai bloggers who have picked up on the political content of the film, but yes, I do worry that I’m in an echo chamber, that I’m speaking only to my own kind.
In reality, who gets to see the film depends on factors beyond my control, such as the mechanics of distribution.
I had originally planned to rent a cinema for a private screening. But the cinema owner cancelled at the last minute in favour of a commercially viable movie release.
And when that fell through, I proposed to hold a screening at the Alliance Française, because the movie is a french co-production, and I know the audio-visual attaché at the French embassy. He was very supportive, but when he showed the movie to his boss, the ambassador, he refused to extend official support. The ambassador was afraid that it would hurt diplomatic ties.
Distributing through the internet is not an option either, since investors in the film do have to recover their investment.
Trop Have you ever been threatened for your work?
AS Well, after one review of a previous film was translated from the English and published in the local press, I got a phone call from the editor of the publication to make sure that I was OK.
My philosophy is, I say what I have to say, and then I don’t think about it. Otherwise I’d get nothing done.
People have actually died for the cause of democracy in Thailand. A movie is such a small thing.