Freedom on the big screen

lifestyle June 06, 2013 00:00


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Thai filmmakers seek changes in the law that keeps censors in control of what can be shown in theatres

 Censorship has been intertwined with the Thai film industry since moving pictures were invented. The first film bill, introduced in 1930, remained in place until well into this century and was replaced by the Film and Video Act in 2008. While the new law introduced the long-awaited ratings system, it also retained Article 29, which empowers censors to ban films.
 In the five years since its enactment, two Thai films – Tanwarin Sukkhapisit’s “Insects in the Backyard” and “Shakespeare Must Die” by Manit Sriwanichpoom and Ing Kanjanavanit – have been banned outright. Earlier this year, the censors blocked “Fah Tam Phaendin Soong” (“Boundary”) though they did end up passing it with an 18+ rating after its director, Nontawat Numbenchapol, agreed to make small changes.
Filmmakers have, of course, protested the bans and the reasoning behind them. “Insects” was blocked because of explicit sexual scenes and ideas that censors feared might trigger bad behaviour in youths. “Shakespeare”, an adaptation of “Macbeth”, was blocked on the grounds that it would harm national security by causing division in Thai society. “Boundary”, on the other hand, follows a young soldier as he visits his home in the disputed area on the border between Thailand and Cambodia.
Those same filmmakers, led by award-winning director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, got together again last Saturday to discuss the ongoing censorship problems and brainstorm on ways to fix the deadlock in the Film and Video Act.
The discussion started with the screening of the documentary “Censor Must Die” by Manit and Ing K. It relates their struggle with the censorship bureaucracy from the moment their film “Shakespeare Must Die” was submitted for a rating, through its ban and their fight in appealing the decision and suing both the censors and the National Film Board.
Tanwarin is also suing the film board through the Administrative Court.
“I’m waiting for the court verdict. No matter what the verdict will be, I believe it will set a new standard for the people who enforce the law,” says Weerasak Kowsurat, the secretary of the Federation of National Film Associations of Thailand, adding that the results are expected next year.
Apichatpong says the problems with “Boundary” reminded him of his experiences with “Sang Sattawat” (“Syndromes and a Century”). Under the regulations of the 1930 Film Act, the censors demanded that six scenes from the 2006 film be cut before it could be shown commercially. The director refused to cut the film and withdrew it from domestic release. He later agreed to a limited showing in Bangkok where the cut scenes were replaced with a black screen to protest and inform the public about the issues of censorship. 
Apichatpong’s disgust led him to form the Free Thai Cinema movement, though this has not been active in recent years.
“I believe many filmmakers think it’s better not to get involved with the members of the censorship board. But this ‘it’s not our business’ attitude simply reflects a lack of interest for the society we are living in,” says Apichatpong, who is determined to revive his movement. He is preparing a letter to the Culture Ministry detailing the problems and also intends working towards adjusting or abrogating the Film and Video Act.
However, amending an article that authorises both the censorship and the film boards to cut or ban any film that might go against public order and morality involves a complicated legislation process and none of the filmmakers are experts in this field. Weerasak says that the movement needs to learn more about the process so that they will know how to pitch their demand to the right person at the right time.
The federation’s president Visute Poolvoralaks points out that the movement will find it hard to succeed, as they are a small group with no real powers. Resolving the problem, he adds, needs a powerful incident that will serve to rally the public into protesting.
“The government doesn’t care what a small group of filmmakers is saying but once it affects the public and people start yelling, they will pay attention,” says Visute.
“Personally, I disagree with banning films because we have an adequate rating system. It’s not the Film and Video Act itself that causes the problems but the people who enforce the law,” he adds.
“Our demands that they revoke the ban doesn’t mean that we want complete freedom in making any type of movie. I’m not against banning films that show, for example, child molestation or sex with animals, which is the norm in most countries. But there shouldn’t be bans based on political issues like we have here,” says Apichatpong.
Another bone of contention is the lack of consistency on the part of the censors and their failure to give clear reasons for their judgements. The board’s apparent determination to act as society’s guardian enrages filmmakers, who spend time and money to complete their films only to have them banned based on the judgement of seven people.
The board is made up of four representatives from different government sectors, depending on a film’s content, and three from the film industry. But how the board is chosen seems to have no basis in qualifications for the job, with members preferring to rely on the same old faces from the 1930 Film Act. Filmmakers Prachya Pinkaew and Nonzee Nimibutr would be ideal candidates, and they sat on the National Film Board in the past.
“They have the law to tell them what we can do legally,” Apichatpong notes. “Their duty should thus be limited to recommending the appropriate rating for a particular movie.
“Thailand is still a underdeveloped country and our government is determined to control the nation’s idealistic image, which includes political reconciliation. When a filmmaker disagrees with the procedures and tries to echo the real situation through his work, the censor doesn’t hesitate to ban it,” he says.
“Personally I disagree that we should even be in reconciliation mode. It would be naive to say that we or our movies don’t take sides. What’s wrong with making anti- or pro-Thaksin movies? Surely we have the right to make films that express our ideas and our opinions.”
The Free Thai Cinema movement’s letter to the Ministry of Culture will request that the government body evaluates and adjusts the Film Act. It will also ask that Article 29 be revoked and question the Film and Video Censorship standards as well as the transparency in how the censorship jury is chosen.
 Follow and support the Free Thai Cinema movement at