April 10, 2012 00:00 By Veena Thoopkrajae
The ban on an independent Thai film, "Shakespeare Must Die", very much reflects what stage of development Thailand is in at the moment.
The Film Board has banned the film as it fears the content may create disunity in the country. Is that the condition of Thailand right now? So fragile that we can’t afford to entertain ourselves with an adaptation of a work by the world’s most famous writer?
The foreign press has been busy reporting on the issue, with perfectly sexy headlines. In a nutshell, it is yet another case of the lack of freedom of expression here: Shakespeare has been killed in Thailand!
However, it is not just the infringement on freedom that is worrisome, but also the fragility of our nation. When we believe that a film could create divisiveness in an already fractured nation, it is a telltale sign of our condition. Thailand has come to the point where the universal themes of ambition, greed and power, explored in a fictional setting, are seen as a threat to “national security”.
Director Saranrat “Ing K” Kanjanavanich was quoted by The Guardian as saying that the Thai Film Board questioned why the filmmaker wanted to bring back pain from the past to make people angry. “Shakespeare Must Die” includes a scene based on a photograph from Bangkok’s 1976 student uprising and the violent scenes from the much recent red-shirt demonstrations.
It is rather ironic that “Shakespeare Must Die” received financial support from the “Strong Thailand” (Thai Khem Kaeng) fund set up by the Culture Ministry’s Office of Contemporary Art and Culture during the Abhisit administration. The storyline had been submitted and scrutinised before the granted of money was made. Now the film has been banned during the Yingluck administration.
Director Ing K also told The Guardian that the censorship committee doesn’t like the fact that a murderer in the film wears a bright-red hooded cloak. Obviously, the colour could be associated with the red-shirt movement.
The reason given by the Film Board for its decision is serious yet broad: content that could divide the country? Is Thailand so weak that revisiting our recent history can create disunity?
If anyone knows the story of Macbeth, they will agree that if you pick any place on the world map and dig into its history, you surely find the story of Macbeth at some point. So why can people and governments around the world tolerate the same story and our censors cannot?
The fear of opening up dialogue to express one’s opinion is far more dangerous and is in fact the real threat to national security. Imagine: What if the people of this country couldn’t produce any kind of art to examine their past, and what if all newspapers were not allowed to talk about the red-shirt movement or the pro-democracy student uprisings of the past?
The director described the current state of Thailand as “in the worst mood in my memory”. She realises there are many questions over whether the film can be screened commercially or not. And if she visits social media, she will know that the debate has already started. In particular, the popular pantip.com community website has hosted a lot of discussion on the film and its ban by the ministry.
There is mixed reaction in the social media but the saddest part is that there are people who believe the “film will cause divisiveness” excuse. A user called Lodlem writes: “We have already fought (argued) here without the film being screened, what if it has been allowed to show. I think we will fight anyway and there is no exception because the film is about politics.”
Some question why the film got funding from the previous government. “It’s obviously a film on politics and it is a rather one-sided story,” says Jak Jai Jing on pantip.
Some of the opinion on Pantip.com is that we should not express any opinion on politics and that there is a genuine threat to our national security. If we join Jak Jai Jing and many others on Pantip.com in having no tolerance towards different opinions – even on a feature film or arts – Thailand will soon welcome a “real-life” “dear leader” instead of a “reel-life” dear leader in Ing K’s film.
The real threat to fragile Thailand is not in Shakespeare; it may be embedded in our own thoughts.