Films a great way of learning about our neighbouring states

opinion February 17, 2014 00:00

By Gerald Fry

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NEXT YEAR the Asean Economic Community will become a reality, so it is particularly important for Thais to develop a deeper cultural understanding of their neighbours. This column is the first in a series on educational strategies and innovations for lear

One way to gain cultural understanding is through the critical, creative use of films. Today in the world of the Internet and advanced electronic gadgetry, young people are generally very visually-oriented.
About 2,500 years ago in the Kalama Sutra, the Lord Buddha articulated a highly progressive Buddhist way of knowing that emphasised the need to be critical, to be sceptical and to question everything. This was centuries before such approaches became popular in the West.
This philosophy can be applied to the study of film and images. Basically there are two kinds of films about Southeast Asian nations. The first is Western films and second is local films produced in the various countries of the region. Both are important resources for learning about other nations and cultures. In studying such films, Thais will be also exposed to English and other languages, Asian and European. 
In this column, the focus will be on films about the mainland neighbours of Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Cambodia.
There are probably more films about Vietnam, primarily because of the long wars with the French and then the Americans. Three particularly notable Western films are the French film “Indochine” (1992), starring Catherine Deneuve; another French film “The Lover” (1992); and the American film, “The Quiet American” (2002), starring Michael Cain and the lovely Do Thi Hai Yen, a ballet teacher in Ho Chi Minh City with no prior acting experience.
The first film provides a vivid portrayal of French colonial Indochina and plantation life. The second film involving intercultural romance, based on a novel by Marguerite Duras, vividly shows French racism. The third, based on the novel by the same name by Graham Greene, shows American naivete in failing to understand the complexities of Vietnamese politics and culture.
There are also many noteworthy local Vietnamese films such as “The Scent of the Green Papaya” (1993) that was nominated for an Oscar, “Cyclo” (1995), “Three Seasons” (1999) and “The White Silk Dress” (2007). These should be shown in Vietnamese with English and/or Thai subtitles.
There are unfortunately few films on Laos. Most noteworthy are the Western film “Air America”, starring Mel Gibson, and “Sabaidee Luang Prabang”, the first Lao feature film in decades, starring Ananda Everingham and the lovely Khamlek Pallawong. 
“Air America” is about the secret war in Laos and was actually filmed in the Chiang Mai area. Though a comedy, it contains important historical, cultural and political material. The Lao feature film is about a romance between a Thai tourist and his lovely Lao tour guide. A prominent aspect of the film is the beautiful cultural and physical landscapes of Laos, but it also has valuable content on complex Thai-Lao cultural relations.
Related to Myanmar, highly recommended is “The Burmese Harp” (1956), also nominated for an Oscar, about the Japanese occupation of Burma during World War II. It is an outstanding classical Japanese film. 
A more recent feature film is “Beyond Rangoon” starring U AngKo and Spalding Gray. Its theme is tourism and it also features the Buddhist leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi. There is also the recent film “The Lady” (2011) about Suu Kyi’s life as the core of the democratic movement in Myanmar. This film stars Michelle Yeoh.
The most famous film about Cambodia is “The Killing Fields” (1984), actually filmed in Thailand. This film vividly portrays the political tragedy that the Cambodians have succeeded in transcending but that still influences their country today.
While nearly all these films are entertaining to watch, as education the goal is to analyse critically political, historical and cultural aspects of each film. Students or trainees need to reflect both orally and in writing on the various films. These films collectively cover many diverse fields and topics such as tourism and cultural change, political upheaval and change, history, human rights and cultural collisions.
Perhaps some Thai universities could launch an AEC film series featuring titles such as those mentioned here. Thai university courses in the areas of comparative literature, international relations, Southeast Asian studies and integrated English could use these films as an important part of a more vibrant, culturally-rich, non-nationalistic curriculum. 
A major source related to visual learning materials is Documentary Arts Asia, based in Chiang Mai, which is devoted to promoting visual literacy and providing support for documentary artists. One of its major projects is a festival last held a year ago in Chiang Mai. Five major Asian documentaries were screened at the festival.
The critical discussion of such films as presented here reflects the kind of student-centred learning that was a focal point of Thailand’s educational reform articulated in the National Education Act of 1999.
Gerald Fry, international professor at the department of organisational leadership,
policy and development at the University of Minnesota