Saturday, January 7, 2006

Interview with the culture czaress

Fantastic profile in ThaiDay on Friday about Ladda Tangsupachai, director of the Culture Ministry's "surveillance center".

"Not in my house" was the headline over the article about this former traditional dancer who says cleaning up the oversexed, materialistic Thai culture is her job as the country's 'maid'.

Among her achievements:
  • She opposed the release of City of God on the mass-consumable VCD format, for fear that kids would mimic the violence.
  • When the Thai Big Brother broadcast a scene featuring a young couple making out, dozens of viewers called the center and complained. Ladda condemned the broadcast.
  • When Bangkok Inside Out, an irreverent travel guide by Daniel Ziv & Guy Sharett, came out featuring pictures from inside a Patpong go-go bar, Ladda condemned the book and put pressure on local booksellers to remove it from their shelves.
All the "negative" parts of the culture indicate that Thailand is ill. The disease is materialism. And "the patient," she says, should be "nursed back to health."

She traces the "disease" back to the administration of Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat (1958-1962), when the focus was on economic development and slogans encouraged people to work more, earn more money and spend more.

"All they cared about was the money. They didn't care how people earned it," she says. Such policies led people to overlook their culture, she says. "For decades it’s been, metaphorically, the garbage hidden under the carpet."

Though her critics include a number of prominent artists, Ladda doesn’t seem to care about how she is perceived. She describes herself as someone who watches over society and reports to the police if she sees anything suspicious. "I'm not the cop to arrest people or a judge to judge anyone. I’m the maid of the house," she says. "How can I not clean the house if some water spilled on the floor?"

She has her supporters. Along with the many zealots who call the Culture Ministry's hotline to complain about such things as foreign songs being played by ice-cream carts, there's Senator Wallop Tangkananurak, who's an activist for children's rights and welfare. "Somebody has to do it," he says of Ladda's job. "And that person will inevitably be criticized by the public as a dinosaur in this time of globalization."

But Sananjit Bangsapan, a movie critic and filmmaker, says art and culture is too big an issue for any one person to dictate. "She's so naive and narrow-minded. Who does she think she is to decide for the rest of the country?”

He and other critics feel the Culture Ministry is overstepping its role and dictating things - such as whether women can wear skimpy "spaghetti-strap" tops, and what movies people can watch - that should be left to parents to decide, or be a decision for individuals.

Ladda counters that Thais are not yet ready to receive all sorts of messages. Every family, she says, may not have the parental presence to provide guidance on every issue.

Meanwhile, Ladda is working on a ratings system for films, which awaits the approval of the Cabinet, as well as for print media.

"I could just release X-rated films if the people want me to," she says. "But what if the people get sicker because of it – will any producers or distributors allocate their profits to treating them?"

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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