Saturday, September 8, 2007

Review: The Truth Be Told: The Cases Against Supinya Klangnarong


  • Directed by Pimpaka Towira
  • An Extra Virgin Production, 100 minutes
  • Premiered on September 6, 2007 at the Thai Film Foundation's Digital Forum

The spirits of pre-coup Thailand are revisited in the new documentary film, The Truth Be Told: The Cases Against Supinya Klangnarong. Directed by Pimpaka Towira, it's an epic piece of filmmaking, following media-rights activist Supinya on her three-year legal odyssey. It also chronicles Thailand at a turbulent time in its history, from the growing dissatisfaction with prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, and the aftermath of the 2006 coup.

Supinya, an NGO worker, was forced into the glaring spotlights of media celebrity, after she made some comments in 2003 to the Thai Post, saying that the Shinawatra family's Shin Corporation benefited from the policies of the Thaksin administration. Her opinions must've hit too close to the mark for officers of the telecommunications conglomerate, for they filed both a criminal and civil lawsuits against Supinya and the Thai Post. Supinya faced a jail term for her statements. In fact, on the night of the film's premiere at the Thai Film Foundation's Digital Forum, Supinya said September 6, 2007, was the four-year anniversary of her being bailed out. The company also sought 400 million baht in damages, because it said Supinya's comments adversely affected Shin's stock value and credit rating. But what the company hoped to gain from suing an activist and university lecturer who earns a 14,000-baht monthly salary is unknown. If Shin officials had ignored the statements, they would have been largely forgotten. Now there's no chance of that happening.

Through the lens of the documentary, the man at the centre of the controversy, Thaksin, is virtually invisible. He's seen for perhaps 10 seconds in some footage shot at a rally, before his beatific smile and square-faced visage disappears behind a wall of dark-suited supporters. But his name is heard. Repeatedly. "Thaksin! Get out! Thaksin! Get out!" Shouted over and over again by marchers and political rally attendees. There are crude caricatures, even a Chinese opera performance devoted to him. He is everywhere, but never seen.

The focus is on Supinya, and in looking at her, people and issues that have been forgotten are suddenly remembered. The spectre of missing civil rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaichit hangs over the proceedings. And there's a chance meeting with some Electricity Generating Authority Workers, who have been fighting privatisation of the state-owned utility.

And there's Supinya's family, chiefly her mother, who was genuinely fearful that her daughter was going to disappear, after all, Supinya was going up against the most powerful man in Thailand. At times, Supinya's mother steals the show. I sometimes wonder what it would be like if things were run by concerned mothers, aunties and grannies, rather than men with big-business connections. The films of Apichatpong Weerasethkul feature striking women like this, too. With more character, backbone and charisma than just about any of the latest one-shot, 18-year-old actresses-of-the-week, they give real meaning to the term "leading lady". I think all the Klangnarongs show up at some point, putting a genuine and heartfelt human face on this story. They're all really lovely people, and I had to wonder why a big company like the Shin Corp. thought they were so threatening.

In March 2006, Shin, by then controlled Singapore's Temasek Holdings after a still-controversial stock divestiture by the Shinawatra family, offered to drop the civil suit, if Supinya would apologize for her remarks. But she remained steadfast, to the horror of her mother and others around her - even herself - leaving the case in the hands of the court. Anyway, the criminal court threw out the lawsuit, saying, in effect, Supinya was just doing her job, and that her comments were fair. The civil suit, a moot point, was withdrawn.

But, as anyone who has not been hiding under a rock in Thailand would know, the story didn't end there. The documentary might've been completed sooner, but on September 19, 2006, the Thai military took over while Thaksin was out of the country.

To not address the coup, which changed everything, would have been unsatisfying. So Pimpaka and her crew kept at it, making for a compelling and informative view of Thailand's political landscape. There are no gimmicks, nor manipulation. No rousing rock music to create atmosphere. This makes the rhythmic cries of "Thaksin! Get out!" that much more powerful. It's bone-dry at times, yet refreshing, and it jumps around in a non-linear fashion, making things a bit unpredictable, which is a good thing.

For Supinya and the wearied anti-Thaksin protesters, the coup has left many discouraged about the democratic process in Thailand. To oppose the coup is to appear pro-Thaksin. Even though there are many colors when it comes to political stripes, in post-coup Thailand, with the military still in charge, there's only black and white.

Thank goodness for The Truth Be Told, to add back some color.

See also:
(Cross published at The Nation weblog and Rotten Tomatoes)

1 comment:

  1. I just saw this movie, an inspirational david vs goliath tale of morality triumphing over money and force for once in this wicked world of ours.

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