And this year, the festival is being held in the new Bangkok Art and Culture Center, a venue that has long been in the planning stages, but has mainly been a political football -- kicked around, with no goals made. So the fact that it's been built is a miracle too.
The festival and the venue are sending a message to the conservative establishment that wishes the contemporary art and independent film communities would just go away. The message is: "We're still here."
And with that, there really could not have been a more perfect film to open the festival, the first film event at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center, than Diseases and a Hundred Year Period.
Directed by Sompot "Boat" Chidgasornpongse, the short is one of a growing number of reaction pieces to the censorship of Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Syndromes and a Century. Diseases effectively functions as a documentary of this troubling episode in Thai cinema history.
Sompot, who served as a second assistant director on Syndromes, introduced his film, saying he was at school at CalArts when he heard about the censorship, and that he was shocked.
His film opens with a shot at the back of Sompot's head, as narration explains about the year-long struggle Apichatpong engaged in to screen his internationally acclaimed film in Thailand, the censorship board's decision to cut six scenes, and Apichatpong's archly symbolic choice of replacing those six scenes with scratched, black film leader, and allowing the film to be shown in a limited theatrical run so it could take its place in Thai history.
Then, the six actual censored scenes are shown, or parts of them anyway. The frame is zoomed at weird angles, at parts of the picture that only offer the barest hint of what is being filmed. I found out later the scenes were captured off of Strand Releasing's DVD, which has these hard-burned, really huge subtitles. That's why the cropping and zooming is so weird. (The better DVD, apparently, is the UK release.)
The original dialogue is intact, but what takes center stage is a text scroll of a dry recitation of Thai history -- where Thai people came from, how they originally dressed, and how the visit of Lord Bowring and the opening up to the world changed things and brought Western conservative values to the Kingdom.
Introducing each segment is a quote from the censors, that the film was "devoid of artistic merit", shamed Thailand in the international community and humiliated and embarrassed the director's parents. There's even that famous quote, "Thai people want to see a comedy". Indeed they do, and there were many chuckles all around as this short unspooled.
The best part was the use of the Thai folk song "Chang" ("The Elephant Song"), as the camera revolved around the statue of the Princess Mother, but the frame was zoomed and cropped on the wooden elephant figures that are placed on the statue's base as offerings.
The 20-minute Diseases and a Hundred Year Period was the first of six shorts in the opening program of the 12th Thai Short Film & Video Festival. Here's the others:
- Le Silence des Machines - Women arrive at work at a garment factory to find their sewing machines have been shipped to China and they are out of a job. So they launch into song and dance routines. Directed by Paul Calori and Kostia Testut, from France.
- Yours Truly - Humphrey Bogart is fed into a meat grinder in this startling animated feature in which cut-out stills from old film noir are reassembled. Directed by Osbert Parker, from the UK.
- Wunderlich Privat - A man, alone in his apartment, is seeking to have his private reflection period, but visitors interrupt him, and he's forced to reveal his secret. Directed by Aline Chukwedo from Germany.
- Silencio - I had first seen this when it screened as part of the Short Films Project in Commemoration of the Celebration on the Auspicious Occasion of His Majesty the King's 80th Birthday Anniversary. This time I took something different away from it. The soundman's search for silence was not so much out of vanity or delusion -- he was seeking enlightenment. In addition to winning a jury prize at the Clermont Ferrand Short Film Festival, Silencio has also picked up a special mention at the Hamburg Short Film Festival. Directed by Sivaroj Kongsakul from Thailand.
- Revolution - More workers take to the streets and sing. Directed by Jouko Aaltonen from Finland.