Thursday, September 4, 2008

Review: The Convert

  • Directed by Panu Aree, Kaweenipon Ketprasit and Kong Rithdee
  • Produced by Chalida Uabumrungjit and Panu Aree
  • Featuring Thanwadee "June" Hemera and Akasit "Ake" Hemera
  • Premiered on September 2, 2008 at the 12th Thai Short Film & Video Festival
  • Rating: 4/5

By focusing on a woman's transformation - her conversion to Islam, The Convert seeks to demystify the religion, which among non-believers mostly comes up in conversations about 9/11, terrorism and Thailand's southern conflict.

In the eyes of this 83-minute documentary, Islam is about belief in one God. Pure and simple. It's about how a man's faith led him to ask a Buddhist women to marry him -- believing that God had put her in his life. This gentle, sweet, humanizing portrait follows the couple over the course of more than a year as they get married and work to start a family.

The subjects are June, a 29-year-old magazine editor who also runs a shop for second-hand clothes, who has agreed to marry Ake, a musician. The two had briefly met when June visited Ake's home province of Satun in southern Thailand, and then Ake relocated to Bangkok, tracked June down and began his courtship of her through a series of meetings in tea shops.

The clincher was when June asked a friend of hers to look at Ake. She determined that the bearded bear of a man's appearance was acceptable. So the wedding was on. The hitch was that, according to Islamic law, June would have to convert. She starts to wear a veil, and is having fun with it until an imam leads a giggling June through a set of vows in which she proclaims she will worship one God, and then tells her she can no longer pray to Buddhist shrines and statues.

It then appears the full weight of her decision and her commitment has taken hold. The couple visits June's family in central Thailand's Ang Thong Province, and then makes their way south to Satun. There, they make the rather drastic decision to move to the rustic backpacker-resort island, Koh Li Peh, where they will living in a thatch-and-bamboo bungalow and try to make a go of running a fruit stand.

Beyond June's transformation from a Bangkok businesswoman to Muslim wife, The Convert is a love story, showing not only Ake's devotion to God but the couple's devotion to each other, through thick and thin and times of trouble.

It's an intimate film, with the trio of directors all doubling up on the various tasks in making it. The project sprung from In Between, a short documentary by director Panu Aree, writer (and Bangkok Post film critic) Kong Rithdee and editor Kaweenipon Ketprasit had worked on, which profiled four moderate Muslim men in Bangkok. From connections made on that project, they met Ake and June. The couple actively participated in the production by shooting video themselves. All told, 140 hours of was shot and edited down to 83 minutes. And Ake, a talented blues guitarist, also provided the soundtrack.

The Convert is so far set for the Vancouver International Film Festival and is awaiting official announcements for other fests.

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