A security clampdown ahead of a regional government summit and conflicting dates with another film festival may cause this year's Phuket Film Festival to be canceled, according to a citizens group calling itself "We Care About Phuket".
The Phuket Film Festival is scheduled for June 4 to 11, but the the on-again, off-again World Comedy Film Festival is set for Bangkok from June 10 to 16, overlapping the Phuket fest by two days. The "ASEAN Plus Six" government summit is set for June 13 and 14 in Phuket, but there is already a "scary army presence" to ensure that the ASEAN meeting goes off without disruption from anti-government protesters.
Scott Rosenberg, the director of the Phuket Film Festival, says he's not part of the "We Care About Phuket" group and had nothing to do with its statement issued today, calling on people to write protest letters to the Tourism Authority of Thailand. "They are independent associates of mine on Phuket who are pissed off."
Rosenberg says he is "disturbed" about the Phuket festival's scheduling conflict with Bangkok's inaugural World Comedy Film Festival, which was first mentioned in January and initially set for sometime around the end of April or early May but then postponed, presumably due to the political unrest. But Rosenberg says he suspects there's another reason for the schedule change.
"The overlap with us is stupid," says Rosenberg. "TAT knew when we operated -- we are on their website. But I think one reason [the comedy festival postponement] was done was to 'borrow' some of our movies and 'stars'."
The Phuket fest, which has had its date set since last July, would have a package of recent Taiwanese films, including comedies, and several Taiwanese film stars and filmmakers as guests. The World Comedy fest is sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand and organized by the Federation of National Film Associations of Thailand, with plans to host comedy films from around the world, focusing on comedians from Thailand and other Asian countries.
Meanwhile, Rosenberg says he's still awaiting word on what level of funding will be provided to the Phuket festival, even though it's three weeks away. The festival was first held in October 2007 but took a hiatus last year due to the poor economy.
"It really is sad that TAT committed 14 million baht to Comedy and less than 1 million to us. I understand the politics of why this happened BUT the overlap now is a slap in the face not only to we organizers but I think to all people on Phuket. "
The Phuket festival would also have a gala opening with the Asian premiere of Bitter/Sweet, a Hollywood-Thai co-production with several prominent Thai actors.
But even bigger-name "100 percent confirmed" festival guests would be Oscar-winning actor Adrian Brody, whose recent film Cadillac Records would make its Asian premiere, and two-time Oscar nominee director Gus Van Sant, whose latest film Milk would be shown at the Phuket fest as part of a package of alternative-lifestyle films.
And that leads to a bigger problem than the overlapping dates of a rival film festival -- draconian security measures ahead of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations meeting, which was rescheduled for June 13 and 14 and relocated to Phuket after the regional gathering had been disrupted by red-shirt anti-government protesters on April 11 in Pattaya. The protesters then moved back to Bangkok, where they blockaded streets until they were dispersed by the military in the "Black Songkran" conflict. The government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva doesn't want a repeat of any that, so a massive influx of military force has been built up and there are security checkpoints and roadblocks all over the island. Regional leaders attending the summit might have their own armed bodyguards.
The summit is tentatively set for June 13 to 14 at the Hilton Phuket Arcadia Resort and Spa. The meeting would comprise the heads of government from 10 Southeast Asian countries plus delegations from China, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.
"My concern is quite frankly the big guys coming from Hollywood," Rosenberg says. "Director Gus Van Sant is coming with three of his director-actor buddies. They want to have fun surfing the island and attending the festival. That's not going to be so easy with 5,000 troops on the island. That is what they will remember, not what a great fest it is."
Domestic travel to Phuket is being discouraged and hotels are being told not to accept reservations from residents of northern Thailand -- a stronghold of the red-shirt protesters who are allied with ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
"According to a partner who owns a guesthouse in Phuket, police have already gone around once and told guesthouses and hotels not to accept bookings from northern Thailand," Rosenberg says. "Also, locals are leaving the island on vacation during this period to get away from the hassle -- that kills my box-office.
"So while I thought the ASEAN meeting would not be a problem -- it is turning out to be my biggest problem."
Protesting the disruption of the island's tourism and development businesses -- already hurting from the global economic crisis, Thailand's political instability and now swine-flu worries -- is the group of independent citizens calling itself "We Care About Phuket", which today issued a statement and an open letter to TAT chairman Weerasak Kowsurat. Here is the letter:
Dear Khun Weerasak,
We notice with dismay the funding by TAT of the World Comedy Film Festival in Bangkok while TAT has paid little attention to the international Phuket Film Festival which was to take place on Phuket June 4-11.
We don't understand why TAT cares more about throwing OUR Baht behind a throw-away film festival to make people laugh instead of helping to build a sustainable international event here on Phuket.
As well, the government positioning of armed forces on Phuket to shore up security during the upcoming ASEAN meeting DOES NOT contribute to our efforts to try and rebuild the tourist industry on Phuket. With pictures like the ones published over the weekend in the press of troops practicing on the island, these images are frightening to tourists and locals alike.
Please have TAT pay more attention to activities here on Phuket including immediate full support of the Phuket Film Festival and assurances of non interference by Thai military and a more gentle approach to security for the ASEAN meet.
An official statement from the Phuket Film Festival may be released on Wednesday, Rosenberg says.
(Top photo via Phuket Gazette)