Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Giving birth to Citizen Juling

As Thailand celebrates Mother's Day (and Her Majesty the Queen's birthday) today, what's perhaps the most heartfelt of movies about motherhood opens in a limited release in Bangkok.

Citizen Juling is about a daughter who was an artist and a schoolteacher. She was severely beaten by a mob in Narathiwat province in southern Thailand.

In May 2006, as teacher Juling Pongkunmul was laid up in a hospital in coma, activist politician Kraisak Choonhaven headed south with filmmaker Ing K and her husband, photographer Manit Sriwanichpoom. In the documentary, the emotions are heavy as Juling's mother points to a portrait of her broadly smiling, laughing daughter, and shows where her teeth have been kicked in and her face has been bruised.

But more than being about Juling, the four-hour long film is a tableau of Thai society and politics.

Citizen Juling premiered at last year's Toronto International Film Festival, played at the 2008 Bangkok International Film Festival and in the Berlinale Forum this year. Ahead of the Bangkok theatrical run, a newspaper colleague and I wanted to do another story about it, so we e-mailed the filmmakers with a few questions.

Did they worry that such a political film would be censored? What steps did they take to make sure it wouldn't be censored? Why is it so long? Was it intended as a film or mini-series for television? Here's what Ing K., mother of this documentary, sent me in reply:

Every Thai filmmaker worries about censorship. I had a bad experience with my previous film [My Teacher Eats Biscuits, the screening of which was raided by police]. Not only was it banned, I was also grilled by the parliamentary house committee on culture, arts and religious affairs (in 1998, under the Chuan government). My life turned upside down and I didn't make another film for ten years.

But instead of becoming more compromising, I've made a conscious decision to be as true to whatever film I'm working on as possible; to always take it as far as it wants to go and let it be whatever it really wants to be, whatever that might mean. I suppose I feel that I should've fought harder back then instead of wimping out, and I was fully prepared to fight for Citizen Juling.

Ten years ago, there were no constitutional and administrative courts. Now there are ways and means of defending your film which did not exist before.

No one believed Citizen Juling would pass the censors, especially Joei Apichatpong [Weerasethakul, whose internationally acclaimed Syndromes and a Century] suffered so much at their hands -- he told us we would never get by. Kraisak and Manit did not believe we'd pass. Actually, I was the only one who had any hope, because I was the editor and I made every cut, every decision, according to whether we'd be able to defend it in court -- if it should come to that, because this film I was going to fight for. Law courts base their judgment on the filmmaker's intentions.

This is why there is only incidental music (music on the actual footage), except for the one hit song about Khru Juling. On the royal celebration lights drive-by sequence, for example, the martial music you hear comes from the beginning of the raw footage; it was being played at the democracy monument for the fountains to dance to.

Since the film's ultimate subject is the sacred trinity of "Nation, Religion, King", we colour nothing and make no judgments; we had to show everything and tell nothing, explain nothing. The censors told Manit (who went on our behalf) that they would pass the film because they could see that all three of us meant well. But they felt sorry for us because who would come to see such a long film?! It's long precisely because we have to show everything and tell nothing. So, in this way, the censors definitely influenced the way we shot and cut the film.

My greatest hope was that it would be a four-part miniseries for Thai TV, which would also have bypassed the censors, but we've had no success in this direction both before and after passing the censors. On the other hand, the subtext is more clear when the whole film is shown in one go.

Of course, we've only been able to pass the censors because, according to Manit who dealt with them, they're much better than they used to be. I can't imagine the gang I faced ten years ago being so reasonable and civilized.

Ing also responded to a colleague's question about Thailand's forthcoming ratings system:

Everyone seems to be pessimistic about the rating system. We passed just before the change-over, so who knows? You always have to hope for the best. I'll make my next film in the same uncompromising way and hopefully I'll get the same reasonable and civilised censors who would honestly look at the substance and the intent of the film, without prejudice and power abuse. The trouble with censorship laws is they are often abused to settle personal scores. I think this is what happened to Apichatpong, which is very unjust and unacceptable.

Later, Democrat Party MP Kraisak also sent a response:

I hope that Citizen Juling will open doors for other political films on Thailand. From now on, other filmmakers can use Citizen Juling as reference to the fact that the censorship board has allowed (uncut) explicit criticism of the government's violation of human rights in the South to be shown on the film to the public. Future filmmakers should be permitted to make films which contain abuses of the Thai state against its citizens -- in whatever genre -- historical, comical, fictional, documentary or docu-drama.

The potential is definitely there. Thai political history -- ancient, modern or contemporary -- is rich with dramatic twists and turns, pathos, contradictions, hypocrisy and greatness. Thai history also involves Western and regional (real) actors, which could make a script very attractive to international audience.

There is, however, a problem. The censors have allowed Citizen Juling through but they still can use the existing censorship law to dump other projects at will. To change the law is a very tedious process. Firstly, filmmakers and producers must appeal to the Administration Court (I believe) if they get their film censored on political subject using Citizen Juling as evidence. Another alternative is that they can appeal directly to the government -- the Minister of Culture and Sports -- to change or amend the law on the argument that film censorship law contradicts the Constitution, which allows media freedom except films. I think this government -- at last -- is willing to listen.

Citizen Juling is showing at 6pm daily except August 18 at House cinema on RCA.

(Cross-published in The Nation/Daily Xpress and Bangkok Cinema Scene)

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