Friday, October 13, 2006

Battle of the film festivals in Bangkok

Agence France-Presse transmitted a story yesterday in which their reporter, Charlotte McDonald-Gibson, covered the gala opening night on Wednesday of the World Film Festival of Bangkok, which started off with The Banquet.

But I come today to write not about the movie, but about the festival.

"Why do we need two festivals? I think it eats into their own programming," Gilbert Lim, executive vice president of Sahamongkol Film International, is quoted as saying by AFP. "I think the resources could be developed together to make one very very good film festival instead of two mediocre ones."

At one time, there was just one film festival, simply named the Bangkok Film Festival, which started sometime in the 1990s. After a dispute between organizers of that festival, the Bangkok International Film Festival was born in 2003. After heavy-handed tactics by the main sponsor of the festival, the Tourism Authority of Thailand, the organizer of the BKKIFF and Nation Multimedia, split from the TAT and formed their own festival, which started later in 2003.

The Bangkok International fest is loaded with red-carpet ceremonies and takes pains to fly in big-name stars. Funded by the taxpayers, it is promoted as a tourism event and hopes to attract high-flying, glamorous people who come to the Kingdom and spend money that makes other high-flying, glamorous people even richer.

The World Film Fest has been a lower-key affair, but still has its share of celebrities. Last year, the organizers flew in Roman Polanski, but this year there are no big names. The festival this year is offering itself as an alternative festival, with an emphasis on independent films.

"We want to give the city a serious film culture event," said festival director Victor Silakong. "Of course, we cannot afford all the big stars but we want to promote serious cinema."

Interestingly, the festival's sponsors include the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Thai Airways, so there's still some dipping in the public trough going on, but not nearly to the degree that the BKKIFF does. It has a rumored budget of up to US$10 million, the AFP story says. In the past, the TAT has paid a Los Angeles-based firm, Film Festival Management, to actually organize the festival.

"Our budget is not more than 10 million baht ($266,500), the International Film Festival is 10 times more," Victor is quoted as saying. The World Film Festival of Bangkok's full-time staff amounts to three people: Victor, his brother, Dusit, and a secretary who must have a heck of time keeping the Silakong brothers from imploding.

The AFP story turns to Surasak Sunpituksaree, secretary-general of the Federation of National Film Associations of Thailand. The story characterizes the FNFAT as a "sponsor" of the BKKIFF, but fails to mention that last year the FNFAT boycotted the festival after the TAT cut them out of the loop.

The dispute was ugly, and led to the resignation of the FNFAT's president, Somsak Techaratanaprasert, but Surasak still has no praise for the upstart World Film Festival, saying the event has just a "few" films and can not hope to be the flagship festival for the kingdom.

"We don't count the World Film Festival because it is only organized by one person and a newspaper," he says, referring to The Nation. "The World Film Festival of Bangkok does not get to the standard of the Bangkok International Film Festival."

Victor, feeling cornered, lashed out at the BKKIFF's "commercial streak", as the AFP termed it: "We would say we really focus on films rather than anything," Victor was quoted as saying. "When tourism organize[s] it, they have the purpose to promote Thailand and to make a big noise."

A more detached view comes from Sahamongkol's Gilbert Lim, who said he thinks that both festivals have their pros and cons and he offered praise to the World Film Festival for concentrating on film alone and questioned the Bangkok International Film Festival's focus on tourism.

"I think that the tourism aspect should come as a secondary thing, that will automatically come but you don't shove the idea of it down people's throats," Lim was quoted as saying.

The factions should just put their differences aside and create one festival that would truly represent Thai film, Lim says.

Surasak, undaunted, insists that the Bangkok International Film Festival is well on its way to becoming the top regional festival.

"After five years we will be bigger than Busan," he said.

Silakong, hinting at a niche the World Film Festival could mine, says he is devoted to nurturing Thai cinema, with this year's festival featuring four world premieres by independent Thai directors.

"We are a small festival and we make sure to promote independent film in Thailand," he says.

After reading all this, for my part, I think as long as the BKKIFF continues to operate the way it's operated - as a slick, commercial, tourist-friendly, taxpayer-funded party, then there is room for two film festivals, the other being a smaller, less glitzy, alternative festival that promotes independent films.

And for film buffs, having two festivals is a win-win situation. Simply, there are more films to choose from.

(Cross-published at Rotten Tomatoes)

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