Thursday, December 20, 2007

Whither the Bangkok International Film Festival?

The Nation today digs into the interesting reading that is the US Justice Department affadavit about Gerald and Patricia Green, detailing not only the Hollywood couple's ties to the Bangkok International Film Festival, but to various other Tourism Authority of Thailand endeavours as well, including the Thailand Priviledge Card, a calendar book and more.

But it's the bribery scandal's effect on the Bangkok International Film Festival that really pains me. Quite possibly, it marks the end of a film festival that was started with the best of intentions, but became burdened with a vain legacy of ostentatious red-carpet ceremonies, peppered with Hollywood celebrities who were flown to Bangkok at taxpayers' expense, to give the illusion that Thailand is the "Hollywood of Asia".

This obscene display detracted from what should have been the true aim of the festival - to heighten the appreciation of film as art, and not just mere entertainment. For audiences who attended the festival to just see films, this was enough. But others wanted more, more, more.

The festival has its roots in the Bangkok Film Festival (note, no "international" in the title), which started in 1998. It was organized by Nation Multimedia with Brian Bennett hired as programmer. After a few years, Bennett and The Nation parted ways, with Bennett continuing to independently run his Bangkok Film Festival for a few more years. I attended some screenings at the Bangkok Film Festival in 2004, at The Emporium.

Nation Multimedia, meanwhile, had started the Bangkok INTERNATIONAL Film Festival in 2002, in cooperation with the Tourism Authority of Thailand. The two organizers proved incompatible, and Nation Multimedia split from the TAT and went its own way to found a rival festival, the World Film Festival of Bangkok, held in October each year since 2003.

The TAT, meanwhile, continued with the Bangkok International Film Festival. From 2003, the Greens' Los Angeles-based Film Festival Management handled the programming and organization. The budget ballooned to more than US$5 million annually. Lavish red-carpet premieres, cocktail parties, gala dinners, golf tournaments, concerts, cultural performances and river boat tours were arranged for celebrities, dignitaries and the press corps. There were also grand announcement ceremonies and parties on behalf of the festival at Cannes and in Los Angeles. And, oh yeah, they showed some films, too.

This wild frenzy of feeding at the hog trough continued through 2006. After the coup in September, TAT saw its budget slashed by two thirds from 180 million baht to 60 million baht. The governor, Juthamas Siriwan, was replaced. The TAT cancelled its contract with Film Festival Management, and then postponed the 2007 edition of the festival, usually held around January or February, to July.

This year, the TAT managed the festival on its own, but for programming - here's an interesting twist - it hired Nation Multimedia's Kriangsak "Victor" Silakong, director of the rival World Film Festival of Bangkok. With the smaller budget, the number of invited celebrities dwindled. The actors, directors and producers who did show up, came because they wanted to promote their films. It was a move back in the right direction, but perhaps it had come too late. People had been spoiled, and the damage was done.

Even before the 2007 Bangkok International Film Festival was held, word was that it was the last one, though no one would provide a definitive answer to questions on that issue. However, since the festival wrapped, management of the film festival has been transferred from the TAT to the Department of Export Promotion, which so far has not issued any announcements about when the next festival will be held, if ever.

But at least there's the World Film Festival of Bangkok, which without the taint of corruption surrounding it, could very well emerge as the predominant annual film event in Thailand.

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(Photo credit: Thanis Sudto of The Nation)

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