Monday, March 31, 2008

BEFF5: A look back

The theme of this year's Bangkok Experimental Film Festival was "The more things change ..." I took the ellipses to mean I could fill in a blank with "... the more things stay the same." Or, maybe not. Maybe things are different.

BEFF has been held intermittently since 1997. The last one was held at the end of 2005 in Lumpini Park. Before that, I'm not sure where it was held. Though I was around for BEFF in 2005, I didn't attend, for no particular reason that I can think of. But probably, I wasn't ready. And, I'm not so sure I was ready for this year's edition.

This year was an experiment for BEFF, holding it in the flashily commercial confines of the Esplanade Cineplex. The aim was to bring experimental film to the multiplex crowd. But, with such other films as the hit GMM Tai Hub teen romance Hormones or Sahamongkol's latest cookie-cutter horror comedy Baan Phee Perb, as well as high-octane Hollywood offerings like Doomsday, Fool's Gold and The Water Horse, that crowds would make the choice to see a package of obscure short films seems impossible in retrospect.

At a panel discussion on Sunday, Cornell University Asian studies professor Benedict Anderson said the venue was too alienating and too cool (meaning cold and he didn't just mean the full-blast air cons). Audience members went into the cinema, sat in the dark in isolation and then left the cinema without interacting with anyone. It made the whole affair seem very lonely, Anderson said.

Anderson said that even some of the films seemed "cool" or cold, with museum-like qualities, mentioning Thunska Pansittivorakol's Middle-Earth as an example: Naked, still, wax-like men sleeping in a white, sterile room. (To me, I thought it was a landscape study -- watch out for that underbrush.)

May Adadol Ingawanij and Apichatpong Weersethakul also sat on the panel. With a focus on the films in the Core Program (Learned Behavior, Track Changes and Daily Rounds), they talked about what makes an experimental filmmaker different from a "regular" filmmaker and took a question about censorship from the audience. Their talk was in Thai, and since I was the only person in the room who wasn't bilingual or spoke Thai, I didn't get all of it. Not complaining mind you -- it's my fault for not finding the time yet to learn the language. One day, if I am able to find the time and place near where I live and work, I will. Somebody always misses out in discussions like this.

I had attended last year's World Film Festival of Bangkok at the same venue, and though I'd heard similar complaints then, I couldn't put my finger on them until now. Esplanade Cineplex and others like it -- Paragon, SF World, any of the Major Cineplex or EGV branches, any multiplex really -- are just too loud and impersonal. It's hard to hang out in the lobby and chat when there's an usher hollering away on a microphone, saying Awake is going to start, or a making-of promotion for Nak is blaring away on an endless video loop on a TV nearby. Even in the common areas in the mall away from the cineplex, there's some noise -- on the giant video screen in the ground floor lobby, down in the food court or in a restaurant. There's always some music playing, or somebody on a microphone hawking some whitening cream. All the aural and visual space is filled. There's no room for thought or thoughtful conversation.

While being careful to thank Major Cineplex for letting the festival be held at the Esplanade, curator David Teh acknowledged the criticism of the choice of venue, saying that to him it was "poison". "When I am finished, all I want to do is get away," he told me when I cornered him as he was waiting for a sandwich. He repeated those sentiments during the panel talk.

A Southeast Asian film aficionado told me she preferred the Lumpini festival, saying that as the films were playing, people in the park felt invited to come into the screening area and sit down, or simply wander through. It was bringing art and cinema to a crowd that normally didn't see either, because they hang out in the park.

This year's BEFF did have a mobile screening -- artist Pratchaya Phinthon's bicycle contraption -- but he didn't want his screenings publicized. One of these guerilla screenings was done on Saturday night in Bangkok's Chinatown, projecting some jumpy images on some shop doors.

That does seem more experimental than screening films in a mall multiplex, even if it is pretty haphazard.

The launch party was held across the river from Bangkok in an outdoor bar near Gallery VER. A screen was set up and films were shown on it as partygoers lapped up free beer (always a hit) and grazed at a buffet table. A luxurious converted rice barge was loaned to the event and took 30 passengers at a time on 30-minute video cruises. The videos played on a flat screen in a front compartment of the boat that probably only around half the 30 people on the cruise could actually see. Not that everyone was paying attention. The Chao Phya River at night is alive with all sorts of activity and sights. And there was free wine, red and white. Oh, the package of shorts all had something to do with water, which was kind of cute.

I don't know about all that. Free beer and wine draws in the dreadlocked, hand-rolling hipsters and some other mighty strange characters -- not just filmmakers -- giving the festival's launch party the feel of the bar in Star Wars. Not many people are paying much attention to the film because they are all talking to each other and getting smashed.

But as Anderson noted, screening the films in a museum or art gallery setting is too sterile, as people are conditioned to be quiet and respectful in such places, speak in hushed tones and be contemplative. That also doesn't leave much opportunity for interaction or experimentation, does it?

Somewhere between Mos Eisley and Museum of Modern Art is where BEFF needs to be. But where is that place?

(Cross-published at The Nation Weblog)

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