Monday, July 7, 2008

The National Film Archive and Preah Vihear

While the National Film Archive in Nakhon Pathom is raising its profile by opening its museum and holding screenings of rare films and star-studded special events at its Sri Sala cinema, the Archive as a bureaucratic entity is stymied by a lack of understanding among higher government officials about the importance of film preservation. It receives a pittance for its important work of saving Thailand's cultural heritage -- just 3 million baht (about US$90,000) a year.

For the past seven years, the Archive has been trying to become more independent so it won't have to jump through so many bureaucratic hoops in order to obtain funding. A bid to make it a public organization had actually been approved by the mlitary-appointed government of Surayud Chulanot, and the measure was awaiting Palace approval. However, when Samak Sundaravej was elected prime minister in December, bills awaiting the Royal seal were sent back to the government.

Kong Rithdee, in his Bangkok Post column on Saturday (cache), has more:

When the new cabinet took over from the previous one at the beginning of 2008, they predictably shelved most of the activities tabled by their predecessors, whom they seem to regard with professional disdain. How much this suspension is performed for the sake of the country and how much it is concerned with back-door negotiation and invisible interest is hard to determine. But since the Samak administration has absolutely zero idea of cultural policy (except appointing Girly Berry as the models of traditional Thai teens during Songkran), we're in for a curse of the philistine.

In fact, the prospect is pretty grim. Deputy Prime Minister Suwit Khunkitti has sent all the files of the proposed public organisations back to the approving committee, and there's a possibility that he will eventually reject most of them. This means that the National Film Archive, whose case has been deliberated by successive ministers in the past seven years, may not be elevated to its preferred status despite the support from previous administrations. If vetoed by Mr Suwit, the archive might forever lose its chance to build its case, find itself stuck in the bureaucratic backwaters ...

Kong goes on to point out the irony that such a firestorm of controversy has erupted over the long-disputed Preah Vihear. The 900-year-old Hindu temple complex sits in Cambodian territory but is only accessible from Thailand. In the Thai government's on-again, off-again bid to support Cambodia's having the temple listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, the ugly spectre of nationalism has been raised by the opposition Democrat Party and the People's Alliance for Democracy, distracting the public from other pressing issues.

This blatant ignorance to preserve important national heritage by this government -- old film clips and historic movies, needless to say, are part of our national identity and visual records of our ideas, temperament, tradition, artistry, diversity, even our very existence, as well as the backbone of our cultural meme -- is a shame since the cabinet is puffing its chest and claiming to be the hero in the Preah Vihear saga, our "proud" historical treasure.

Likewise with the politicians in the opposite camp; when they roast the cabinet over its unwise decision regarding the disputed Hindu temple, they failed to raise the point that there are many other national heritages worth protecting, conserving and improving -- look at the state of our national library, national museum, the film archive, or historic houses around the country.

That the Preah Vihear scandal is a politicised issue is unquestionable, but it's particularly sad when it makes you realise that those men would never care about temple ruins or ancient books unless somehow they promote their own self-interest.

The last point Kong makes is that while the National Film Archive only gets 3 million baht a year, hundreds of millions were spent on a lavish affair like the Bangkok International Film Festival, which though it's been scaled back for this year, has become tainted by the vain avarice of past administrations.

Still, if red-carpet ceremonies, pictures with celebrities and fancy banquets are what get the politicans excited about spending money, maybe the National Film Archive could use some of its own star power to promote its cause and raise awareness for the need to preserve Thailand's cinematic heritage.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing about this important issue.

    The whole Preah Vihear controversy makes me sick, with the blinded-by-nationalism revision historians out in full bloom.

    It's one of the insidious falsehoods of the present dominant ethnic group (i.e. the Thais) that they have historical primacy in the area. Even if you ignore the fact that virtually all Bangkok Thais are from Chinese stock of recent immigration--which makes these politicians' fervor all the more questionable--it's a politically motivated national delusion that the Thais are the true heirs to the ancient Khmer empire, Angkor Wat, Preah Vihear, etc. This is disputed by the empirical, cultural, and logical evidence. Thais manage to simultaneously dislike Khmers while laying claim to their historical kingdom by conveniently using a different word for ancient Khmers: Khom. Voila! Now you can hate your cake and usurp its cultural heritage, too.

    All while actual Thai culture is allowed to rot in the tropical heat, in the form of countless reels of film. And it's only a few decades old. In another 50 years, film preservation in Thailand will either be up to par, or too late to save. Sad.

    What a mess.


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