Monday, July 27, 2009

Review: Colors of Our Hearts

  • Directed by Supamok Silarak
  • Written and co-produced by Th’blay Paw
  • Premiered on June 20, 2009, World Refugee Day as closing film in the Fly Beyond the Barbwire Fence II festival
  • Rating: 5/5

Friends Without Borders, the Chiang Mai-based NGO that deals in human rights, broke into filmmaking in 2007, producing The Songs of Eh Doh Shi, a docudrama look at the lives of migrant workers and minorities in Thailand.

Director Supamok Silarak and producer-writer Th’blay Paw have followed that up with Colors of Our Hearts, another moving, documentary-style drama that tells four more stories of Thailand’s migrant workers and minorities.

Colors is actually an expansion of 2008’s Hongsa’s Schoolbag, which won the short-film award at last year’s World Film Festival of Bangkok.

These are quiet, unassuming little films, but beautifully handmade and sumptuously scored.

Here, Hongsa’s Schoolbag has added power as the first of four closely interwoven segments, which dovetail with shared scenes and characters.

All the vignettes are based on actual experiences. They expose the soul-crushing unfairness that migrant workers and minorities face in Thailand, where – because of xenophobia, corruption, paranoia and bungled bureaucracy – they are treated as subhuman, because they’re “not Thai”.

This is despite many of the workers actually being born in Thailand, and identifying themselves as Thai people.

The film shows them cowering in jungle groves so thick with thorns that the authorities and traffickers won’t chase them there. It describes how the migrants and minorities are denied freedom of movement – they are restricted to the provinces where they work, cannot meet in groups and cannot own motorcycles or cellphones.

In Hongsa’s Schoolbag, a sweet little boy goes off to school. His migrant-worker mother warns him not to play with the Thai children or to even speak too much, because his accent will call attention to him.

All the migrant-worker kids are taken to school in a specially arranged pickup truck – the parents themselves cannot bring their children to school because they risk being nabbed by the authorities or gangs posing as authorities.

Hongsa is immediately singled out by the other children because he can’t sing along to a hymn that extols the virtues of His Majesty the King, nor does he know the words to the militaristic national anthem.

Nonetheless, a few classmates become friendly with Hongsa – the children don’t know yet that good Thais don’t consort with “foreigners”. And Hongsa gains confidence.

But the danger Hongsa faces is illustrated when he goes for an after-school visit to his mother’s workplace at a shrimp-packing plant. Mum tells him to go home, saying he can’t be there.

But on the way home the boy is stopped by a man on a motorcycle who claims he’s a policeman. He’s not wearing a uniform and shows no badge. The man takes the Bt50 the boy’s mother had given him to put toward a schoolbag.

Such fake cops are a real threat in migrant-worker communities, where vast portions of the population are foreign laborers who are deliberately kept undocumented as a means of oppression by colluding business owners and corrupt officials.

On the way to school another day, Hongsa asks the pickup-truck driver if he knows how to speak the royal Thai language – Hongsa wants to learn it so he can make a direct appeal to the King. His Majesty is the only one Hongsa sees as having the moral authority to deal with the injustice he and his family are facing.

The next segment, Soe’s Hat, expands on a character introduced at the end of Hongsa’s story: Soe, a Mon man who starts teaching a class to the migrant-worker children. He gives his lessons in Mon, Lisu and Burmese because, he says, “you need to learn all the languages”.

But the long-haired Soe isn’t just a teacher. He’s also a migrant-worker activist. When one schoolgirl doesn’t appear in class, Soe tracks her down and finds she’s been put to work peeling shrimp.

Soe then reveals he’s done more than teach school – he’s peeled his share of shrimp, painted houses, worked on fishing boats – he’s a migrant worker too.

He convinces the girl’s parents to let her return to school, and to let her join his traditional dance class.

What Soe is saving the girl from is covered in the final two segments, Mee’s Bird and Ying’s Bird, both about women trafficked into prostitution. As one group escapes a karaoke brothel – only to end up peeling shrimp under brutal, hand-cramping conditions – another pair of girls turn up, sold into the sex trade by an “aunt-in-law”.

Colors of Our Hearts premiered in Chiang Mai on June 20, World Refugee Day. It was the culmination of the Friends Without Borders’ weeklong arts festival Fly Beyond the Barbwire Fence Episode II: Ten Years Old.

The film ends on an upbeat note, with a sense of lost innocence being reclaimed, symbolized by a peacock dancer, who performs over the end credits.

As the lights in the auditorium came up, the audience was instructed to head out to the lobby, where another peacock dancer awaited. The crowd then followed the bird-like young woman and her band of traditional musicians to a nearby encampment, cordoned off by barbed wire.

But instead of the primitive living quarters that migrant workers might have, there was merriment, plenty of food and an evening of music – another message of hope, behind that barbed-wire fence.

And hopefully, there will be more screenings of Colors of Our Hearts in the coming months. In the meantime, both The Songs of Eh Doh Shi and Hongsa’s Schoolbag are available on DVD from

(Cross-published in The Nation)

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