Friday, October 30, 2009

Thunska's Quarantine is banned

The first casualty of the ban provision of Thailand's new film law is hardly a surprising choice, but it's still an unpleasant distinction.

Thunska Pansittivorakul's This Area Is Under Quarantine is officially banned from public screenings by the Ministry of Culture after the World Film Festival of Bangkok attempted to get it cleared by the ministry's censorship board. The 83-minute documentary was one of the first titles to be mentioned for this year's festival.

The controversial film examines sexuality, religion and censorship in a wide-ranging, frank discussion between two young gay Thai men -- a Muslim from southern Narathiwat province and a Buddhist from Yasothon in the Northeast.

Thunska included banned footage that showed the Tak Bai Incident of 2004, in which Muslim protesters were rounded up, stripped of their shirts, made to lie face down on the ground and were bound and beaten before being stuffed into army trucks. At least 85 of the detainees died, mostly from suffocation. Another topic of discussion covers the 2005 hanging of Iranian teenagers Mahmoud Asgari and Ayaz Marhoni.

And then for the latter third of the documentary, Thunska's two subjects pose in their underwear and get to know each other intimately and explicitly.

But, "nudity is not their concern at all. It's the politics," festival director Victor Silakong says of the censors' decision. "Thunksa's film is quite strong. It's really up front, about everything."

The film was submitted to the Culture Ministry's censorship board after attempts to have it classified under Thailand's new motion-picture ratings system proved impossible. With much confusion still surrounding the new film law, the festival organizers were told that only the films' rights holders can submit movies to the ratings system, which is geared for commercial screenings, not film festivals.

In previous years, the World Film Festival of Bangkok had worked with the censorship board that was under control of the police. But that changed this year, with censorship coming under control of the Culture Ministry.

With the new board, the process of submitting the films was fraught with contradiction. At times it was difficult to obtain a simple "yes" or "no" answer from the board, which would give an non-committal "erm" or "uh" response because they weren't sure themselves what was right or wrong.

Festival organizers plan to hold a forum during the show times allotted for This Area Under Quarantine, during which filmmakers and authorities will be invited to discuss the issue and come up with a solution.

Several other films at the festival are also controversial, including the opening Mundane History, by Anocha Suwichakornpong. It contains sex and nudity and the characters in the film are allegorical to Thai society. But censors said Mundane History is okay, as long as patrons' IDs are checked and no one under 20 is let in to see it.

This Area Is Under Quarantine was shown in an invite-only "rough cut" screening in Bangkok in September 2008. It officially premiered this year at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and was also featured in the documentary competition at this year's Torino International Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. Other appearances have included the 13th Queer Lisboa in Portugal and the Q! Film Festival in Indonesia. It was part of a retrospective and forum at Chiang Mai University in July.

Thunska, it should be noted, is a 2007 recipient of the Silpathorn Award, an award for contemporary artists that is given by the Culture Ministry's Office of Contemporary Art and Culture. He joins another Silpathorn honoree, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, with the rather dubious distinction of being censored. Apichatpong's Syndromes and a Century was lauded at festivals the world over, but when it finally came back to Thailand, it had six scenes that were deemed offensive to Thai morals and was ordered to be censored.

In response to the banning of This Area Is Under Quarantine, Thunska released the following statement, which is translated from Thai:

"I'm not surprised about the ban. Since hearing last month that my documentary would be viewed by the Culture Ministry's censorship watchdogs, I thought my film might be banned. But I wondered about the reason. It's not because of the nudity or depiction of the male organ but because of political issues. The ban is like we're stepping backward. We can't present the facts about things happening in our own country.

"However I think the ban will benefit me. It'll be another controversial case study in the Thai film circle in which we think we have freedom of expression, but in fact we don't.

"From now on, it's my own right to continue my own style. I don't care anymore about censorship. I'll give up my |worries and fears and think positively. This is my opportunity to be more free. I don't really care about it anymore and will do what I believe in. And this is my true fight against the censorship. Thank you krub, Thailand."

Update: The Bangkok Post (cache) and Screen Daily (cache) have stories, both of which add to my confusion about the processes that took place that led to the banning of this film.

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