Paranoia, politics mute Thai cinema

Paranoia, politics mute Thai cinema

When there is not a ghost film making headlines by raking in a whopping billion baht at the box-office, movie news in this country is often about censorship, which stalks certain filmmakers like a serial killer. This week we have two such news items, both under-reported, and both concerning the larger issue of media freedom. Let's take a look.

The first sounds like good news, at least on paper. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), with the assistance of its Citizens' and Political Rights sub-committee, has released its findings on the ban of Shakespeare Tong Tai (Shakespeare Must Die), a Thai film that came under the murderous axe of the National Film and Video Board last year. In short, the NHRC found the ban "is an infringement on the freedom of opinion and expression by the filmmakers". To recount the particulars of the case, the censors banned the film on the grounds that it could disrupt national security (strange how some people think movies, and not state-sponsored ignorance, are a time-bomb) and could cause disunity among the people, especially through the film's reference to the events of Oct 6, 1976 - the "killer-chair" episode to be exact.

On this, the NHRC's opinion is precise: "The order to ban the whole film, that the important rationale [for the censors to ban it being the scene reminiscent] of the events of Oct 6, a historical event well-known to the general public; that to judge a film on a single scene, is an unjust act." The committee also goes further by suggesting that the Film Act of 2008 - which was passed at Shinkansen-like speed by the coup-appointed national assembly with a mind-boggling 40 votes - has serious problems, since it has the potential to "restrict the freedom of expression as enshrined by the constitution".

The NHRC's opinion is not legally binding, though I believe the filmmakers can use it to back up their court case, since they have filed a lawsuit against the censorship committee. But through its official findings, the human rights agency has confirmed what a lot of media scholars have already emphasised: at present, the "pre-crime" paranoia rooted in the Cold War years (or sci-fi delusion) that authorises the censoring of media prior to its broadcast or publication is only applied to film. Newspapers, radio stations, TV channels and even websites do not have to submit their content to state inspection before going to print or on air, but movies have to. That's unjust at best and primordial at worst, given the democratisation of media on the airwaves, cable TV and the internet. The view that movies are the most dangerous media is baffling. Isn't what's being said every day on colour-coded TV, for instance, far more inflammatory?

This brings us to the second case of the week, a puzzling incident that shows the official censorship board isn't the only one wielding the scissors, and that censorship isn't just a law but a state of mind. This concerns Prachathipathai (Paradoxocracy), a documentary that presents a critical history of Thai democracy from the 1932 Revolution to the present. After a bout of jitters, the movie passed the censors with some cuts (the filmmakers muted the sound of "sensitive" parts) and Major Cineplex screened it at Paragon and The Esplanade from June 24-July 3.

All seemed fine, the cinemas were surprisingly packed, and "political movies" no longer looked like an endangered species in Thai cinema. But something bizarre happened last weekend when the cinema chain, according to many eyewitnesses, seemed to be trying to discourage people from seeing the film. At Paragon, they took the movie off the LCD showtime board, and if you called, the staff would give you confusing answers, such as the film wasn't showing, or may be showing, or, as happened on Sunday, "someone" had booked the entire cinema. All of this even though the film was showing as originally announced. This must be one of the few times in history that a cinema committed "demarketing", flirted with censorship, and offered a case of head-scratching paradox - a movie house persuading people not to see a movie.

Conspiracy theories were rampant. Without being too wildly speculative, let's just say the devil is the same old paranoia: anything to do with politics these days gets businessmen cringing, and the inner battle between greed (the cinema wants to sell tickets) and fear (they're reluctant to show a film with the People's Party, Pridi Banomyong and Thaksin Shinawatra in it) proves to be a confounding one.

At least Paradoxocracy was screened and the public have watched and debated it, while Shakespeare Must Die, like the ghost in Hamlet, remains stuck in limbo. The NHRC's findings aren't actually good news - the good news is only when political filmmaking is not marginalised, discouraged, gagged and consigned to oblivion.


Kong Rithdee is Deputy Editor of Life, Bangkok Post.

Kong Rithdee

Bangkok Post columnist

Kong Rithdee is a Bangkok Post columnist. He has written about films for 18 years with the Bangkok Post and other publications, and is one of the most prominent writers on cinema in the region.

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