Arpat uproar points to censorship flaws
Filmmakers frustrated as content in other media, such as TV and print, does not require state approval before release
The hullabaloo around the Thai film Arpat, which features a misbehaving young monk, is the latest example of problems caused by what some people in the film industry perceive as flaws in the Film and Video Act 2008.
Some of the controversial aspects of the law, which was passed by the coup-appointed National Legislative Assembly, include the composition of the censor committees, and the measure that allows a film to be banned for national security reasons.
Also criticised were a conservative interpretation of the rules, and most importantly strict state control over film, compared to lighter regulation of other cheaper and more accessible media such as television and print.
The Film and Video Act 2008 replaced the old film law of 1930, which had been used before Thailand became a constitutional monarchy. It allowed the police to head the censor board, leading to much-criticised practices such as image blurring and arbitrary cutting.
The new act was passed after a campaign by film professionals following an internationally publicised incident in which the censor board ordered Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul to cut four scenes from his film Syndromes and a Century.
The scenes show a monk playing the guitar, a monk playing with a radio-control toy, a group of doctors drinking whiskey, and a shot of a doctor's crotch.
But many filmmakers believe the new law, which introduced the rating system, still poses many problems.
"The law says the rating committee consists of four government officials and three representatives from the private sector, but what happens is that these three 'private representatives' are often those who are close to the bureaucrats, and they have to be approved by the bureaucrats first," said Manit Sriwanichpoom, whose film Shakespeare Must Die was banned in 2012. "That means the state still controls the thinking and the judgement."
The first film banned under the new film law was Insect in the Backyard in 2010. It tells the story of a transgender father and his two children, one of them a male prostitute.
According to Kajornsak Putthanupap, who chaired the committee that banned the film Arpat (which changed its name from Arbat to pacify censors), there are six rotating committees taking turns to watch films and give a rating.
He said Arpat was initially banned because it might "create unnecessary conflicts in society if the committee had let it pass".
But for filmmakers, such thinking is unfair treatment to film, given the fact that content in other media, such as magazines or television, does not require state approval before its release.
They also argue that going to the movies is a much more expensive and less accessible activity than watching television or surfing the web.
"Some committees rely purely on their imagination that if a film has been released, such and such a bad thing would happen," said Pantham Thongsang, a film producer who has campaigned for a fairer film law for the past 10 years. "It's like you forbid someone from leaving the house because you imagine he might go out and kill someone."
While Mr Kajornsak insists he only performed his duty by banning Arpat, film professionals have long objected to Section 29 in the act that allows banning of a film on ground that it "may disrupt national security".
The filmmakers argue it is unnecessary because the rating system alone should provide a fair measure of control, and there are other laws where the jurisdiction already covers any possible legal breaches.
Mr Pantham cited the anti-obscenity law, which can be used to prosecute in relation to pornographic materials, or the anti-defamation law which can take action against libellous content, and argued there was no need to show prejudice against a film by demanding pre-release scrutiny.
"Banning a film is like handing out a death sentence before a crime is even committed," he said.
Mr Manit added: "The initial draft of the film law did away with the ban, but the Council of State, which favoured conservative thinking, put it back in.
"It shows the state does not respect the freedom of the citizens. The law implies that we're not intellectually equipped to make a judgement by ourselves."
There are other finer points that demonstrate the delicate balance between artistic freedom and state control, such as taste, experience and interpretation, Mr Pantham said.
"In the case of Arpat, the committee thought it could destroy Buddhism. But for others, the film may be interpreted as a promotion of the religion," he said. "The audience should have the right to judge it by themselves."