Banned transgender-themed film stirs up debate about 'arbitrary' censorship

Banned transgender-themed film stirs up debate about 'arbitrary' censorship

For five years Tanwarin Sukkhapisit fought an unprecedented court case, and last week she lost. But what's more important, says the film director of Insects in the Backyard, is how the case has exposed the loose, arbitrary interpretation of the Film Act 2008 that led her film to be banned in the first place.

In July 2010, Insects in the Backyard was the first film to be banned under the new film law. The censorship committee gave conflicting and unclear reasons for their decision: they said the film, which depicts the family drama of a transgender father (Ms Tanwarin in the role herself) and her two teenage children, portrays student sex workers; they also said the film has shots of penises and in general, it despoils "public morals".

"I felt like a terrorist," Ms Tanwarin told the Bangkok Post after the ban. "Why? I was just making a movie."

Ms Tanwarin filed a lawsuit at the Administrative Court -- the first time a filmmaker had used a legal channel to demand the lifting of a ban. But after five years, the court ruled on Dec 25 that the ban still stood, reasoning the film contained a three-second shot of pornographic material (an image from the TV screen in which the father character is watching gay porn). Ms Tanwarin said she will not appeal.

"I won't appeal because I've already got the answer to why the film was banned," she says. "Back in 2010, the censors couldn't tell me exactly why they banned the movie. They mentioned student prostitution, they mentioned the penis shots, they mentioned the 'bad examples' -- they said many things but they were vague. They were unable tell me what I had to cut so the film would pass.

"Now the court has told me which shot was the problem -- the porn image on the TV screen -- I can accept that. The judge also said the censor committees should interpret each film with clear standards, to be precise on what is allowed and what is not ... the film has some problems, but the censor committees have problems too. Had they told me clearly back then that this shot was not allowed, I would've edited it out. But they didn't."

In an age when censorship can easily be beaten by technology, Ms Tanwarin's battle shows the fight for freedom of expression through legal means is possible. She could have easily uploaded the film on YouTube and the ban would have meant nothing.

 "I could have done that, but I never wanted to. I made a film because I wanted to tell the story of a family, and I wanted to show it in cinemas. I've lost the case, but I believe it has set an example of what filmmakers should do ensure their freedom, and also that the censors should be more clear and judicious in their rulings."

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