Nicole Brenez: Can you tell us about your education, formation, artistic environment?
Ing K: I’m an art school drop-out, so I am formed by life rather than by formal education, though I did have a good classical education both in Thailand and later in England (middle and high school).
My biggest influence was undoubtedly my mother, an artist, teacher and serious environmental activist. She was Thai but was born and raised in England during World War 2 (to this day, we don’t waste food in our family!). She inspired in me a great love of nature, art and music, as well as English poetry (Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Blake especially, but nonsense rhymes too) and world myths and fairy tales, especially Greek mythology, which is probably my first religion. At the same time at school in Thailand I was steeped in Thai epic poetry, which as a child I loved to chant in the traditional way. (Thai education has since changed for the worse; the current syllabus almost totally neglects essay-writing and the teaching of poetry. Thai culture is actually very lyrical; when you take this away, you take away our soul. I consider this one of the roots of our present evil.)
I went to art school instead of university because I wanted to become a painter, but I dropped out after seeing a film on the Cambodian refugee crisis on TV which made me feel guilty and useless, so I came back home to work in a refugee camp on the Thai-Cambodian border in 1980. This led to journalism and eventually to film.
Spiritually, my mother’s parents were Zen Buddhists/Taoists; my father’s half-German mother was Catholic, while his father came from a Hindu priestly family from India, though they’re now Thai Buddhists. So it’s a complete mix. I have no specific religion, or rather I take freely from all religions and mythologies. I travel a lot in India, Greece and Nepal, which I consider my spiritual homes.
NB: How and why did you conceive Shakespeare Must Die? How long to translate Macbeth?
IK: Poetry has always been a great part of my life. However, as a writer here I’m known for investigative journalism (the environment). Though I’ve also written on film and poetry a little, I’d never really had the chance to express this core part of myself. I am also a horror movie junkie, so Macbeth, rightly considered by many as the Great Grandfather of Horror, combines my obsessions.
I first encountered the play as a 15 year old at school in England and it has haunted me all my life. At the back of my mind the dream was always there, to translate it into a Thai horror movie. There is much in it that Thai people can relate to: a black magic-obsessed tyrant with a scary wife, an exploration of megalomania, a discussion on the divine right of kings, extra-judicial killings, the fate of a land in darkness.
In 2008 I’d just finished Citizen Juling, a documentary about the unrest in the Muslim-majority South of Thailand. This film, permeated with a terrible sense of loss, consumed me with its grief. I was in the perfect frame of mind to tackle Macbeth, which as Shakespeare Must Die is a totally natural outflow, of blood and tears if you will, from our conversations with the grief-stricken people of the South, Muslims and Buddhists, who have suffered most from Thaksin’s (our Macbeth-like former Prime Minister, now a fugitive in Dubai from a corruption conviction, who was still running Thailand through his little sister Yingluck Shinawatra, our first woman Prime Minister who chaired the Film Board that banned Shakespeare Must Die) rule by greed, fear and violence.
I thought the translation would take years or turn out to be an impossible task. But it gripped me utterly and after locking myself away for four months, not just the straight translation but the whole script was done, which really surprised me. In a way I should not have been so surprised, since I’ve translated many different things, from laws to poetry, and I’ve always found that the better the writing, the easier it is to translate. In translation, one has to submit one’s personality to the writer’s style and soul, so if it’s a stupid style and badly written, the soul rebels against it. Shakespeare packs so many layers of sensations and meanings into a single line, even a single word, so it would seem impossible to render. Yet it is so enjoyable that I didn’t mind the effort of stretching my whole mind in its service. I soon found that there is something deeply universal and instinctive about the Shakespearean sound and imagery. (There are things you have to change, for instance: Macbeth’s “I’ll not play the Roman fool…” had to become “I’ll not play the Samurai fool…” There’s just no time to explain Roman culture to a Thai audience at that point, but we’ve heard of Japanese samurais committing hara-kiri.)
NB: How was the production of Shakespeare Must Die possible?
IK: Shakespeare Must Die was funded by the Ministry of Culture’s Creative Thailand Film Fund, which was a project of a previous (Abhisit Vejjajiva/Democrat) government and no longer exists. At least 50 other films received this funding, most of which went to the big studios rather than to independents like us. It was the last film to receive the funding, as the board was concerned about our depiction of the regicide scene. We had to shoot the scene and show them all the footage before they were convinced of our Shakespearean sincerity. All other films only had to submit a synopsis and treatment.
I’m mistrusted because I have no doctrine except John Keats’ “Beauty is Truth”; my creative roots are purely organic story-telling. When people can’t classify you as ‘left’ or ‘right’, ‘moral’ or ‘immoral’, ‘classical’ or ‘postmodern’ etc., they become suspicious; they fear what they don’t understand. I know this is true everywhere, but especially here because Thai people are raised on state propaganda. (To explain this I would have to take you back to World War 2. Imagine if in France, instead of honouring the Resistance, the Nazi collaborators are honoured and the Resistance is reviled. That’s basically what has happened here. My family was very much a part of the Free Thai during the war and so we know the ‘forbidden history’ and don’t believe the fascist propaganda.)
NB: Shakespeare Must Die is remarkable for its courage and aesthetic uniqueness. But were you inspired by other artists eg. Hans Jürgen Syberberg at the beginning and end of the film, because of the impressive work on images in the background of the scene?
IK: I’m deeply ashamed to say I’d never heard of Hans Jürgen Syberberg! I googled him after reading your question and will sit down to watch Hitler as soon as I have time; it looks amazing. Thank you for the recommendation.
I’m a visual person since at heart I’m still the painter that I was trained to be. (I still paint with oil on canvas.) As a filmmaker I have to work with very small budgets, so the best way to increase production value is to rely on what we have—a strong art department as well as artist friends who can lend us their work (often worth more than the whole film, such as the weird rollicking statues under the witches’ tree and the painting behind M and Lady M in her boudoir). I solve budget problems with the structure of the film, by working with what I do have. It would’ve been great to make a realistic Macbeth with a coup d’Etat with real tanks in the streets etc., but obviously this is not possible, so I made use of the Shakespearean ‘play within a play’ device. Whatever I couldn’t afford, I put on a theatre stage, so that stage tricks and cheap swords would be acceptable, in the way that Shakespeare makes an actor stand between two lovers and call him ‘wall’ in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Such artificiality could in the end serve to contrast with the realistic violence of the lynching in ‘the real world’ at the end. At the same time, since Thailand was never a Western colony and has no Shakespearean culture to speak of (to most Thai people, Shakespeare is just a ‘high-end brand’ like Prada or Chanel), I wanted the Thai audience to experience the theatricality of it, as well as to revel in Shakespeare’s love of leaping from one ‘reality’ to another without warning, at any time, at will. I love the way he bleeds the senses into one another and one dimension into another. We go into and out of people’s heads at will.
Generally, though I love film, I’m more influenced by art, literature and current news footage than film. I have to say that for Shakespeare Must Die, I made the conscious decision to trust Shakespeare absolutely, wherever that might lead, no matter how scary or ‘uncool’ this might sometimes prove to be. Thai folk opera (a wonderful mix of minimalism and maximalism) and TV soaps are other strong influences for the film. I wanted to use some of their grammar to lull the Thai audience (which is very addicted to nightly TV melodramas) with its apparent familiarity while the Shakespearean dialogue mesmerises them on an entirely another level.
You mention the opening of the film—I presume you mean the girl walking through a cemetery to make offerings to a cheap fun fair cut-out of the Hindu Goddess Durga. Before every Thai performance, from Thai folk opera to boxing, there is always a brief ceremony of ‘Guru Worship’. I use the Goddess Durga for our film’s Guru worship because she is the slayer of fear and ignorance; like Kali, she is the teacher of painful lessons. Her face is a hole, like the cut-outs you see for people to pose for photos at carnivals. God is nobody; God is you. We go through the hole into the story, into Macbeth’s mansion, as if the Goddess is the one showing you this morality play. Again, I arrived at the cheap cut-out art department solution because I couldn’t afford to achieve a vision of the Goddess with visual effects. This cut-out could then be used again for the propaganda children scene (the Hecate scene in Macbeth).
NB: Apart from the censorship, how has the film been received in Thailand? Any secret screenings?
IK: We’ve had about 4 private screenings at universities. The response has been wonderful. Before we were banned, my greatest fear was the reaction of local Shakespeareans, but they have been the most supportive. But the best comment came from a political science professor who told me that now he understands why westerners enjoy Shakespeare. It made me feel that I succeeded in what I set out to do. It’s such a pity that we couldn’t release the film right then. It would’ve played during Shutdown Bangkok. The atmosphere of revolution would’ve been the perfect moment to be showing Shakespeare Must Die in cinemas.
Someone who knew the protest organizers told me I should try to show the film at the main protest site at Democracy Monument (which was like a massive camp site interspersed with screens to relay the protest leaders’ speeches to people sitting far from the main stage). That would’ve been amazing. However, they’d never shown any film at the protest and a horror movie is not really a good choice for the situation (almost nightly drive-by shootings, sniper and RPG attacks, on angry people whose friends had died). In the worst-case scenario, claiming the film makes fun of their hero, a bunch of Thaksin fanatics might’ve chosen that moment to attack people at the protest (something they’d been threatening to do), then the censors could crow triumphantly that they were right to ban the film as a threat to national security. Such a scenario would set back our campaign to change the film law for years.
NB: When did you decide to make Censor Must Die? Can you explain how the shooting your film Censor Must Die was possible? For example, why and how did the various administrative people you are filming accepted to be recorded?
IK: I was only able to shoot Censor Must Die because no one else had had the nerve to shoot the censors before.
I think anyone who lives behind the camera in one way or another soon learn to become both invisible and brazen at the same time. As the censors kept on delaying their verdict and things began to look really bad for Shakespeare Must Die, I started trailing my producer with a camera as a stunt to freak them out and hint that the world was watching and perhaps cared for the outcome, and also to keep a record for legal protection.
But then the chief of the censor office started responding to my camera. We had a humourous flirtation, a real rapport, like some Hollywood director with his golden star. I had my man, an absurdist Greek chorus that forewarned and recommended and said ‘I told you so’ in the sweetest way. In cinematic terms he reminded me of Renfield, Dracula’s human pet. It’s just his awful job to serve the powers of darkness. But he was a sympathetic character and we respected each other as human beings. Whenever he told me to turn the camera off, I always did. In my documentarian life I’ve secretly filmed lots of criminal things, with a clean conscience, but this film is about people, not only some issue like stealing water or pesticide use.
As the horrible process of being banned and banned again (when we lost the appeal to the Film Board) dragged on interminably, I got sucked into the story, which is my own story after all, except I’d been trying to (not) live through it from behind a glass eye. Inevitably situations arose where I had to put down the camera, and then I lost it. In the senate hearing room no one told us not to film, but in that situation I couldn’t film and answer hostile questions at the same time. We recorded audio which we used, including my scream when I lost all hope. You can imagine how hard it was to use that in the film. I knew I would use it if it had been someone else’s scream. The film came first, so I had to use it.
In the final analysis, I only managed to film Censor Must Die because I was shooting it all by myself. No one with a camera crew with soundman in tow would’ve been allowed in. I had the right to be there because I was being judged. And this is something you can do only once. No one else will ever be allowed to make such a film again. I don’t feel guilty about that; it can’t be helped.
The other remarkable thing is even though there’s never been such an explicit firsthand documentary on the banning of a film before, no festival would show Censor Must Die except the Southeast Asian Film Festival and the Cultural Resistance Film Festival of Lebanon in Beirut, where it won Best Documentary. Having blacklisted Shakespeare Must Die as ‘fascist hate speech’ that a ‘democratic’ government headed by a beautiful woman PM was justified in banning as a national security threat, the festivals were obviously not going to touch a film on its banning. I knew that but I sent it to a couple of self-described ‘filmmaker-friendly’ festivals just so I could state the above in total confidence, confirming my conclusions in a ‘scientific’ way. (Please search the following: Thaksin Shinawatra’s PR-lobbyists—Lord Tim Bell of Bell Pottinger, Sam Moon, etc. and Australian National University’s Asian Studies website New Mandala for details before dismissing me as a conspiracy theorist.)
There is such confusion about ‘hate speech’. People are so terrified of political correctness, they’re afraid to think for themselves. This makes it almost too easy for the corporate colonial lobby, especially since so few hands now control everything, certainly in media, including film festivals. When you think about it, certainly if you’d been the victim of such a vicious and thorough smear campaign yourself, you’d see that falsehood is the only hate speech, really. Lies kill. Injustice embitters people. They feel so helpless. I call it being Palestinised. Nothing left to do but to explode. World commentators wring their hands crying “Where are the moderates?!” But the machinery is broken that would convey their voices and versions of the story to the world. The whole structure is infested and perverted by masters of the universe who employ ‘CSR’, green propaganda and ‘groovy’ people who have learned to speak your emoji. And it is total eclipse.
NB: Is it possible to see your film Censor Must Die in Thailand?
IK: Censor Must Die isn’t banned, in fact it’s the first film in Thai cinema history to be “exempt from the censorship process” since it was “made from events that really happened.” The censors are citing a law that exempts news footage from censorship. But at the same time, they have threatened to sue any cinema that shows the film, saying that they never gave us permission to film in their office. This is ridiculous as I never shot surreptitiously and they interact with the camera quite openly, but Thai cinemas are owned by the big studios and distributors, who must submit their films to the censors all the time. So Censor Must Die is in effect banned too.
NB: How do you feel about the future of Thailand? How would you formulate a response of film to an oppressive political situation?
IK: The future of Thailand? At the time of the occupy Bangkok protests, I felt optimistic. Long-suppressed energy was being at long last released. It’s always cleansing for the truth to reveal itself.
Thaksin is our instrument of liberation. Certainly he has freed us from any lingering awe or respect we might have harboured for Western media and institutions. This is surely a good thing and long-overdue. Thaksin is our nemesis, a potent and bitter medicine; it’s as if he’s been specifically designed to plague us in exactly the right way for us to react to cleanse and examine ourselves. He personifies the dark side of our collective psyche, in the same way that Hitler did for the German people. A gift from the Goddess of Painful Lessons. Before him, we “happy-go-lucky Thais” never really suffered, not in the way that other countries have suffered, so we were never forced to really come to grips with our dark side.
This is of course the gut feeling of a horror filmmaker, not the analysis of an academic. It’s a horror movie in full bright sunshine. The horror we are experiencing through Thaksin is in the deepest sense the horror of our own moral bankruptcy. Such a man would not be possible otherwise. It didn’t look like Bosnia or Sudan, but everything was wrong. On the material level, the corruption was brazen and on an unimaginable scale; in public life, there was a total lack of conscience; things looked normal but people disappeared. (Search: human rights lawyer Somchai Neelapaichitr and businessman Ekayuth Anchanbutr)
The Shutdown Bangkok protest was a zero-sum game, because what I call The Beast, the great mass of the people, has finally had enough and rejects all pretense of compromise. No more lies, full stop. We will never believe a word you say and we want you gone, full stop. We have to win because if we lose, we will become a failed state, that’s all. That’s why I’m optimistic; when there’s no alternative, all the energy flows in one direction.
I recorded much of what was happening—wonderful, mesmerising images with a cast of thousands, for free. At first I was just collecting stock footage, but I soon realised that another film was organically growing from these images—and sounds, such incredible sounds: the roar of a great crowd, the voice of the Beast. Before this happened, I’d been struggling to write a script that would express that voice, but nothing I could dream up was extreme enough. When these protests erupted at Hallowe’en 2013, I realised the movie I was trying to write was actually right here in front of me; all I had to do was go out there and shoot it. I was hoping to construct something from the images in a raw, impressionistic way.
I think there is no way to consciously ‘formulate’ a cinematic response to an oppressive political situation. It has to happen naturally, instinctively. A consciously designed cinematic response is likely to be unfree of propaganda; it may even be insincere and opportunistic, just making a certain type of film to fulfill a certain expectation. I think you have to have the faith to let it form itself unconsciously, un-self-consciously, as it will, not as you consciously will.
The protesters’ story sucked me in and I ended up going out to film nearly every day for seven months.
One week after the 22 May 2014 coup d’etat sent protesters home from their entrenched camps in the streets, I took the footage into my cave and have been cutting it since. In terms of Thai politics since the coup, most people are actually quite relaxed. They’re exhausted from all the drama. The little people have done enough dying; now it’s the turn of the elephants to fight and die. People have consented to the military takeover for now because we know we’re on the verge of civil war. Surely it’s better to do our own peacekeeping than to have a UN peacekeeping force. We are protective of our independence and don’t like outside powers to interfere.
We may be standing on the edge of a cliff, as is the rest of the world, but I stand by my optimistic far outlook. After what I’ve seen and shot, there is no way most of these people who have sacrificed so much would stay home if promises of reform are not kept. Millions of ordinary people who had never protested before have become empowered: these camps were like training camps in activism and democracy in action, not words. Even people who used to look down on my environmental ‘agitation’ sat on hot cement roads in the sun day after day. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
Ordinary people from all over the country marched and camped side by side with seasoned anti-Free Trade Agreement activists, farmers, environmentalists, disciplined practitioners of non-violence; artists, trades unions (railway, airline, energy), royalists and communists all hung out together and realised that they were people like themselves. They learned to recycle their rubbish and to sit down stoically when violence threatens; how to deal with tear gas, build bunkers, raise funds and organize communal kitchens. I was so impressed. They made friends across region, culture, class, sexual identity (2 protest leaders were professors in drag), age, religion, profession. They went to funeral after funeral together. There is no way things can ever go back to business as usual. The real change is not flashy but profound and wide-reaching. They came from everywhere and so they went back everywhere.
Actually I think the world could learn a lot from them, if it weren’t so busy dismissing them as an ‘anti-democratic evil elite royalist movement’, etc., obediently (opportunistically) following the simplistic Thaksinite script.
NB: Can you tell us a little about your actual new work?
IK: It’s called Bangkok Joyride, a series of cinéma verité documentaries on the epic Shutdown Bangkok protests. No narration, no explanation, just the real footage strung together and woven with TV news and government propaganda (shot on my phone through the TV screen, so very grainy). It races along like a suicidal express train full of screaming, joyous people ready to die and to party on the streets until then.
The images are just extraordinary. They’ve been surprising even me when I go back to trim. After a while I learned to stand still in the best possible vantage point and let the story come to the waiting camera in the crowd. Sometimes I had to hold the spot for hours (5 hours the longest) before the people came flowing in, a human tide of incredible variety and flapping flags in a stiff breeze in bright sunshine on a bridge across the river, for instance.
I spent much of my time in the encampment of the ‘Dharma Army’ people. They’re always put on the frontline because of their patience and ahimsa (non-violence) discipline. When there’s trouble, they never panic; they just sit down and pray for the spiritual liberation of the riot police. They’re vegans and they hate your cigarettes and alcohol, but they’re practical, funny and brave (a sign at the camp: “Sleeping area: No Smoking please; we’re saving our lungs for tear gas”). A lot more people would’ve died but for them.
I’m fully aware that there’s no place in this space and time for Bangkok Joyride 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, but it’s a historical record that someone somewhere must set down. What a scandal that literally millions of people came out onto the streets to shut down a city for seven months in deep conviction in ahimsa, and yet there is no film about them—in fact they barely appeared on international news channels. When they did appear on the BBC and CNN, they’re portrayed by apparently morally outraged white men with trembling voices as demonic forces against Thaksin the Champion of Democracy.
It’s a waste of energy to fight such a monolith. I minimize my contact with toxin and focus on my real vocation, which is to be the truthful witness. Everything else is irrelevant. No dogma, no icing, just the naked thing itself. Our religion of cinema provides a healthier outlet for our righteous rage. We don’t drone-blitz or blow up people. We serve truth and beauty best by holding up a mirror.
Chapter 1 is almost done; I couldn’t trim it until I’d done the first cut of the rest. Last week a pessimist told me the military government could try to ban BK Joyride as a potential threat to unity, and that if Thaksin’s party returns to power, it would be banned anyway. However, unless they physically restrain us, I’m going to cite the censors’ historic ruling to exempt Censor Must Die from the censorship process, “because it is made from events that actually happened” (as with news footage) and not submit to the censors. Finding an audience shouldn’t be difficult; even if only 10% of the people who took part in the protests came to see themselves, we’d be fine.
NB: Would you have an advice to formulate for filmmakers in repressive or even dictatorial situations from all over the world?
IK: If you want to kill yourself, don’t. You might as well make courageous films that get you or your future killed instead. I’m not really joking. Perhaps that’s what I’m doing.
Oppression can embitter us, or we could use it to sharpen our conviction, forcing us to chrystalise our reason for making films. We should make the films that we really want to make as inspired by our situation. It’s easy to tell the expected banana republic story that confirms the cultural masters’ prejudices and worldview of us as being not quite as human as they are, which is what you must do to have a career. But I hope you’ll tell your own story, however hard that might be, so that the film will have been grown organically in your own psychic soil.
There is so much of what I call designer protest art and film, dictated by or targeting international curators who set the agenda while the artists dance to the synthetic drumbeat. It’s not just unsatisfying but adds to the potential for violence. It’s not that I don’t know what appeals to the gods or what you think is cool, but it is my mission, of peace, to undermine such repressive and corrosive, dehumanising colonial preconceptions.
I think if you’re compelled to tell stories on film then you will do it anyway, regardless. The only way to stay healthy, fulfilled and productive is to keep on going. Make a film with your phone if you must. The only way I’ve been able to take on such a mammoth project as BK Joyride is because working on it saves me from despair. Do whatever you’re allowed to do by circumstances. For instance, my natural canvas is actually quite vast because of my fascination with colonialism and the dark side of our history, but given my circumstances, I have to find a minimalist and nimble approach around both the fascist and the budget problems. Not many people get the chance to make what they dream, but you shouldn’t give up on the story. You could end up with something far more inventive.
The important thing is to keep on pushing the envelope. Moralistic freaks and megalomaniacs are always pushing forward their line; masters of the universe are always subverting and closing one more door. If we don’t push back in our own work in our own small way, we’d soon have no place to stand at all. Even if you might not be able to release the film before you die, at least you will have made it, no regrets.
If you’re up to it, you could fight the oppression directly by trying to amend bad laws. The main contemporary art museum, the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC) has been hosting meetings to reform cultural laws. I’ve gone to every single one, to make sure they’ll include the end of the banning of films in the new law bring written in parliament (after the coup, they have these sideline meetings for every profession/ town/ special interest, which then submits their dream version to legislators). We learned how all cinemas in Thailand are owned by just 2-3 companies, two of which are related and all of which also own the major studios; how independent producers are charged a substantial ‘theatre deterioration fee’, a new invention voted into being, oddly, by the film producers’ federation (including the directors’ guild), which is chaired by the representative of a national chain of multiplexes. In other words, the theatre owner heads the filmmakers’ union. We can expect no organized industry muscle to fight for our rights, and filmmakers who do are blackballed, so almost no one comes.
It’s unlikely that a military government would end the banning of films, but there was unbelievably good news when one of the judges in administrative court said Insects in the Backyard, the other banned film that’s suing the censors, was not obscene and should not have been banned and the censors had infringed on the filmmaker’s human rights. But there was no Christmas present to Thai cinema from the Admin Court after all. The verdict on Dec 25, 2015 was to keep the ban on Insects in the Backyard. The director has had enough and is not appealing the verdict, so we’re the only ones left fighting now. They had to wait five years for that. We’ve waited three now for our day in court for Shakespeare Must Die.
The same museum also hosted a Free Ganja law reform meeting to decriminalise marijuana. In total contrast to our meetings, this was so packed the room overflowed. There was reason, open-mindedness and warmth, from the doctors speaking about cancer and glaucoma treatment to the observer from the military government (I’ve never seen one at our lonely meetings, obviously not important enough). Cultural law reform meetings have been nasty, hate-filled and haunted with futility, sparsely attended by entrenched enemies.
Judging from this, I might soon be able to smoke weed in front of a policeman, but I still won’t be able to make a Thai stoner movie. It’s possible that the world-famous Thai ganja will be free before Thai cinema is free.