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Illustration by Chris Morris
Go with his nickname, Joe, rather than trying to pronounce director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s long Thai name and he’ll still speak freely and gently — a mode important to a man at the center of a movement for democracy in the arts in his politically troubled homeland. Recent street riots between red- and yellow-shirted factions have turned deadly, but the director is quick to remind you that, “All my films are gentle.” That includes, of course, his latest Cannes Competition entry, “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” his fifth entry on the Croissette. Weerasethakul spoke with THR’s Jonathan Landreth about growing up in Thailand’s Northeast, the ongoing political clashes there and dealing with his country’s animist beliefs.
THR: What about your new film’s accessibility? Does it ask a lot of the audience’s imagination to grasp the world of Thai belief?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I don’t worry about that because I think it’s pretty universal, and I always believe that not every film is for everyone. If you worry about that, you shouldn’t make films.
THR: “Uncle Boonmee” is about where you grew up, in the northeast of Thailand. How do you describe the place in your film?
Weerasethakul: The Northeast is arid and dry. It’s the most hard part of our country in terms of agriculture, so the people are pretty poor. They migrate a lot to work in the big cities like Bangkok. We have a very big cultural influence from Laos and Cambodia, so there are a lot of animist beliefs and tales that I grew up with but that I had never really explored before. In this film, I give an impression of the landscape and the tales.
THR: Is there any link between your film’s story and the fractious political street clashes going on in Bangkok now?
Weerasethakul: Not directly. What’s happened in Bangkok now is a class war. In Thailand, there are such distinct classes. People are always being oppressed, either economically or socially, and it was the same thing during the ’60s with the farmers who were trying to have their voices heard. There’s been neglect. During that time, with the Communism from Laos and Vietnam, it was bound to happen that they turned to these ideas.
THR: Were you parents wealthy or poor?
Weerasethakul: They are middle class. They are from Bangkok, but they moved to the Northeast when there was nothing there. They were pioneers for that region.
THR: What did they do for a living?
Weerasethakul: They are doctors. Back then, even now, when you graduate, you have a choice to select your city, and nobody selected this region, so they did. They were a part of the first group of doctors who built a hospital in Khon Kaen. That’s the city I’m from.
THR: Some of the medical equipment in Uncle Boonmee’s room recalls your late father’s deathbed and you’ve talked a lot about reincarnation. Is your father guiding you in this film?
Weerasethakul: I’m pretty skeptical myself (about reincarnation) but in the course of researching this movie, these things kept creeping up: cases of people who remember their past lives, with documents and witnesses, so I don’t deny it. I just think it’s fascinating, whether it’s true or false.
THR: When you’re writing, do you focus only on the script?
Weerasethakul: I just do scripting and meditating, Vipassana, which is concentrated on your breath.
THR: How does it help your script writing?
Weerasethakul: It helped my love life (laughs) and it helped my writing also. It just helped me concentrate. Normally I’m doing things quickly, and inconsiderately, but meditation calmed me down. Because this film is about love and relationships, it helped me to reflect on how I relate to myself and other people.
THR: Is there a moral to the story you’re telling in the film?
Weerasethakul: I’m really not sure what the audience will get because normally I don’t like to have a message of my work. I think film is more than that. It should be more open to many different interpretations because we approach it from so many different backgrounds. Especially for this film, which has six reels, each one different in location and style. With me, there’s a lot of talk about life as nonsense. It just goes on. So it is with cinema, too.
THR: Your film deals with the supernatural and with past lives. Do you use any kind of special effects to achieve this on film?
Weerasethakul: We try to do this using a mixture of video graphics and classical effects, but still I don’t think you can tell we used the computer because it’s really like what an old film does, you know, dissolve and, for something like a ghost, we use a mirror. This film is very old fashioned in a way … because it is a tribute to my memory of the old cinema I grew up with.
THR: What’s going on in the still photo from “Uncle Boonmee” with the middle aged woman sitting alone on a porch?
Weerasethakul: She’s the wife who died 14 years ago but who has reappeared to take care of (Uncle Boonmee) when he’s going to die.
THR: Does your film sensationalize Thai animist beliefs or treat them with some spirituality?
Weerasethakul: Because this film is also a tribute to old Thai cinema, there are some elements, some characters, some lighting styles that are used, but in general the ideas of reincarnation and belief in ghosts is very much in our blood. I would say about 90% of Thais believe in that. If you see the recent demonstrations and clashes in Bangkok, there are a lot of animist traditions in the protests.
THR: Does what’s happening in Bangkok now startle you?
Weerasethakul: I think it’s part of the cycle, but what’s interesting is that I think this is one of the biggest clashes of class, focused on the underprivileged. Before, it was more a clash between the army and the middle class, but now it’s about the poor. At the same time, it’s a different kind of war, because there’s the Internet and many new tactics come into play. More than ever, you can see clearly just how Thailand is really shaped by the media and how the place has become a propaganda machine. But before long, people will start to notice when their web sites disappear.
THR: Are you and your artist peers challenging the government’s crackdown on free media in Thailand?
Weerasethakul: We are. Just yesterday I was at the Ministry of Culture to protest about the lack of transparency in film funding. We’re getting more active and I think we can become the change, but I admit that Thailand is a very conservative country so it’s a really hard fight.
THR: The poor red shirt protestors look up to Thaksin Shinawatra, a man of incredible wealth. Do you find this ironic?
Weerasethakul: I think the guy has become their savior. They can project themselves on him and depend on him. Under his administration, there was money pouring into the villages but whether it’s transparent is another issue. At least the poor saw money and development in their region, so that’s why.
THR: What kind of government funding is going into films now?
Weerasethakul: Early this year, a new government film fund of 200 million Thai Baht ($6.2 million) was announced, but half of the fund is going to one film directed by a Thai prince to do a historical film. It’s quite complicated to explain, but for me it’s not quite right to set this st
THR: Do you sit with an editor in a studio day and night?
Weerasethakul: We work separately, because right now it’s very easy to edit on a personal computer and I edit in another city and the editor is in Bangkok. Sometimes we compare versions; sometimes we divide the work. I tell him what I am trying to achieve but also show him what I mean and send it to him.
When will “Uncle Boonmee” release in Thailand?
Weerasethakul: I have no idea. It was rather a complicated issue of finding a theater. Every time I release a movie I lose money because of the advertising and promotion, so I’m not sure if it’s worth it, even though I would love to show it at home.
THR: Where does your Kick the Machine Films name come from?
Weerasethakul: I had a small gallery with my friends, more than 10 years ago, and we had a screening program. The name came from “kick the projector,” you know, “turn on the projector,” but it’s also a bit anti-establishment, personal and homemade.
THR: What did you make of your time at the Chicago Art Institute and when were you there?
Weerasethakul: I was there from 1994-1997 and, what can I say, it was the time that I was first exposed to different kinds of movies, especially experimental films. In the school, they really focus on American experimental films like those of Maya Deren. So, I’m pretty in to those. My impression of the U.S. is from these films. I’m pretty ignorant about the rest of the landscape.
THR: I can’t imagine so different a place from the Northeast of Thailand as Chicago. Was it tough to live there?
Weerasethakul: At first, yes, I had to adapt quite a lot about my English and learn about seniority in a place where you can sense the equality. Honestly, I had to feel something about racism, too, being Asian.
THR: Did you find the Thai community in Chicago?
Weerasethakul: Yeah, but we were not really hanging out, because the school was in town and there were not many Thai students there. So I made a lot of friends who were not Thai.
THR: Do you have a family, a lover, is family a part of your life?
Weerasethakul: What do you mean? Do you mean am I married? I have a lover, he is a student (laughs), an artist, a photographer.
THR: Does your sexual orientation affect the way you make your films? Do you think of yourself as a gay filmmaker?
Weerasethakul: I don’t think so. Some of the films I’ve made talk about this subject, but something like this new movie, no. I don’t think it matters.
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