Thailand's Pen-ek Ratanaruang on Risking It All to Film the Paradoxes of Thai Democracy (Q&A)

Pen-ek Ratanaruang P

The celebrated director and his producer discuss their daring new doc "Paradoxocracy," being sabotaged by their own cinema and turning censorship into an artistic opportunity.

Pen-ek Ratanaruang, one of Thailand’s most celebrated working directors, has often represented his country abroad at international festivals -- including Cannes, Berlin and Venice – and through films sent to Hollywood as Thailand’s official entry to the Oscars (6ixtynin9, 1999; Transistor Love Story, 2001; Headshot, 2011).

But with his latest project, the 51-year-old director has trained his attention inward, exploring the fraught and complicated modern political history of his homeland in a documentary he says was made with only the Thai audience -- and his own curiosity -- in mind.

Paradoxocracy, co-directed with Pen-ek’s longtime friend and producer, Pasakorn Pramoolwong, begins with the 1932 Siamese Revolution -- which transformed Thailand from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional one -- and works its way to the present day, chronicling the country’s major political revolutions, movements and countless coups along the way. Using a combination of archival footage, voice-overs and interviews with 15 unnamed academics, activists and political leaders, the film presents the directors’ personal journey to come to an understanding of how their country arrived at its current state of near-constant political division and dysfunction.

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Given Thailand’s strict lese majeste laws, which outlaw any perceived disparagement of the royal family, the directors say they had to heavily self-censor their account of recent Thai politics. The film also suffered several significant requests for “adjustments” from the Thai censorship board before it could be publicly screened. And once approved for public exhibition, the directors’ challenges continued, when during a two-week screening run in Bangkok they discovered that Major Cineplex Group, the leading local cinema chain that was screening the film, was intentionally trying to dissuade people from buying tickets, for fear that too much exposure for Paradoxocracy might result in political reprisal.

Now recuperating from the grueling process of getting the film to cinemas and struggling to prevent it from being sabotaged, the directors plan to next mount a limited release in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, with a nationwide university tour to follow.

While on break, Pen-ek and Passakorn spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about facing their own political ignorance, turning censorship challenges into artistic opportunities and the ongoing struggle for true democracy in Thailand.

The Hollywood Reporter: What made you want to make this film?

Pen-ek Ratanaruang: This division that has existed in our country the past five years. You can’t talk about politics with your family and your friends. People choose their colors – red or yellow (Thailand’s two major political activist groups are identified by the red or yellow colors they wear at protests and actions). But I couldn’t choose. I didn’t know what color to ally myself with. And I became kind of frustrated. You have to choose, otherwise you’re called an insulting name – "salim," which is a Thai jelly dessert, with lots of mixed up colors in it. It’s quite derogatory. I didn’t care about that really, but it’s just frustrating. You can’t even discuss. 

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Pasakorn Pramoolwong: It was also just curiosity. It was a two-year process. My life and the political life of this country had previously run on parallel lines – you know, never intersecting. But one day I woke up with some curiosity about myself. I wondered, “What’s wrong with me?’ Why don’t I know anything about the political history of my country?" I didn’t have any baseline knowledge of the story of democracy in Thailand. I didn’t even know what "democracy" really means.

Pen-ek: We always went to vote, but like a lot of people, we didn’t really know anything. While researching, we went back to look at standard Thai textbooks, and we found that very little is written about this in the education system -- just two lines in official school books about the birth of democracy in Thailand. Not only that, but the textbooks suggest that King Rama 7 is actually the father of democracy -- that he gave us democracy. But, in reality, that’s not the case. There was a huge revolution and fights and a struggle to win power for the people – but we were never told that in school. We were all told that this king was so generous that he gave us democracy.

THR: What was your research process like?

Pen-ek: Pasakorn did most of it [Laughs]. He compiled everything into a thick book of articles and excerpts arranged chronologically for me to read. We even read several texts in English that are forbidden in this country. We spent about a year and a half reading and researching and talking with lots of people -- before filming anything.

Pasakorn: We had to do it this way, because there is no text in Thailand that tells the complete story of Thai democracy. The history is hidden in many books -- there’s a piece of the story here, a piece there. You have to compile it. 

THR: Given the sensitivity surrounding the monarchy and the political situation in Thailand, were you concerned, as you set out, about whether you’d be able to get away with making the film you wanted to make?

Pen-ek: We weren’t concerned at all; we were too naive. And we made this film for ourselves. The fact that people were able to see it in the cinema was like a byproduct. We just wanted to do it for ourselves. There’s a huge amount of stuff that we had to self-censor, before they officially censored us, because we knew there was no way we could get away with it. But all of that is in our minds and memories – and that’s what everyone involved in the project wanted most, to understand these questions for themselves. But yes, there’s a huge amount we couldn’t use. I have other things I want to do -- I don’t want to go to jail right now.

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THR: So the film displays the ways the government required you to censor it quite boldly. The Thai dialog goes silent in several segments -- for as long as 30 seconds -- and the English subtitles are blacked out in an intentionally garish way. Why did you decide to do it this way?

Pen-ek: Well, the film itself then became a work of art. It’s no longer simply a documentary, because it has all these scars. At this late year in our modern history, we still can’t talk about these things openly -- the film itself became an artifact of that. It became a victim. But we came to this technique kind of by accident, after we were told we had to censor some parts and thought about how to deal with that. I think it works. From an artistic point of view, I think it made the film even stronger. They didn’t realize it, but they kind of did us a favor.

THR: What was your experience like with the censorship board?

Pasakorn: Not bad, actually. They were trying to help us get the film into theaters, so the public could see it. They picked out five segments in the film that were “problematic” for them. So we tried to work out what to do.

Pen-ek: So we went back to them with this idea – that we were going to black out the English subtitles and make the Thai dialog silent in these parts. I said I would cooperate, as long as the audience knows that the film has been censored. I was sure they would say no. But they said OK. It was strange, because they’ve taken a lot of shit for that in the press. Everyone now knows what they forced us to do. But they said they already have enough lese majeste cases – over 10,000 in the courts now. But the cases that actually matter are just like 100. One of the guys on the censorship board is an attorney, and he said, we already have enough cases. We’ll just do what we have to do to help you stay out of trouble.

THR: What were your expectations going in?

Pen-ek: We thought it would pass without any cuts. We made a few versions of the film. And finally, the last version, we thought – it’s really just educational. The censors will have no problem at all. We didn’t go down the route of the cliche, angry artist who fights with the system. I didn’t want the film to be provocative for no reason. But it was scary when it came time to actually release the film. A political group might object for some reason and interfere with it. I didn't doubt the film, but I did doubt society. It's very hard to predict how people will interpret or respond to a film. It's like that with any film you make. But in this case, you could say the stakes were higher. 

THR: How did the audience react to the blacked-out sections in the screenings you attended?

Pen-ek: They were all a little different. Thai people laughed quite a lot – maybe a nervous laugh. For foreigners, most people didn’t laugh – most were just like, "What the hell?" It was very mixed and interesting to see.

THR: So what would you say is the film’s political point of view?

Pen-ek: The film very explicitly tries to say you have embrace conflict, but you don’t have to hit each other in the face. You have to keep on debating and keep struggling – that’s democracy.

One critic wrote this huge thesis that went on and on about how in the middle the film is and how it will benefit no one, because it doesn’t take a stand and doesn’t go deep enough. What I wanted to tell him is that, you know what, it took us so much time and effort to make the film this simple. Our earlier versions were the more provocative versions he wanted to see. It took a lot of effort to become this simple. 

THR: You don’t introduce or identify any of the interviewees with subtitles, which is quite uncommon for a documentary. The audience is given no indication of who these people are and what their background is. They just appear on the screen and start talking.

Pen-ek: We didn’t want the audience to know who they are. It wasn’t about protecting them or anything like that – they could easily be identified, if someone really wanted to find out. I just wanted people to listen to what they say. Knowing who they are might tell people what to think about them before they even start speaking. If you have no idea who they are, you have to actually listen to them to form an opinion. It’s an automatic thing to expect in a documentary to the see the name and title, which sort of tells you automatically what to think or expect. But it never comes.

THR: The monarchy plays a major part in the earlier sections of the film, which covers early 20th century history in Thailand. But as we approach the present day, all discussion of the monarchy abruptly drops out. Did you feel you were able to tell the full story?

Pen-ek: No. We were very frustrated. What can you do, you know? We have to wait until the country changes. We didn’t have any agenda to attack the monarchy at all. But not being able just to refer to them – or even compliment the monarchy? You can’t even risk that: a compliment. It’s frustrating.

THR: Is it possible that you’ll attempt to release a different version of the film outside of Thailand, or would even that jeopardize your livelihood here?

Pen-ek: Well, the film ends with, “To be continued … ” So it’s not finished. We plan to do a second and maybe even a third part. But for the next one, we can’t use the blacked-out subtitles and silent dialog effect again. That’s a one-off. It’s like The Beatles with the White Album. You can’t do the While Album twice. So, I think we’re like 80 percent sure that the second part will not see the light of day in this country. No fucking way. We’re currently researching it. I don’t know what we’ll do with it. Probably just make it for ourselves.

THR: Do you plan to show these films at festivals?

Pen-ek: Lots of festival programmers have asked for it, but I’ve said no to everybody. I won’t show this film in any festivals abroad.

THR: Why?

Pen-ek: Number one: Like I said, it’s not completed. Number two: I want to assure Thai people that I'm not doing this for any external motive – not for glory, definitely not for money. If it wins any prizes, we won’t accept them. I’m well known here, but people associate me with the world’s film festivals. I don’t want anybody to talk about this film in that way – that, oh, Pen-ek makes films for foreigners at festivals. This film is for us and for Thai people. I’m not sure how much it would resonate with foreign audiences anyways – I think you might need some personal understanding and connection to Thailand to get it.

THR: There have been reports that Major Cineplex, where it was shown, intentionally made it hard for people to buy tickets for the film. What was going on there? 

Pen-ek: It was the first time in the history of the world, where a cinema put a film in their theaters but tried to not sell any tickets. They lied to us and lied to people trying to attend the film. But they couldn’t stop showing it, because all the media had their eyes on them. They didn’t list the film on their website, they took it down from the signs. When people called to ask when it was playing, they would say it wasn’t showing there. Then people would call us and we’d say, "No, they’re lying, just go and buy a ticket at the booth." Thankfully, they would still sell you a ticket if you showed up and directly asked to buy one. They were just paranoid and afraid of political repercussions. This is the climate we live in. They panic. But it’s very baseless. There were also two other cinema chains that were early allies with us, but they pulled out once they saw the rough cut.

THR: How did you cope with that?

Pen-ek: A few days ago, I was so frustrated with the cinema, I cried. I lost it. I never cry – at least not because of anything to do with filmmaking. Maybe I make other people around me on set cry – I’m a director, after all [Laughs]. I never cry. But I did. I just felt so frustrated and terrible. They treated us so dishonorably. In front of us, they were kissing our asses. In a meeting they told us, “Pen-ek, you’re one of our country’s greatest directors, we’re here to serve you. We’ll do anything we can to help you.” But then once we were gone, they were doing everything they could to prevent people from seeing the film. They made sure it was listed nowhere – not on their website, not on the board.  

THR: Well, despite all that, there have been reports that nearly every screening was sold out.

Pen-ek: The reaction of the people in the cinema was really a gift. And from what I’ve heard, people in the cinema have felt that the film was a gift to them. People applauded in every screening. It meant something to them.