Above: The Convert.
Documentaries and their cinema verité cousins were the strongest part of the Bangkok International Film Festival this year. The best documentaries about Thailand—and about Southeast Asian countries, in general—explore that country’s seamy political or social underside, so it was disappointing when a Japanese documentary about child prostitution in Thailand, Children in the Dark, was pulled from the BKKIFF. The festival is run by the Tourist Association of Thailand, and, at the last moment, the TAT decided it gave the wrong "image" of the country. Nevertheless, the “Documentary Showcase” section of the festival remained strongest.
This section included two docs about Thailand’s violence-torn Southern region. Kong Rithdee & Panu Aree's The Convert is about June, from a Buddhist family, who marries a Muslim from the South. She finds herself increasingly enmeshed in her husband's world, especially as his interest in meditative Islam grows deeper. When she converts, she is gently—but pointedly—told that she is not allowed to worship the Buddha anymore. Once in a while, she finds time to visit her home in central Thailand, but when she attends a Buddhist ordination ceremony there, June stands apart from her colorfully dressed neighbors by wearing a black outfit and a black veil, and just to add a little style, black sunglasses.
Although June has been working part-time as a magazine editor and her husband is a musician, they decide to leave these occupations and pursue spirituality on a southern island, opening a fruit stand to support themselves. The stand is not a success, so the two "retreat from their retreat" back to their old secular life. There is a sense of failure, but they are still in love and are now starting a family.
Exploring an area that often defies reasonableness, this is a very levelheaded film. A local film critic whose taste runs toward the new and daring, Kong is himself a Muslim, so I'm betting that his own personal story resonates somehow with this couple's simple—but not entirely easy—journey.
Above: Citizen Juling.
In Ing K.’s Citizen Juling, another young Buddhist girl, who is killed while working as a schoolteacher in the Muslim Deep South. Her slow death lying comatose on a hospital bed pulls at the nation’s heartstrings—and inflames emotion. The documentary makes use of footage from a couple of official trips made by Senator Kraisak Choonavan, a former PM's son, to the southern provinces. On both trips, he visits Juling’s hospital bed and inspects the aftermath of violence that has taken place in the South.
On the second visit, Kraisak’s finds a friend, who is a moderate Muslim, lying in a hospital bed, shot by an unknown assailant. Nobody is sure whether to suspect renegade Thai police or radical Muslims. Unlike Juling, he will live, but he may not—rather symbolically—completely recover the use of his voice.
Some local critics have suggested that Citizen Juling’s wide canvas bespeaks a lack of focus. The opening sequences are from Bangkok at the time of last year’s non-violent coup. Amidst a carnival atmosphere, where children play near the soldier’s tanks, Ing K asks Thais what they think of the murder of Juling, exploring some of the paradoxes in people’s minds about violence, the South, ethnicity and the concept of citizenship. By the doc’s end, we have also visited Juling’s family in northern Thailand and have moved on to hill tribe people and their difficulties integrating into the Thai polity.
One could argue that the experience of minority tribes in the north provides a metaphor for those of Muslims in the south, but it’s also true that Ing's documentaries have always been a grab bag of disparate stuff, some of it memorable. An early documentary about logging in Cambodia had quite a bit of forgettable random footage. Nevertheless, I remembered the part where she asked Haing Ngor, the star of The Killing Fields, about his illegal logging profits, some years later, when he was mysteriously murdered in the US.
Above: The Betrayal.
Like Ing K., Ellen Kuras seems to have gotten her start with a documentary about Cambodia—as its cinematographer—but she has since worked, in the same capacity, on several mainstream movies. These include The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Be Kind Rewind. Now she has half-returned to Asia. The Betrayal, her (co-)directorial debut, starts out in Laos and follows the odyssey of a Lao family—a pro-American general, his wife, and their children—which is divided not so much by the war, as by the peace that follows, and reunited, after a fashion, in the States.
The title refers to several “betrayals.” Because Laos was never in the limelight, the US government conveniently forgot old-regime soldiers like the father in Betrayal: he served the Americans loyally, but then—already dispirited by his own failures--felt discarded without compunction when the political tide turned. The general’s wife, on the other hand, feels guilt and betrayal over more personal issues. She has left two of her daughters behind in Laos, opting to go with her other children to the US. Years after the General’s disappearance to a "rehabilitation" island, she finds out he is now living in Florida with a new family. She and her children, on the other hand, live in a dangerous part of Brooklyn: although initially full of dreams of their new home, they feel betrayed, in a sense, by the reality of America.
Kuras lets the members of the Lao family tell their own tale. Rithy Panh's Paper Cannot Wrap Embers, in which Cambodian country girls who have come to Phnom Penh as prostitutes recount their stories, has a much more rehearsed quality. Although the film was included in the documentary section—and, I think, accurately reveals one of the sadder aspects of post-war Cambodia--it appears to be more of a cinema verité feature, where the girls have been extensively coached and scripted.
*** Additional coverage of the BKKIFF08 can be found in Part II