Making A New Thai Movie: A Messy Script War
The demonstrations have ended in Bangkok, but the Thai script wars continue. This reflects the fact that both the government and the Reds Shirts are deeply divided. There is one thing that binds them. There are certain universal tropes used to silence or dismiss their critics (Thailand isn’t unique in using them). In waging the propaganda wars, the advantage is to the government as they have more resources to bring to bear to censor their critics. For example blocking websites for not telling what they deem to be truth.
There is the rub. The truth. How it is told and who tells it and what is to be done with those who seek to tell a different truth? Different truths like ambiguous heroes can cause confusion. Thus the official justification for bans, censorship and detentions.
This is not a time of tolerance for differing views and opinions in Thailand. The consensus is that if you follow one side or the other, then you show your loyalty by following the official script of received truth.
To go off script or raise questions about the truthfulness of the official script of either side is only done by various ‘troublemakers’ who are like wannabe film makers who see a different movie from the one the director, writer and producer have envisioned, follow the pathway.
This monopoly of truth model works off an officially sanctioned script. During Thaksin Shinawatra’s term as prime minister, the government used a similar process and tropes to silence critics. Thai governments have a history of guarding the script of the movie they want others to see and believe about Thailand.
As with any big feature film, resources are allocated to ensuring that approved script is the one that gets made. In the political realm, the censor is like an assistant director whose job is given to see that the cast is on script and outsiders trying to alter the script are marched off the set.
So who are these troublemakers, those wanting to question the script, the director’s decision about a scene, and details of who is the hero and who is the villain? If you watch enough movies and live in Thailand for twenty years, you understand that one man’s hero is another man’s villain. And politics becomes a kind of ‘casting’ war.
I’ll like to share my observations about these critics of another side’s cast and script.
Bangkok Chattering Class. The middle-class in Bangkok and Thailand is quite large. But it is only a segment of this class that you find the influential chattering class. These are Thais who are willing to publicly express their political views publicly. This chattering class is, itself, divided. A large number believe that the government has a brilliant, truthful script that goes to the heart of the matter. These are supporters (not critics) and they have no problem getting airtime and print media exposure to sing the praises of the government’s script. They wouldn’t change a word. The heroes and villains emerge with clarity and conviction. They believe in the movie being made like film financiers. If they have doubts, they kept them to themselves.
Then there are critics of the second group who want to overrun the set and make a different movie.
The second group of the Bangkok Chattering Class who nest among the intellectuals, academics, journalists, NGOs – the same educational background as first group. But the second, smaller, group from this pool wants to rewrite or tear up the government’s script and substitute it with their own script. They support those who want to shoot a movie with a different cast of heroes and villains. The government resents the interference, dismisses the alternative script as shoddy and dishonest, and brands it as dangerous heresy. The government does everything in its power to make sure that its supporters come out to sing the praises of their script and demonize the alternative one.
While government censorship follows a similar pattern the world over, there are cultural specific techniques that each government employs. How does the Thai government sideline the unaccommodating Bangkok Chattering Class whose members are on the opposite side of the script wars?
More often than not, when a member of the critical member of Bangkok Chattering Class was educated abroad, his/her views are ignored. This foreign exposure means they really can’t understand the Thai script. Such a critic is dismissed as not being a ‘real’ Thai and so he or she has no business commenting on a script that only a true Thai would understand. It is an excellent mechanism for exclusion of another’s opinion or evidence, and it is often effective. The foreign educated Thai critic may be tolerated as a maverick suitable to make a small budget art house film, but nothing about the big budget, big audience film that has been written and in the process of being shot.
Bangkok isn’t Thailand.
Upcountry Chattering Class. As we have learned from recent events, the Upcountry Chattering Class have found their political voice. Given that the Upcountry Chattering Class is substantially larger than the Bangkok Chattering Class, there is a constant battle to patrol what the Upcountry Chattering Class is saying, where they are saying it, who is saying it and who is listening. Not just in Bangkok but for the entire country. They have laid their cards on the table. They don’t like the government’s script. They don’t believe that is a movie that works. Like the foreign educated Bangkok Chattering Class, these critics need to be sidelined. The justification is that the Upcountry Chattering Class is too uneducated and therefore their opinions and ideas should be dismissed. These people shouldn’t get ideas that they know how to make a movie.
Non-Thai Critics. The foreigners. This is a Thai movie. What business do foreigners have coming onto the set, reading the script, ripping it apart, asking why the casting was done in this way, and not that way. A headache for any filmmaker: the invasion on the set from outsiders. How to sideline the non-Thai critics? Reach for levers that are connected to the Nativist Instinct. This is a surefire way in Thailand and in most countries works on the emotions of a significant number of people. Foreigners who have lived in Thailand for many years, no matter how fluent in Thai or how deep their understanding of the Thai culture and society, remain an object of suspicion. It is bad enough they’ve wandered onto the set, and now they want to sit in the director’s chair. That’s bound to cause some friction by butting in and inviting themselves to the script writing session.
Exceptional Foreigners. There is always an exception to celebrate certain non-Thai. When a foreigner says this is the best script ever written since Iron Man2, he will be celebrated as someone who can read a Thai script and absorb all of the complexity of the plot, story and characters – forget that he may not read a word of Thai or have never even lived in Thailand. As long as he appreciates the script that matters.
The Script Wars. The Land of Smiles movie isn’t being remade. The question is what will this new movie look like? The script remains in rewrite. These script wars have been around for many years in Thai politics, as one set of cast, an entirely new cast and crew replace writers, directors and producers, sometimes by a coup, sometimes by an election. It is a crazy way to make a movie. But all movie making activity is a little crazy, risky, and controversial. In terms of staking out and defining the official, authentic movie to make, the government follows a long tradition. And if the Red Shirt side were returned to power in an election, the probability is great that they would use their mandate to write a very different movie. And the whole process would start over as if on a perpetual loops. Before a movie has mass audience appeal, it needs to connect with the mass audience. Both sides make the mistake of defining the audience as composed only of their supporters.
After having lived for couple of decades in Bangkok, I don’t pretend to have the answer to how that loop is closed or to expand the audience or end the script wars between rival factions. What I believe, though, is this. Such battles over what belongs in the script and who plays the role of the hero and who is the villain will not end soon.
We are limited in what we can know and we are limited in how we know things. Humility is acceptance of those imitations. An awareness shaped by humility tells us that a script can always be made better; but know that some people will always hate whatever movie you make. That’s life. If you are making a movie, and millions of people are complaining that they are being assigned the role of extras in a terrible movie, you can deflect the criticism by pointing to an evil offshore alternative moviemaker, or you can listen to the objections made by the critics, and address them on the merits. Who gets speaking parts and who gets screen time is always a headache for any moviemaker. Politicians have the same problem.
Political scripts like movie scripts can never please everyone. But a political script is not an entertainment that last an hour and a half and you can walk out of the cinema and into your real life. Political scripts are about your real life every day. That’s why they are important to recognize that in a democracy everyone can and should be a critic of the movie making process. Because they have to live with the results long after the popcorn has run out.