Apichatpong Weerasethakul - Syndromes and Censorship

Syndromes and Censorship

In 2006, Apichatpong released a feature film, Syndromes and a Century, which was commissioned by Peter Sellars for the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth. It premiered at the 63rd Venice Film Festival and screened at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival and many other festivals.

The film's Thai release, originally slated for April 19, 2007, was indefinitely delayed after Thai Censorship Board demanded the removal of four scenes. Apichatpong refused to recut the film and said he would withdraw it from domestic circulation.

He explained his reasons for doing so in an article in the Bangkok Post:

I, as a filmmaker, treat my works as I do my own sons or daughters. I don't care if people are fond of them or despise them, as long as I created them with my best intentions and efforts. If these offspring of mine cannot live in their own country for whatever reason, let them be free. There is no reason to mutilate them in fear of the system. Otherwise there is no reason for one to continue making art.

Two of the "sensitive" scenes involve doctors engaging in "inappropriate" conduct (kissing and drinking liquor) in a hospital; the others depict a Buddhist monk playing a guitar and two monks playing with a remote-control flying saucer. The censors refused to return the print unless the requested cuts were made.

Later in 2007, the film was shown twice in privately arranged screenings at the Alliance française in Bangkok.

The censorship of the film came about as a motion picture ratings system was being considered by the junta-appointed National Legislative Assembly. A replacement for the 1930 film act, the ratings law contained a restrictive ratings structure and retained the government's powers to censor and ban films it deemed would "undermine or disrupt social order and moral decency, or that might impact national security or the pride of the nation". The ratings board would comprise mainly bureaucrats in the Ministry of Culture, as well as members of the Royal Thai Police.

To oppose the draft law, Apichatpong and other directors formed the Free Thai Cinema Movement.

"We disagree with the right of the state to ban films," Apichatpong was quoted as saying. "There already are other laws that cover potential wrongdoings by filmmakers."

Ladda Tangsupachai, director of the Ministry of Culture's Cultural Surveillance Department, said the ratings law was needed because moviegoers in Thailand are "uneducated". "They're not intellectuals, that's why we need ratings," she was quoted as saying.

Ladda also said: "Nobody goes to see films by Apichatpong. Thai people want to see comedy. We like a laugh."

The filmmakers sought a self-regulation approach, with an independent body run by film professionals. "Free from state influence, this agency would be responsible for monitoring and assigning rating, and it would bear direct responsibilities towards the audience, who in turn would monitor the performance of the agency. This way, the film industry will be liberated from the state's shackles and begin to have a dialogue with the public," Apichatpong had written in a commentary earlier in the year.

Protests against the draft ratings law were held outside the Parliament building in Bangkok, with Apichatpong and fellow Thai directors Wisit Sasanatieng and Pen-Ek Ratanaruang taking turns holding banners that read "No Freedom. No Democracy. No Peace"

The ratings law, with the cut-and-ban categories left intact, was passed on December 20, 2007.

This first English-language volume on Apichatpong Weerasethakul will be published March 2009. James Quandt, the editor and author of the analytical career overview which introduces the book, is one of the foremost film critics and curators working in North America today. Further contributors include the cultural and political theorist Benedict Anderson, filmmaker Mark Cousins, art curator Karen Newman, critics Tony Rayns and Kong Rithdee, and the Academy Award winning actress and cinephile Tilda Swinton.

The movie was ranked by Film Comment magazine as #4 on "the best films of the decade: an international poll of critics, programmers, academics, filmmakers".

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