“Things about Home” – A conversation with filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Khon Kaen City plays a prominent role in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s most recent feature film, Cemetery of Splendour. The filmmaker’s childhood hometown, where his parents were working as doctors, has grown from a small provincial town to a metropolis with its first skyscrapers.

After winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010, Apichatpong returned to Khon Kaen a hometown hero. The city was full of congratulation signs. Recently, the filmmaker made another visit to his hometown for a short film project, using Khon Kaen as a setting once more.

The Isaan Record took the opportunity to talk to Apichatpong about the role of the city in his films, his views on political issues in Isaan, and his current projects in Colombia.

IR: Do you come back to Khon Kaen often?

AW: Not that often. When I get to come back to Khon Kaen, it’s mostly to work on a film or because of family obligations.

IR: Khon Kaen serves as the setting for two of your feature films. How do you think the landscape of Khon Kaen has changed?

AW: I think that Khon Kaen is typical of cities in this country, which all end up looking the same. You can clearly see that there’s more physical development than aesthetic development. Functionality is emphasized, resulting in the landscape of commercial buildings we see. Plants and trees aren’t given much importance. It’s understandable that when it comes to utility, there has to be development. But aesthetics are not being developed alongside it. Personally, I don’t like it here, but I’m still emotionally attached. So I have to keep recording the images here.

IR: Is Khon Kaen more special than other cities? Or is it just your personal attachment to the city?

AW: It’s because my family still lives here. If I didn’t have family here, didn’t have memories here, then I would be indifferent towards Khon Kaen. That’s why I moved to Chiang Mai. It fits better with my artistic career. Chiang Mai has artists, it has space for the arts, it has a community of artists. But Khon Kaen doesn’t have that. Or it does, but it doesn’t get support.

Many people have begun to rebel against the instilled belief that “My country is so great.”

On top of that, Chiang Mai is more interesting. As someone who likes the green of trees, Chiang Mai offers a city that is close to mountains with a lot of trees. Khon Kaen has trees too, but only if you go very far from the city, towards Chaiyaphum.

But, in the end, I try not to fixate about where to live, or even living in Thailand. I like to think of myself not as a Thai resident, but a global resident. Anywhere is fine if I like it and I can live there. It’s probably the same as many people who have begun to rebel against the instilled belief that “My country is so great.”

Khon Kaen City’s Kaen Nakhon Lake features prominently in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s most recent feature film Cemetery of Splendour.

IR: I recall when you first came back to live in Khon Kaen, right after winning the Palme d’Or. Pictures of you filled the city. Khon Kaen University [your alma mater] gave you a notable alumni award. How did you feel when this city held you up as an important person?

AW: Honestly, shyness came before pride, because I’m a shy person. Of course I felt proud, but only for a moment. In reality, if we look at the big picture, the system [supporting the arts] isn’t sustainable at all. Because there isn’t serious support for arts and culture. It makes me think of [Thai] high schools where they will put up pictures of students in front of the school to show off all those who can get into universities. All this with no consideration for the students who can’t get in. I think that’s sad. Actually, everyone should strike their own path, because each has their own preferences and abilities.

IR: What struck you about Khon Kaen’s statue of military dictator Sarit Thanarat, which you’ve featured in your latest feature film? And in your new short film project, I see that you’re including the statue as well.

AW: It started with my interest in history. I became interested in how and why Thailand got to this point. I think that everyone should be acquainted with the history of Thailand in recent times, like the Cold War, the war against the communists, the period of US influence in cementing the power of the military and the police with Sarit as an important player.

If it’s possible to erect a monument for Sarit, then it’s no surprise that other surreal things happen in this country.

I’m not sure when Sarit’s monument in Khon Kaen was built, but I’ve only seen the monument in the last 6 to 7 years. When I was a kid, as far as I remember this monument wasn’t there. So it raised my interest because it’s about my childhood memory of a familiar place that has changed. It’s the same as many other places, whose change I am also interested in. For example, Kaen Nakhon Lake, the City Shrine, or other places in Khon Kaen. Even if I don’t agree with the aesthetics of those different places, or even don’t agree with the existence of this monument, as a filmmaker my duty is to record those things in images.

But this monument has acquired a significance for me, in that it made me understand and become more at peace with things in this country. And I have to thank this monument for that. If it’s possible to erect a monument for Sarit, then it’s no surprise that other surreal things happen in this country.

IR: Have you noticed that Sarit’s statue is much thinner than the actual Sarit? As far as I know from pictures, he has a bigger physical frame.

AW: I never noticed that at all. But I think it’s tradition in idol-making where there’s already a blueprint for the size, the proportions, even the pose of the figure. Or should we file a complaint to the provincial authorities that the sculpture isn’t realistic?

IR: How was your visit to “Pai Dao Din” in jail, a few days before he was sentenced to two and a half years for lese majeste?

AW: What made me feel good was that I got the chance to meet people interested in the fundamental Human Rights issue of freedom, which is something many no longer care about. I think that the case of Pai should generate more discussion and debate than it has. I understand that it is a delicate issue. But the more delicate it is, the more discussion it deserves, so that things can be made clearer. Nowadays many things are unclear. This country itself is unclear, like the unclear political regime we live under. How should we behave in a regime which proclaims itself to be this or that?

Pai is one of many people in Isaan who have been victimized. Such as the case of the communities fighting the gold mine in Loei Province and other mines elsewhere which have suffered in multiple ways. In fact, similar things probably happen all over the country, but when it’s a case in the familiar Northeast where I actually grew up and read up on, it’s different.

From reading books about Isaan I’ve learned how many rebellions have occurred, how communities have been forced to change, and how identities have been destroyed. These things are still ongoing today. It makes me feel that “history” is not a term involving the bygone past. There’s not a clear dividing line. Rather, we live in the same historical current.

In August, Apichatpong visited jailed student activist Jatupat Boonpattararaksa, who was arrested for sharing a biography of the new king published by BBC Thai on social media. Two days after the visit, the activist was sentenced to two and a half years in prison.

IR: So you are interested in the issue of political prisoners?

AW: I’m interested in it because it’s unclear. Today I still don’t understand where the line [that cannot not be crossed] is. As I’ve said, there should be more discussion about it, so things can be made clear. Just like so many things in this country which aren’t clear. Now the government still uses the term democracy, even as it detains people for attitude adjustment. It’s like we’re living in a society that’s two things at once.

IR: Do you believe in ghosts?

Political prisoners are also ghosts that have been made invisible.

AW: No, I don’t. I used to believe in them, but now I feel it was a big waste of time. I think ghosts are part of the illusion that’s been constructed only for the sake of social control. Ghosts reflect the fact that there is power which we can’t see, power which compels people to take a certain path in life.

The meaning of ghosts depends on each person’s perspective. Prisoners of conscience can also be ghosts, even politicians or the military also alternately take the role of ghosts to spook each other in cycles. For instance, the privileged elite are made into something as invisible as a ghost. When they go somewhere, traffic is shut down for them. And other people then sit in cars waiting for this politician to drive past, as if nothing significant were happening, as if they lived on different planets. Political prisoners are also ghosts that have been made invisible.

IR: Your movies include many tales of mysteries. Where did you learn about these tales?

AW: Most of it came from my childhood, from listening to stories from other people, also from reading books. But mostly I read science fiction novels. Mysteries for the most part came from storytelling, from friends or acquaintances, and from the atmosphere of where I lived. These stories were all around me, so surely they came to play a part in my films.

IR: Why have you announced that you won’t make any more films in Thailand?

AW: I meant feature films specifically. It stemmed from getting tired of the high risks of making films in Thailand. Not political risks, mind you, but risks from the country’s economic instability, as many sources of funding for filmmaking are based in foreign countries.

Filmmaking is a business which requires a lot of money, all of which spent in a short amount of time. Shooting one movie takes only about 30 days in total, spaced out into a period of two to three months. But the money which is tied up in the movie is a lot. Therefore it’s risky if a country is unstable. Movies can fall apart very easily. Also I have to be responsible for many things. For a short film, though, I can still manage to make it in this country.

IR: There has been news that you will make a movie in South America. What interests you in the region?

AW: Mainly I’m interested in the issue of human dignity. South America is a region which has been borne the brunt of a lot of atrocities, and also a region where genocides have been among the most violent in the world.

They looked at me like, “criticize the government, what’s so strange about that?”

I set out to make a movie about mines in the valleys of Colombia. When I went there, locals in each community were coming together to protest mining projects, as they no longer believed in what the capitalists or the government told them about the benefits of mines to their quality of life. During that time, locals organized many forums to talk about how mining projects in the past hadn’t worked out like how the government advertised. In the end, the mining projects had to fold.

Another issue that interests me [about Colombia] is the construction of a tunnel through the mountains, a project that is still unfinished. It’s because the governmental system is weak, and any change in government disrupts the project. [This project] has also polluted the water coming from the mountains, and it destroyed biodiversity. As a result, locals can’t do agriculture anymore.

I went to government officials and told them that I’d like to do make a film about this tunnel construction project. And they said, go ahead. I told them that this would amount to criticizing the government. They looked at me like, “criticize the government, what’s so strange about that?” What impressed me was that the media there had a lot of freedom, and also did their job assiduously. You can ask the government for permission to do something critical of the government, and they’ll allow it.

South American societies already have a strong tradition of criticism. We can’t apply the logic [of censorship and criticism] in Thailand to make sense of their society. To this day, I still don’t understand why their government gave me the permission to film something that’s the evidence of their own wrongdoing.

IR: Are your movies mostly about personal things?

AW: Yes, they are very personal. My movies don’t have a special purpose other than for my own sake. Not even for entertainment, if we mean entertainment the way other people mean it. But it’s entertainment for myself, and that’s that. As for the techniques I use in my movies, they’re also up to me. I want to watch this kind of movie, so I make it like this.

It’s like I use films as a pretext for my way of life. Filmmaking has allowed me to encounter many people, to listen to their life stories. If I didn’t make movies then I wouldn’t get to meet those people or listen to those stories.

IR: So you use filmmaking as a pretext for returning home?

AW: That’s right. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t really get to come back.

IR: We’ve come to the hardest thing I’ll ask you today. Can you come up with a title for our conversation today?

AW: That’s really hard. Usually when I think of a name for a movie, I’ll think for days. The name can be “rueang khong ban” [things about home.] Is that good?

Interview by Samanachan Buddhajak. Translation by Peera Songkünnatham