( re Killing Imagination’s Children)
I’m going to start with a quote from George Stevens’ epic, ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told’: “It is the child of the imagination that I fear. When you become king after me, my son, if you ever do, always remember this.”
That’s King Herod to his son on the reason for his baby-killing spree. The child of the imagination being an idea—an idea that God has sent down his son to rid the world of tyranny, as foretold by the stars, as the people believed. So he must kill every new-born child—of the people’s imagination.
Last Friday, Khao Khon Kon Khao, the highest-rated daily news show on Thai television, signed off from TV Channel 9 for the last time, and was replaced starting this week by a show hosted by Thaksin’s Voice TV’s star anchor, Jom Petrpradab. Censorship, official and self-imposed, is the literal order of the day in this climate of fear. Given the direness of the situation and such high-profile victims as Khao Khon Kon Khao, why should we care about the banning of films like ‘Insects in the Backyard’, a so-called pornographic indie, and ‘Shakespeare Must Die’, a low-budget horror movie?
Regardless of the fate of Khao Khon Kon Khao, all other mass media are at least legally protected. In theory, TV, radio, newspapers are free. But film is not. Movies can be banned. The brainchildren of filmmakers can be prejudged as social poison by seven faceless people in a dark room and summarily executed.
Why are movies so feared? In modern times, the cinema of a nation is the child of that culture’s imagination. Like King Herod, the rulers of this country know that they can control us if they can control our imagination. Our film legislation is supposed to protect the public from cultural poison, yet its effects have been exactly the opposite. It harms not just filmmakers like us, but the public. We have an enormous untapped wealth of stories to tell, but we’re forced by law and by fear to limit ourselves to shallow themes and treatments. We are not permitted to examine ourselves: our cultures, our wounds of history, our very soul. The public is fed a diet of superficial dramas, horror and action. Imagine not being allowed to use chillies in Thai cooking because it is deemed too strong for our stomach, and being force-fed the mental equivalent of kiddie meals all your life. This is the state of Thai cinema, and therefore the state of the Thai public imagination. Censorship keeps us bland and weak, stupid, slow-witted and hypocritical—all the things that Thai people are traditionally not supposed to be.
By trying to control our imagination, the Thai state sees all the arts and media through the prism of propaganda and social engineering. It’s no exaggeration that in cultural terms, we are still ruled by the Thai Joseph Goebbels, Luang Vichit Vadhakarn, Field Marshall P Pibulsongkram’s propaganda chief. The state believes that you can socially engineer The People to be Good by showing examples of Goodness and Decency and suppressing all examples of Evil and Indecency.
This is why the censors think my version of ‘Macbeth’ is a “disgrace to Thai public morality and the Patriotic Dignity of the nation,” as well as being violent and divisive. They really don’t understand that you can learn from a bad example: a man who could have been great who loses it all through his insatiable greed and ambition. In ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Shakespeare Must Die’, we essentially watch a man examine himself and then deciding to self-destruct. That’s exactly why I chose to do ‘Macbeth’. Shakespeare does have the potential to be especially disturbing for Thai people, precisely because he is the best antidote to propaganda, to the bombastic mindset. Shakespeare is deeply spiritual, deeply moral, yet totally non-judgemental, non-moralistic. This is the way Thai people used to be. But we have been for the past eighty years steeped in relentless, overwhelming, fascistic, moralistic, “nationalistic” propaganda—this poisonous mindset has been systematically socially engineered into our moral fabric, despite being entirely incompatible with our true nature.
Countries that enjoy freedom of expression in all the arts, including cinema, are able to counterbalance, and build up social immunity against, the overwhelming onslaught of mindless commercialism and political manipulation. There’s almost nothing in Thailand to counterbalance the seductive power of advertising and the spin of corporate and political PR machines. So most Thai people are not media literate. We’re fed a constant diet of TV soaps, gameshows and advertising. We don’t stand a chance.
To me, this is the root cause of our current problems. How can we have a peaceful society with real democracy without media literacy? This is why film is deadly serious for me.
I want to leave you with a really nauseating vision: on TV, Madame Rabiab-rat, former senator and self-appointed moral crusader, inhaling the cheeks of ‘Film’ the movie star, in an act of reconciliation after a public spat over his refusal to acknowledge paternity of a starlet’s child. (She wears these mud-mhee silk suits and he’s like a Korean pop star Ken.) My first thought was: OMG! It was like watching the interaction of emoticons.
Then there’s Mrs Sukumal Khunpleum, our Cultural Minister, daughter-in-law of a fugitive mafia figure, who was so demure over the banning of a Shakespearean film, yet so voluble and fearless over the staged Body Painting Hysteria on ‘Thailand’s Got Talent’.
To such people, Khun Golf Tanwarin is obscene, and I am an immoral cultural terrorist. But what is obscene? In the Body Painting episode, all of it is obscene—the staging of it by the show for ratings, the knee-jerk outcry. Only the toplessness is not obscene. Hypocrisy is obscene. Power abuse is obscene. Oppression is obscene. Banning the first and only Thai Shakespearean film that they funded themselves is obscene. Censorship—is obscene.
Anything motivated by things that shun the light of day, of truth, is obscene. Denial of the truth, denial of self-knowledge, is obscene. That is what art is for: to know ourselves. That is what true artists are supposed to do; to help us explore ourselves, especially our darkest, darkest dreams, so we can be horrified by them and know ourselves. Thailand is lost precisely because it keeps its imagination in chains. Without a free national cinema, a country cannot ever be free.
- Ing K
director of banned film ‘Shakespeare Must Die’, on ‘Art and Censorship’ panel at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand, 5 July 2012