Disreputable Behaviour: The Hidden Politics of the Thai Film Act

By May Adadol Ingawanij

free-thai-cinema-protest.jpgFree Thai Cinema protest

One of the consequences of the royalist coup that ousted the tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand in September 2006 was the surge of ‘silent’ anger against what quickly came to be seen as an outrageous act of power grabbing for the benefit of the military, the palace and the upper class, carried out with the support of the Thaksin-hating urban middle classes. In this respect the coup has had an unintended but probably decisive effect, insofar as it has provoked many people who were angered or shocked by it to break a longstanding taboo against critical references to the throne.

Since the actively enforced ‘lese-majeste’ law prohibits public discussion, these sentiments have found ‘underground’ channels of expression through web boards and private conversations. Coming at a time when the physical decline of the 80 year-old King Bhumibol means that the longstanding anxiety about who will succeed him can no longer be suppressed, the ferocious, intense and widespread post-coup whisperings about royalty have become a serious concern among the elites who cling most tenaciously to the conservative myth of royalist Thainess.

This tense state of affairs between noisy propaganda and the rumbling discontent of the popular classes, including the grievances of those who belong to religious and ethnic minorities, especially in the troubled Deep South, provides a crucial political context for understanding the architecture of Thailand’s controversial new Film Act, as well as the highly dubious manner in which it was passed. Rushed through the National Legislative Assembly (the legislative arm of the junta-appointed government) only two days before the general election on December 23, the act is one of several authoritarian laws passed at the very last minute to give the military and bureaucracy wide-ranging power to contain, ban and penalise anything or anyone deemed a threat to national security.

apichatpong-weerasethakul.jpgApichatpong Weerasethakul 

In this political climate, recently characterised by a military analyst as the return of a security state through laws that circumvent due legal process, the campaign of the Free Thai Cinema movement to liberalise film legislation ran aground in its primary goal of substituting a ratings system for the censor board’s power to ban and cut films deemed to undermine order and moral decency. The initial impetus of the campaign was the existing board’s decision last April requesting four scenes be cut from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Syndromes and a Century as a condition of its domestic release. The artist refused and, with the help of his allies and supporters, drawn largely from the independent cinema scene, channelled his fans’ furious reaction into the campaign to overhaul the anachronistic law, which has been in place largely unchanged since it came into effect in 1930. The movement was timely as it coincided with the drafting of a film bill sponsored by the Ministry of Culture.

The new law is a strange hybrid which appears to have been designed to contain the demand for liberalisation within the overarching conservative agenda of controlling the production and circulation of Thai moving images. There will now be a seven tier ratings system divided into five age groups: a universal certificate, films suitable for viewers aged 13, 15 and 18 upward and one which prohibits the admission of viewers under 20. The other two classification categories are phrased respectively as “films of educational value whose viewing should be promoted,” and “films that are prohibited from exhibition in the Kingdom of Thailand.”

The classification board will still have the power to request cuts or changes to films that are shot in Thailand, or that have been submitted for commercial release in the kingdom. Predictably, the principle for banning or ordering cuts is vaguely worded – “films whose content undermines or disrupts social order or moral decency, and films that might provide a threat to state security or bring Thailand into disrepute” – leaving great scope both for interpreting a film’s potential effects on order and security and for the abuse of power. Much will depend on the judgment of the members of the classification board which will be formed once the law is implemented. The prospect that the actual board will pursue a relatively liberal line does not look particularly hopeful, since those responsible for selecting its members will consist predominantly of representatives from various organs of the bureaucracy, such as the culture, tourism, religion and ICT ministries, including the police.

syndromes-and-a-century-apichatpong-weerasethakul.jpgSyndromes and a Century, 2006 

Moreover, the responsibility for overseeing matters related to film classification and censorship will now shift from the police to a culture ministry that rose to prominence in recent years through such anxious, fossilised directives for ‘preserving Thai culture’ as discouraging young girls from wearing spaghetti strap vests and attempting to ban saucy song lyrics. Little wonder then that, in his recent campaigning article, Apichatpong points out that things will get worse for filmmakers once “the culture police” takes over. Unlike the police, this organisation is actively concerned to disseminate conservative images of Thainess and to censor those who contradict them.

Apichatpong’s comment raises the second crucial question of how the implementation of the Film Act will affect the nascent production of independent Thai moving images, along with their domestic and international circulation. Up till now the routine practice of the censor board has not extended beyond examining feature-length films submitted for commercial release in the country. A striking feature of the new law, however, is the way it has been phrased to ensure that the authority has the power, if it so wishes, to vet Thai moving images that will receive international circulation, and to deal with domestic exhibition sites that fall outside the current censor board’s working definition of (commercial) cinemas.

The law now stipulates that domestically made films intended for foreign distribution must receive prior permission from the classification board, with the exception of films invited to state-endorsed festivals. What these will include is yet to be specified. Film is now legally defined as moving images publicly shown for commercial purposes, which technically encompasses aspects of the burgeoning short film scene, while the definition of cinema is general enough to include any site that shows moving images. It is again as yet unclear how such clauses will be implemented, but to construct some troubling scenarios out of recent examples: if this law had already been in place during last year’s decision to censor Syndromes at home, would Apichatpong have been criminalised for showing the same work abroad? Would last year’s Thai Short Film and Video Festival, which was held in a multiplex and made the uncharacteristic decision to charge for admission, have been regarded as breaking the law for screening short films that had not been submitted to the censor board – especially those that portray anti-coup or anti-royal attitudes, or use images that the culture ministry would no doubt deem ‘un-Thai’?

syndromes-and-a-century-apichatpong-weerasethakul-2.jpgSyndromes and a Century, 2006 

In a seminar to contest the film legislation – organised last year by the independent cinema NGO, the Thai Film Foundation – one of the law’s drafters was asked what would happen to a film banned in its home country were it to be resubmitted for classification prior to international distribution. Her reply raised the other crucial issue concerning the contemptuous way supporters of the act regard the people. Her suggestion that different standards might come to be applied between Thai films released domestically and internationally constitutes the very same logic presented as the justification (!) for banning Syndromes: that Thai viewers are not ready for some films which might nevertheless be appropriate for international release. The trope of the people being ‘not yet ready’ has long been part of the elite’s defensive barrier against radical change. During the last days of royal absolutism in the late 1920s, the monarch attempted to fend off the constitutionalists’ demand for change with the claim that the people were not yet ready for democracy. What is historically consistent about such claims is that they create a fiction of a people dependent on elite leadership amidst a context of the crisis of the latter’s authority and furious discontent from below.

In this contemporary case too we see the same fiction being created. One of the justifications given by representatives of the culture ministry for the continuing necessity of censorship is the authority’s need to regulate pornographic images on behalf of parents who do not have the time to look after their children. Both this logic, which assumes that parents cannot be trusted with overseeing what their children watch, and the one which characterises the Thai people as aesthetically ill-prepared for Apichatpong’s film, persuade the culture police to continue seeing themselves in a benign light as the filter of appropriate images for the Thai people.

Whether the sponsors of the Film Act are genuinely and exclusively concerned with regulating pornography, or whether this was calculated as an acceptable face of censorship while concealing the other hidden ‘security state’ agenda, we will never know for sure. Suffice it to note that shortly before the film legislation was rushed through the NLA, a similar anti-pornography rhetoric ‘for the protection of the people’ was mobilised to justify the passing of a new computer crime law. Almost as soon as that came into practice it was used to arrest and detain two bloggers. Their real crime was to post messages of disrespect to the throne.

May Adadol Ingawanij is a post-doctoral researcher at the Centre for Research and Education in Art and Media, University of Westminster. With Benjamin McKay she is co-editing the forthcoming book, Cinema in Southeast Asia Today: Emerging Independent Film Cultures.

Grateful thanks to Sanchai Chotirosseranee, Pimpaka Towira, Chalida Uabumrungjit, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul of the Free Thai Cinema movement for their insights and background information.

Protest image from that organised by the Free Thai Cinema group in front of the Thai parliament in late November. AW front row left, along with independent filmmakers, writers and activists. Photo courtesy of the Thai Film Foundation.