Apichatpong Bids to Unshackle Thai Cinema


Following last year’s bloodless coup, Thailand’s interim government announced that it would unshackle the media from controls imposed by ousted prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra as part of its stated mission to “restore democracy.” But new instances of censorship have generated controversy this year.

In April, Thailand’s antiquated film censorship laws met concerted opposition after government officials demanded cuts to director Apichatpong Weerasathakul’s latest feature, Syndromes and a Century, or Saeng Satawat. Calling it a matter of “basic human rights and the dignity of human beings under a democratic society,” Apichatpong launched the Free Thai Cinema movement to petition the government to stop trimming or banning films and instead simply rate them for audience age levels, now standard practice in other countries. Protestors also called for the new constitution to list film among the other mass media already guaranteed freedom of expression. Some 6,000 supporters signed the movement’s online petition by mid-July.

Another bout of protests arose in July when the Thai Film Directors’ Association and Thai Film Foundation contested a newly unveiled film bill that fell short of longstanding demands for the liberalization of existing procedures. Under the Film Act of 1930, a Royal Thai Police Department committee invited representatives from the Culture Ministry, Religious Affairs Department, other agencies and public councils to screen movies and cut objectionable content or ban the movies outright. The new bill approved by the cabinet and forwarded for lawmakers’ approval called for a committee of 23 judges that would be dominated by government—16 bureaucrats and seven appointed “experts”—contrary to protestors’ demands that industry representatives and the public lead the panel. The bill also preserved the committee’s right to censor or prohibit films.

Other recent incidents include the decision by the Bangkok International Film Festival, organized by the Tourism Authority of Thailand, to drop a film at the request of the Iran Embassy: Persepolis, a French-Iranian animated feature about a girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution that screened at the Cannes Film Festival in France this year. And officials blocked the video sharing website YouTube when they found film clips considered in violation of the nation’s lese majeste laws. (The government has also blocked several pro-Thaksin websites, citing concerns over national security.)

Industry efforts to roll back censorship began more than a decade ago, but did not attract such wide support until police targeted Syndromes. Four scenes deemed offensive showed a Thai Buddhist monk playing a guitar, two monks playing with a toy flying saucer, a group of doctors drinking alcohol and a doctor kissing his girlfriend. Apichatpong announced he would withhold his film from release in Thailand rather than let it be censored.