[Monographs 2023] Nomadic Cinema: on proximity and remoteness of films on the road and in the bedroom

By Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa

1.
I was in Hong Kong on the day Tsai Ing-wen won Taiwan’s presidential election in a landslide. I was there that night and the previous night for the Hong Kong Independent Film Festival 2020. There was a screening of Kanas Liu’s short documentary, documenting Hong Kong’s large-scale demonstration in 2019. The screening took place in a meeting room at HKICC—an ordinary building resembling a high-school from the outside—with no signs of a film festival inside whatsoever. After observing the space for a while, I followed the crowd into the room. The screening room was packed, the atmosphere captivating. The film was just a series of short clips from the frontline, though it made the whole audience cry.

I suddenly felt a kind of hope in the mid-January winter breeze. The following day, I strolled down the streets, conversing with a friend who is a film critic. We were approaching the end of this momentous political battle. Once our conversation—ranging from films to politics—ended, he gave me a bottle of hand sanitizer. SARS came through Hong Kong in its time, he said, and another epidemic might also be on its way.

Who would have thought that a few months later, after I returned home from Hong Kong, every part of the world would be suffering from said pandemic, along with political turmoil spreading region-wide, from Hong Kong to Myanmar and even Thailand. It was a time of uncertainty amidst the squall of a pandemic and insane yet beautiful political uprisings.

Wildtype’s screening in The Reading Room

2.

We have been organising film screenings for many years. It is not even legitimate to call ourselves an art organisation or a film distributor. To say the least, we are film lovers of various professions who enjoy watching films and occasionally meet at film festivals throughout the years, be it international or local short film festivals. We discuss our favourite films and our wish to watch those films, say, Thai short films. Films that may only ever screen once as a part of the 10am slot of the Short Film Marathon, where every film submitted for the competition would be screened, which in this case could only have an audience of three who might have managed to wake up that early. The films that shone so bright and rapidly vanished into the ocean of short films. We thought about those films and eventually self-organised a screening for them. Doing it in the simplest way possible, we created our selection from those sets of films, which consisted of offbeat experimental films, films made by high school students, home videos shared among friends and films manifesting the anger of the filmmakers. We even included the gaze of someone falling in love. There is no place for them in film festivals or galleries. We love them and want to mention them. The next thing we knew, we had been holding these screenings for over a decade. 

Our screenings are small-scale—held at The Reading Room 1, a private library on the top floor of a three-story shophouse, with a projector aimed at a lopsided wall. We had to rely on our eyesight, our focus, a pile of books under the projector to adjust the angle of those projected images. We spent 12 hours a day watching those films together, in order to talk about them, carve them in our minds, and remember them.

 

3.

A month after I returned from Hong Kong, Thailand’s Constitutional Court dissolved a political party that seemed to kindle hope for the youth, leading to nationwide protests at universities. The students adopted many initiatives from Hong Kong’s protests. For the first time in several years since the 2014 coup d’état, the people learned to be hopeful again. But, not long after, all things stumbled, ceasing to exist upon the arrival of the first wave of COVID-19.

The pandemic has torn things apart; it prevented people from cohabiting, talking, partying, looking at each other, and even staring in the same direction in those pitch-black rooms. Film screenings were shut off, be it a small or a large scale. The Reading Room began to operate solely as a library, refraining from organising events and gatherings. We and the films became nomads by circumstance and so, we hit the road. So did the protests.

 

4.

Let us begin at the periphery. It was August 2020; the first wave of the pandemic began to die down. In Bangkok, safety measures were still firm, and the people were frightened. However, it was more relaxed in the provinces.

In August, I visited Songkhla to meet up with some friends and brought a set of Thai short films that discussed politics, aiming to screen them in a local gallery. Then, independent screenings took place in cafes, libraries, and art galleries across the country. Film lovers got together, dealt with independent film distributors, and sold tickets to the screenings of these authorised films outside the oligopoly of the Thai cinema business. During that time, a friend of mine was planning to screen a Filipino documentary, The Kingmaker (2019)2, that brought the audience back to the Marcos era and posed questions regarding the future. The film had been shown in theatres earlier. However, the police blocked the screening, due to them being ‘uncomfortable’ about some elements on the poster: Imelda Marcos’ portrait and the film’s title, The ‘King’ maker. Both elements reminded them of Thailand’s central institution, even though it bears no relation to the Philippines. With The Kingmaker being banned, the organiser didn’t want to take the risk and decided to call off the screening, which extended to my Thai short film program. I realised that while the pandemic might have prevented us from watching films,the political deadlock is so powerful that it might discourage people from even thinking.

But it is not to say that we will turn back and stick around for the state-regulated and money-driven screenings. Films always hold more far-reaching possibilities.

 

5.

Limitations, however, brought about some kind of potential. We wanted to try pushing boundaries and did so with the support of the Japan Foundation in Bangkok and in collaboration with Documentary Club, an independent film distributor that organises screenings both in theatres and beyond. We returned to the periphery and organised online screenings of two sets of films from the southernmost border of Thailand and Okinawa. We co-selected the films with a curator from Okinawa, aiming for films made by locals rather than outsiders. On our side, we chose films from the project called ‘Deep South Young Filmmaker.’3 The project intended to teach filmmaking to high school students in the three southernmost provinces so they could learn how to tell stories of their own, instead of letting people from the centre tell one for them. There was a story of a pregnant teenage girl ordered to move to Malaysia, expressions of frustration toward military checkpoints in the area and a boy’s-love story set in a Muslim society. Despite time limitations, we attempted to include a screening and Q&A session with the directors. In addition, we invited historians from both sides to give bilingual lectures on the historical traumas from both areas.

Unexpectedly, the most impressive moment occurred when Mukosangen Ryodonari Art Space in Akita, Japan, projected some parts of the programme on the wall and opened the gallery windows so people inside and outside could watch them together. COVID-19, it seems, could not rip away our desire to screen and experience films. The beauty of it is just so memorable.

From Mukosangen Ryodonari’s Twitter

6.

In July 2020, students and the people eagerly went down to the streets to protest the government in an impressively creative fashion. Their tactics varied, ranging from flash mobs to randomly gathering to do unexpectedly hilarious things. Those included repurposing popular quotes from megahit transgender comedies to satirise the situation4; organising the ‘Hamtaro Run’5, in which they altered the Hamtaro theme song’s lyrics into a quick-witted political one; coming to the full-scale protest dressed as characters from Harry Potter6, explicitly mentioning Thai society’s ‘He Who Must Not Be Named’ for the first time; and adopting the Hunger Games’ three-finger salute until it became today’s political gesture. Film and pop culture have been given a new, political meaning, after all.

Around that time, artists, writers and musicians formed a loose alliance. We planned to organise screenings at the protest site and The Kingmaker, which was targeted earlier, was also a part of the programme. Flash mob protesters then began to stay overnight. We contacted filmmakers for their short films so we could design a unique program for mob screenings. The process was simple: we emailed them and they let us screen their films for free. There was an experimental film made in response to the decade-long exasperation of political turmoil, a documentary on the lives of political prisoners and a film on the 1932 revolution by a university student. The program also included films that documented, played with, and questioned the current political situation, old films from the mass killings of red shirt protesters and newer films that responded immediately to the most recent issues. We planned to screen it on a television in the tent like they did with experimental films and on a giant screen. The program was ready, yet we had to call it off after the police dispersed the mob the night before.

Thai Short Film Program screened on Documentary Club’s platform in parallel with a flash mob.

We believe that cinema is a reaction to and a conversation with the changing society. Hence, we organised many screenings alongside the remarkably evolving protest. Those screenings included an online one on Documentary Club’s platform, held in parallel with a flash mob. We promoted it on social media under the theme ‘Thailand’s Contemporary History through Experimental Films’ and distributed the QR code to the online film programme. Then, we printed a QR code to another program focusing on political prisoners on brochures and handed them to the protesters so they could watch it at home. Some activities worked well, and some did not. But it made us realise that not only are film a possibility, but film screenings are as well.

After several protests, countless dispersions and the second wave of COVID-19 towards the New Year celebrations, the above-mentioned group of artists founded ‘Thalufah Village’7 and set up an overnight protest site next to the government house. On that occasion, we finally had a successful screening we’re proud of when one of our political film programs was screened as a part of the artist-led protest. The protesters sat on the ground, watching films in an open-air setting and struck up conversations. Such a beautiful moment it was.

People kept protesting, despite losing the momentum after many protest leaders had been arrested on different charges. In the meantime, COVID-19 was here to stay, and people suffered from one wave after another. They got poorer. The medical care system was poorly managed. The dictatorship was still in power and seemed like it would continue to be.

Screening in the mob

7.

In September 2021, it was apparent that organising traditional screenings was almost out of the question. But at the same time, Thai musicians decided to host the ‘Open Hat Festival,’8 a two-week-long online concert on YouTube Live that openly accepted donations. Malaysia’s Wuben9 also organised online screenings on Facebook Live. We adopted the idea and managed WILDTYPE 2021, the annual short film screening we’ve hosted for over a decade. Due to limitations, we decided to screen the films on YouTube Live, making the screening a one-off. We screened new films alongside old films that we love. It accidentally became a film festival that combined online and on-site screenings of these films as a shared experience in the age of social distancing.

Wildtype online’s screening chat room

 

Parallel screening in Phayao (Northern Part of Thailand).

Online platforms open doors to new approaches and sensibilities. We experienced the aesthetics of online screenings when the audience live-chatted during the session. It took us back to the time we were able to get together in person, though in another form. The audience was just so into the films that they couldn’t wait to share what was on their minds. It’s like they were one with those films. It’s like they were watching those films in the same place when, in fact, they were doing so from their own bedrooms in different cities across the country. We also launched a Q&A session with the filmmakers and audiences via Clubhouse, leading to a several-hour-long discussion. No faces were shown. Even so, it was such a warm gathering. Some quit filmmaking but joined the session to reminisce about their youth. Some still struggle to make films outside the industry, and we admire them for that.

Now, theatres have resumed operation, superhero franchises are in theatres preventing small-scale films from showing, film festivals worldwide are being organised on-site, the protest leaders are still in jail and the wind of change is blowing gently over us, day after day, while the storm is yet afar. During this challenging time of being a nomad, we have discovered new possibilities for screenings and found that film still has its magic. Films connect people with one another, inspiring them to exchange thoughts, share similar sentiments, resist and rebel in their own way, and learn to hope for change. Films can be horrible Basilisks, but also Fantastic Beasts, and there is not only one place where you can find them. You will always find them, one way or another.

Come visit us https://www.facebook.com/wildtypeth


Footnotes

[1] The Reading Room Bangkok, https://readingroombkk.org/.

[2] “The Kingmaker,” IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt5105734/

[3] “DS Young Filmmaker,” Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/DSYoungFilmmaker/.

[4] Paisarn Likhitpreechakul, “Sissy That Mob: LGBT youths front and centre in Thailand’s democracy movement,” Prachatai English, September 15, 2020, https://prachataienglish.com/node/8788.

[5]Aim Sinpeng, “Twitter Analysis of the Thai Free Youth Protests,” Thai Data Points, August 29, 2020, https://www.thaidatapoints.com/post/twitter-analysis-of-the-thai-free-youth-protests.

[6] “Yer an Activist, Harry: Themed Protest Calls for Democracy, Reforms,” Khaosod English, August 4, 2020, https://www.khaosodenglish.com/politics/2020/08/04/yer-an-activist-harry-themed-protest-calls-for-democracy-reforms/.

[7] “An Overview Of Public Assemblies In March 2021,” Mob Data Thailand, https://blog.mobdatathailand.org/en/posts/2021_03.html.

[8] “Open Hat Festival,” YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHqe-QwSUTeD8Uh3gzsG7jA/featured.

[9] “无本 Wu Ben,” Facebook, https://www.facebook.com/wuben.editor.


About the Writer

Wiwat Lertwiwatwongsa is a cinephile, film critic, writer, and editorial team member of Film Club Thailand. He is also a founder of Wildtype, a group of Thai cinephiles that organises film screenings, seminars, and film book publications in Thailand. Since 2008, Wiwat has been curating and organising a series of Thai short film screenings called Filmvirus Wildtype, focusing on overlooked Thai short films. Since 2018, he has collaborated with Documentary Club for film programmes.

 

 

 

 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.

About the Writer