Thai filmmaker Nontawat Numbenchapol continues to ask unsettling questions.
By Urasa Por Burapacheep
In 2011, at the height of the Thai-Cambodian feud over the Heritage-listed Preah Vihear Temple, a documentary project began with a 60,000-baht budget, a couple of DSLR cameras and a crew of four. Having since enjoyed screenings in Berlin, Japan, and Milan, the film only rose from domestic obscurity when it was banned as “a threat to national security and international relations” – only for that ban to be lifted two days later.
The film, Boundary, directed by Nontawat Numbenchapol, follows Aod—one of Thailand’s many military draftees—as he returns to his hometown of Sisaket. Aod arrives in the midst of hearty celebrations for the Thai New Year, only to be plunged into a dreamscape of cratered and bullet-scarred villages.
Nontawat was in a small border town to record its inhabitants’ views on the previous year’s crackdown of red-shirt protestors when the clashes erupted. Unable to cross into Cambodia by land, he first flew into Phnom Penh and worked his way back to the border, where he obtained his footage under the guise of a New York-based Chinese-American.
Much of the film is told through intelligent juxtaposition. As children festively splash water on to car windows, we learn of the hostility Aod encounters while serving in the country’s turbulent south. As he opens up about his role in 2010’s deadly crackdown, we see the catching of frogs, a regional delicacy. Meanwhile, a chicken doggedly pecking its way out of its coop reinforces the motif of ‘boundaries’.
“I’m interested in the boundary between truth and what we believe to be true,” Nontawat says. “I will present many sets of truth, which cancel each other, for the audience to scrutinise, relying on who they are and their experiences.
“Someone once said that since our birth, humans exist in one of two things: birth and death, man and woman, rich and poor, happiness and sorrow. As I grew older I understood this wasn’t true. In between this dichotomy is a myriad of other things. Between black and white, we have grey. And within that, there are a million different shades of grey.”
A middle-class boy from a family of cineastes, as a toddler Nontawat sat up late nights to watch movies and cried out for a camera each time he saw one. In his late teens, he submitted his manga comics into contests and constantly took photographs. His artistic influences range from Dragon Ball creator Toriyama Akira and ‘Godfather of Anime’ Osamu Tezuka to Steven Spielberg and Thailand’s own Apichatpong Weerasethakul. But ask the most articulate filmmakers why they choose to make films and their answers will likely be vague or off point. Nontawat is similarly opaque.
“I like travelling and going on journeys to new places,” he says. “In the end, all my documentaries could be seen as travel documentaries.”
Nontawat began his journey as a documentary filmmaker nearly a decade ago, while studying graphic design. After meeting a team of travelling skateboarders whose ambition was to form Thailand’s national team, Nontawat took it upon himself to edit their footage into Weirdrosopher World.
“What I saw in the footage was a life I never had. I was thrilled by the freedom of stepping out into the world, even if it was only through this footage,” he says. “I had no idea what I was doing, but I was intensely happy. I was in front of my screen day and night. There were many discarded attempts. It was countless cut after cut.”
Fast forward to this year and Nontawat’s latest offering, By The River, has just won a Special Mention at the Locarno International Film Festival, where it made its world premiere. The film focuses on a lead-contaminated creek coursing through the deep woods on the Thai-Burmese border. Some Karen inhabitants of Klity, a small village in Kanchanaburi, are suffering side effects and a young man who brings his lover to fish in the area each day goes missing.
In its long silences, the film invites us to wallow in intimate moments. When words are uttered, they are naïve and unromanticised and all the more heartbreaking. Nontawat manages to make us care about people who say very little and only engage in mundane tasks — chopping up vegetables, staring into greenery.
Stripped of its specifics, his director’s statement for the film may hold the key to the question he has failed to answer. In it, he expresses his wish for the feature to “inspire us to start thinking about our own actions that might affect other people in the society… to try to understand the people and to start changing our behaviours — both on the individual level and on the societal level — in order to relieve the trouble… that we might have caused.”
Nontawat calls 2013 “a golden year” for Thai filmmaking, with four documentaries making it into theatres and an exciting new crop of emerging filmmakers, audience interest and organisational support. What needs to change, he insists, is the government’s attitude toward film. He cites South Korea, where government support has catapulted the film industry on to the world stage, pointing out how Busan International Film Festival has become one of Asia’s best.
“We have a lot to gain from a cinematic culture,” Nontawat says. “Thailand, with its contrasts and chaos, is rife with material, just waiting to be cherry-picked.”