After the 2014 coup d’état in Thailand, 400 citizens associated with political activism were summoned by the Junta, and many more were accused. Writer-activist Wat Wanlayangkool was among those summoned. Filmmaker Teeraphan Ngowjeenanan met Wanlayangkool to listen and share experiences in resistance in Thailand.
International media have recently pointed out the creativity the Thai youth has shown to defend freedom of expression and to criticize Thailand’s government. But to explain the need to democratize and ensure fundamental rights in the current context is a complex task. Filmmaker Teeraphan Ngowjeenanan addresses this issue in his new documentary Away (ไกลบ้าน - Far from Home) which will have its international premiere at the Sheffield Doc/Fest in Autumn. Away received the Duke Award (Best Documentary) from Thai short film & video festival 2019 and Best Short Documentary from Bangkok critics assembly.
Mr. Teeraphan Ngowjeenanan, your documentary Away portraits the current life situation of the writer-activist Wat Wanlayangkool in a calm and gentle sequence of gestures, moments and conversations. What motivated you to meet Wat Wanlayangkool and start your film Away?
I had the chance to see Monrak Transistor (Transistor Love Story) (2001) by director Pen-Ek Ratanaruang when I was little, and I fell in love with it. It's still on my all-time favourite list until today. I later learned that the original story of that film was a novel written by Wat Wanlayangkool. At the time, I also became friends with Mr. Wat's son, so I also learned that he had to refuge from Thailand after the 2014 coup d'état. My heart sank at the fact that a person I have admired through his works had to face that kind of fate.
My political view at the time was still scattered, and I did overlook many issues. But I disagree on the violation of human rights. I have never met Mr. Wat in person, but I respect him as an extended family member. So, it fueled my passion for telling this story and shining a light to this very issue happening in the Thai political system.
The lack of legitimacy of the Thai government is currently at stake. The Thai youth is showing their displeasure openly for months. How does the current attitude of the young political activists differ from the context in which the protagonist of your documentary Away initiated in political activism?
I think the core attitude of both generations of political activists isn't that different. What I think has a massive impact on the change is the context of modern society. We have had many demonstrations against the dictatorship in Thailand, but we were taught to obey, to be threatened, to conform by our convention, tradition, and upbringing. Violence was used against the people on many occasions, resulting in fear and reducing our courage to speak out. However, with the rise of the Internet era, social media, and globalization, it has tremendously expanded our views on the possibility of life.
Online platforms allowed us to exchange and debate as we have never done before in society. It also united people who are physically apart but share the same ideology. In the past, if we want to gather people to make an impact, we'd have to take time in gathering the mass – which mostly has a low success rate. But that's no longer the case. We can participate just by being on the same platform. Seeing other narratives that were not taught by the authorities in Thailand had also empowered the younger generation not to have fear, and be brave enough to fight. Just because they want a better life. For me, the online world has established a solid platform for the democracy movement and has become a significant gamechanger.
The disappointment I notice among young Thai professionals that were supposed to enter a job in an apparently flourishing economy is becoming evident. This generation of young professionals may see a perspective in political reforms. Do you observe any specific trend among the young people who now enter political activism?
As far as I can see, and from what I assume most of the world is seeing, is the use of pop culture in activism. I think our country has been nurturing us to live in fear at all times. We cannot directly address things - there are so many taboos in this country. What we have and was easily accessible was pop culture, which many times could reflect certain situations in the Thai political turmoil. When it was used with the symbolic activism, it gave a remarkable substance, straightforward and easy to understand. If you are aware of that pop culture, you will appreciate the movement and the points they are trying to make.
It's funny that most of the pop culture used in activism are telling a very surreal story, such as a dystopian world or some with thought narratives that are so out of date, like social hierarchy or feudalism. But it all made sense in reflecting the ongoing of the Thai society. There is so much range in the Thai political conflict that whatever evil, oppressed, unlawful world created, can always remind us of our current state.
Away shows probably not only the individual cost of resisting those in power, but also the subtle achievements that finally lead to a transformation of entire societies. Could you name some of those achievements that may now serve the young as a starting point to be able to express efficiently their demands?
In my opinion, there has been no particular action that had affected a significant leap. However, every movement, both failed and successful, had all became stepping stones for the current activity. In retrospect, the society that has been oppressing and blocking the people for decades has fueled the people's hunger to win the fight without giving up. For me, it's about how much buried history we can dig up.
For example, the political refugee issue - people were not aware of this issue during the time I had initiated the idea for Away until the shooting day. There had been continuous cases of forced disappearance or deaths of political refugees during the creation process. But when the issue was exposed, and more people talked about it, it is now heavily highlighted. Currently, there are more attempts to get rid of this problem.
Your film requires some previous historical knowledge about Thai political history. Wat Wanlayangkool explains about how he fought from very early. He mentions several names of persons and events that an international audience might not be familiar with. Who do you wish to address with your documentary?
My original intention was to tell this story domestically. My main objective from the very beginning was to expand this awareness to the Thai people as much as possible. Everybody should get to see what issues are happening. And I hope my film can contribute to the social change towards weeding out these issues.
However, reducing all deep historical contexts was also my first intention - leaving in only small stories to show Mr. Wat's stream of thoughts and his fight. But even the Thai general audience won't recognize every detail of what Mr. Wat mentions, because we were restricted access to many aspects of Thai history. Some Thai audiences may also find out about those historical fights for the first time from this film.
At the end of my process, I realized that this is not just the story of one man's fight. It's also a story of a human being, a story about family, life, and freedom, which I think it's universal enough for everyone. I believe it is still substantial even without the Thai historical context.
Most importantly, for me, is that - all these years of conflict, the right-wing had spread hatred towards people who think differently by dehumanizing them. My wish is to bring back humanity to political conflicts. You may not believe in the same thing, but how would you feel if someone has to fall into this fate just because of their beliefs.