in conversation with Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Can artistic expression flourish under censorship? Or is the freedom of speech essential for creativity? Acclaimed Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul talks to four by three about the medium of film, questions concerning time and how these relate to Buddhism and what cinema teaches us about perception, dreams, death, Plato’s cave and reality.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul is recognised as one of the most original voices in contemporary cinema. His previous six feature films, short films and installations have won him widespread international recognition and numerous awards, including the Cannes Palme d’Or in 2010 with Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. His Tropical Malady won the Cannes Competition Jury Prize in 2004 and Blissfully Yours won the Cannes Un Certain Regard Award in 2002. Syndromes and a Century (2006) was recognised as one of the best films of the last decade in several 2010 polls.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul and I met at the Tate Modern (London) before Tate Film’s first ever all-night screening session, which presented fourteen hours of Weerasethakul’s features, trailers, advertisements and short films.
In most of your films there is little to no dialogue for long periods of time. However, all your films incorporate meticulous sound design (such as the sound of the jungle) and are barely ever completely silent. Do you actually favour ambient sound to dialogue?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Joe): To me, there is actually a lot of talking in my films! [laughs] Take for example Cemetery of Splendour, in which there is a lot of dialogue. I guess it depends on the idea behind each individual film, but generally speaking I give equal importance to dialogue and ambient sound, especially in the way in which they tell a story and evoke certain feelings in unity.
Usually my films start from me having a particular location in mind, rather than from a concrete dialogue or theme. It is really my attachment or appreciation of certain locations and the sound arising out of them, or the spatiality of the location and the light, that begins things. Only then do I start taking notes, diving into my memory, thinking about the people I love, things that are close to me, which opens the film and its possibilities beyond the space I have chosen. That’s why making films is such a privilege to me. It’s wonderful to get to know the group of people I am working together with, who then become a second family to me. Suddenly my diary expands to include other people’s memories. In this way my diary and my films are a record of us growing old together. Working so closely with my actors is also a tool, or dare I say an excuse, as I am pretty socially awkward and really don’t like to talk [laughs]. However, when I am behind the camera, I suddenly have a shield, which makes me feel much more confident and comfortable. This is also why I like experimental cinema, as it is much more personal and one can take advantage of the mobility of the digital equipment.
In your films, you not only liberate the medium of cinema, but also our perception and experience, from the corruption and restriction of time by allowing non-linear structures of your narratives and employing long and slow takes to let time unfold. Moreover, it appears as though your films portray two or more worlds at the same time, such as in Blissfully Yours, Syndromes in a Century and Tropical Malady, Uncle Boonmee and Cemetery of Splendour. Do you see cinematic time to be different from your lived experience?
Joe: Yes, certainly it is! I cannot help, but break up time in my films! I am particularly interested in expressing ideas of relativity in relation to time. But cinema can also be very restrictive, as a linear narrative is difficult to avoid. The best I can really do is to highlight this weakness or fact through different treatments of time. It is impossible to be aware of time, or the flow thereof, without also experiencing its shortness. Another important element to me is that of rhythm and I like to play with it in my films. To disrupt the structure of time is a means to make the audience aware of the illusion of time. This is not only true in relation to cinema, but also in our personal experience, as for each person the perception of time varies. So a film comes probably closest to an individual’s unique perception of time.
On the one hand, your films are very modern, yet on the other hand they are also highly embedded in Buddhism and meditations on perceptions of cultural practices of religion. What is the relationship between spirituality and modernity in your films? And which aspects of Buddhism, such as ‘voidness’ and suffering, are integral to your films and to you personally?
Joe: This is an interesting question, as my answer is related to what I have remarked on in relation to time. Buddhism is about time, at least my kind of Buddhism, which is really about understanding the self, how our body and mind are separated and how they relate and operate. Thinking along these lines, cinema can be one of the two, even though there is at times a confusion or conflict. Buddhism is the awareness of the present, yet cinema is really about the past, so there is a tension in the practice and the belief. In film there is a certain attachment to the past, yet Buddhism is opposed to that! Moreover, Buddhism is about accepting the moment, whereas cinema strives to not only capture it, but also to solidify it. I was actually in conflict for a while about this tension, but I also feel that cinema is still a very young medium. So even though this limitation is present, I try to express the best of my exploration of time and of my notions of perception.
Even though I do meditate, I am not hardcore about it. But I have a friend who is much more dedicated to mediation and he explained to me that you start seeing the unity of time and you start seeing the frames of time, which are more than just 24 frames per second. I don’t know whether to believe it or not, but it is too fascinating for me to simply dismiss it. Sometimes when it rains you can really see individual drops of rain when you meditate, as you are going into a higher state of awareness. So cinema, I feel, has the ability to mimic for the audience a state of mind when you meditate - just in a cruder form.
All of your films oscillate between cosmological transcendence and worldly immanence, while forms of the otherworldly feature prominently. The interesting tension is that film shows that which there is, yet your films show that which we still don’t understand, be it what we cannot prove by science or things that aren't part of the material world. Do you feel cinema is particularly apt for showing the immaterial or the otherworldly?
Joe: To be honest, I’ve never really thought about this point. When I listened to your question, I also realised how jealous I am of you, because I never experienced my own films. I simply know too much about it, such as the making of it or what has been cut out and what has been changed. So, for me it’s hard to say, as it is like a performance - when it’s done, it’s done! I am too conscious about decisions of framing scenes and performances in relation to reality and in relation to calling the tension to this game of trying to simulate reality, which is so delicate, that I have a hard time seeing it in its finished form.
Take for example effects achieved in post-production, they are the key reason why I watch films! I never watch art house movies outside of film festivals to be honest. I am actually really excited about Hollywood blockbuster summer time! Of course I don’t have a budget that would allow for such effects, but these effects are one of the elements which allow you to imagine the future. It is really an advanced form of making images! It is so fascinating and inspiring! Previously shooting a film could have been understood as performance, but now post-production has become a form of performance. Therefore, performance continues beyond the shoot of the film and sometimes it takes dozens of people to make two seconds of the film in post-production, which is absolutely amazing! If you work within film you are working with a machine which deals with time. I follow the development of technological equipment and also other things involving the brain, as well as perception.
It seems as though you are capturing the internal world, such as the processes of the mind, consciousness, dreams and memories, rather than predominantly the external one and thereby offer an exterior visualisation of interior subjectivity. Do you believe that there is such a separation of external and internal, as the distinction of what is real and what is imagined disappears, if you accept that you put them on the same plane of existence?
Joe: There is only the subject, the I, that makes sense of the external. But everything is internal. Hence, I don’t think we are able to differentiate between the internal and the external or see it as dichotomies. In order to perceive the external you at first have to internalise it. So, how would it be possible to separate them? Hence, the question of whether films are a projection of the internal workings of one’s mind is a really tricky question! Coming back to Buddhism, cinema is really just excess, we are just producing more trash [laughs]. We don’t need that! But cinema is also a means of declaring your existence.
Not only are you blurring the boundaries between internal and external, dichotomies such as urban/rural, documentary/fiction, sound/image, fine art/cinema, global/local, sacred/profane, mundane/extraordinary, present/past, silence/sound, city/jungle, light/darkness are always counteracted. Everyone and everything in your films seems to be in flux or in transition from one state to another, highlighting the fluidity of the world and our identity. How do you see such dichotomies?
Joe: There are rules which we follow, particularly within narrative cinema. Practicing cinema is a privilege, as I said, in that it allows you to experiment or allows you to aware of the rules, which we made ourselves. Let’s go back to time, we think of a day as consisting of 24 hours and we think of a week as consisting of seven days. Yet we feel different on a Saturday and Sunday than we do on a Monday. But it’s all just the same! We just treat it differently, because of the cultural conditioning or the conceptual framework, whereas in fact it is simply an illusion. Art is a good practice to ask questions, such as about all these dichotomies we’ve established.
I would argue that your films rescue us from a spiritual death - just like Tarkovsky’s cinema did - and can be seen as a means to resist death. And you have once said about Uncle Boonmee that “The film reinforces a special association between cinema and reincarnation. Cinema is man’s way to create alternate universes, other lives,” implying a natural spiritual dimension to film and a continuation of subjectivity beyond our body and mind’s finitude. What do you feel is the purpose of cinema more generally speaking?
Joe: I can in fact answer this in many different ways. One of them would be that cinema is a biological need, such as dreams are, because when we dream we enter this state to clear our memories and cinema is the same: you enter a dark room and lose a part of yourself by giving yourself to the film. When you look at the research that has gone into our sleep cycles, you will find out that there are four stages and each stage lasts about 90 minutes. You see the connection - there is a parallel to the length in cinema.
Another kind of answer would be that it links with death on the one hand, but also with the undead on the other hand. You know, everything is dying all the time. Nothing is solid. And cinema is capturing death all the time. But at the same time, it is a testament of death. However, once it is projected or projected again, it undergoes another transformation, a transformation into light, thereby seemingly becoming alive again and resurrected from death. Hence, there is an intricate relation between cinema and death.
The cave in Uncle Boonmee is a fascinating sequence in the film. It is a site of birth and death for Boonmee and historically an ancient place for paintings since the dawn of man’s existence. In Western philosophy we have the allegory of Plato’s cave. Bonnmee appears to be a prisoner freeing himself from the constraints of reality, transcending the shadows on the wall and encountering reality. To me this scene encapsulates time, philosophy, reality and truth. What is the significance of this scene to you and what are your thoughts on ‘reality’?
Joe: Of course, I know about Plato’s allegory and there are many references in my films to his allegory! I am certainly really fascinated about this allegory, because in Thailand the narrative is constantly changing. Take history: when I was in school I was taught propaganda, which they are actually still teaching. But with the advance of the internet all this new information would suddenly open up and you realise that reality or your history is in fact not what you think it is or was. This is also relevant to the allegory of the cave, as we have just seen these shadows of history. Politically speaking, when one of the men in Plato’s allegory comes and proclaims that there is a reality out there, people not only don’t believe him, but they go as far as punishing him. This is what really is happening in Thailand. And in Uncle Boonmee I wanted to go to the roots of this narrative, which is the cave, in which we live and where we created the first films, the drawing of the shadows from the fire. So, there are many reflections of the allegory in my films, but I am also really fascinated by Plato and Buddhism. Ok, this guy comes down and tells us about the sunlight, but is that reality? I am not sure whether the outside to which he is pointing is necessarily reality. So, there is part two of Plato, which I think needs to be written.
As an outspoken defender of free speech and one of the founders of the Free Thai Cinema Movement, you are refusing and resisting to cut your films according to the censorship laws in Thailand. In an article of yours from 2007, The Folly and Future of Thai Cinema Under Military Dictatorship, you said that “the fate of Thai cinema would be irrevocably doomed if the power to censor remained with the police” and that if artist/filmmaker were to subject themselves to these new regulations, they would accept to be silenced by the government. What is at stake for you if the government is allowed to silence artists and allowed to silence the collective memory?
Joe: It seems to me that we have chosen to operate out of fear. Every government and every dictator knows how to instill fear. Even for Cemetery of Splendour I had to silence and self-censor myself. But when you were saying that my films are marginalised in Thailand, I’d object to the claim that they aren’t marginalised internationally. Not many people know about my films in comparison to the ‘big guys’. However, I do feel quite comfortable with it, as I believe when you are not marginalised it isn’t interesting. When you are marginalised it forces you to question your fear of being silenced and how you will deal with it. You either chose to be on the edge or you chose self-censorship as your normal mode of operation. I am still in the stage where I have to censor myself. But when you look at Eastern European films made during dictatorships, these are beautiful films! On the one hand they are subversive, but on the other hand you can tell the self-censorship quite clearly. You censor yourself and you think you can do so in a smart way, but sometimes I feel this is very boring and upsetting. Some artists may indeed crave restrictions or abuse the censorship. But lately I have come to question this mode for myself. That’s why I decided to break with this and actually go somewhere else for a while.
As the current political situation in Thailand is getting increasingly unstable, your hope for freedom of artistic expression has vanished to a point that you are thinking of leaving Thailand. During the London Film Festival in 2015 you said that you are considering to move to South America, in order to freely continue working as an artist. Yet your films are grounded in specifically Thai socio-political realities. What is it about that part of the world that you consider going there, rather than somewhere else? Do you relate to their way of perceiving the world?
Joe: Oh, it feels somewhat unstable everywhere. But every time I visit South America, I see something similar there to Thailand. It’s hard to pinpoint for me what it is about South America, but there is still something burning there. If you look at the different regimes, you can see that they have passed through many of the stages we experienced in Thailand and I’d like to study that. The other interesting element to me is that it would feel less personal, as I am not from there. Maybe this would also give me a better perspective on my own country, so that I can actually contextualise where I am from.
Plus, I also relate to the South American way of perceiving the world, their history and tales, especially their tales of romantic adventures in a jungle. It’s going back to the root of my fascination for all things magical and South America has a long standing tradition of that. And as I have mentioned earlier, I am really interested in the brain and perception and in South America they have different traditions of taking drugs, so as to activate visions and it was definitely always my belief that we really don’t need films. The best films happen inside your brain and these drugs are a great enabler.
It seems as though all of your films contribute to one larger overarching film or project, coming together in one ‘mysterious object’ to reference your debut film Mysterious Object at Noon, never shying away from referencing one another, which is also highlighted by the recurring non-professional actors in your films. How do you feel your feature films relate to one another? How do your video works and installations relate to your feature films?
Joe: You are right, my films exist in the same universe or they are from the same family. I really don’t have that many different interests, so I am revisiting what is important to me. When I look at some artwork, some abstract painting for example, such as Rothko, they repeat their art and people approach their art in periods, such as Picasso’s various periods. But when people approach cinema, they somehow expect variety. This isn’t fair, not at least because I want to repeat certain elements dear to me and grow them. So I really hope that people come to see my films in periods.
In contrast, my video work is different in nature, as it enters into a different dialogue with the audience. Within cinema, you are really in charge and you are hypnotizing your audience or at least taking them on a journey. But within installations, you are much more reductive and give room for an active audience. You are activating their own memory, not expecting them to sleep in a dark cinema room. Within a gallery context, the audience is free to adjust their distance to the piece or adjust their own associations. People tend to have more diverse interpretations of an artwork than they have of films. This isn’t obviously unique to my work, but more symptomatic of installation work in general. However, when I am making feature films, I always try and bring in this element or spirit of video work and vice versa. My practice is closer to contemporary art, in that it is about referentiality.
Apichatpong Weerasethakul is an independent Thai film director, screenwriter and film producer. His feature films include Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winner of the prestigious 2010 Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or prize; Tropical Malady, which won the Jury prize at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival; Blissfully Yours, which won the top prize in the Un Certain Regard program at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival; Syndromes and a Century, which premiered at the 63rd Venice Film Festival and was the first Thai film to be entered in competition there; and Cemetery of Splendour, which premiered in the Un Certain Regard section of the 2015 Cannes Film Festival to critical acclaim.