NETWORK OF ENTERTAINING ASIAN AMERICAN TALENT
HONG KONG: ‘How do you make a film about a girl who could never give you an interview, because she’s in a coma?” asks the Thai artist Ing K in a recent film festival blog entry.
The answer: with the Thai contemporary art photographer Manit Sriwanichpoom and the controversial opposition senator Kraisak Choohavan. The three collaborated in producing “Citizen Juling,” an intelligent and timely documentary that explores the circumstances surrounding the death of Juling Pongkanmul, a teacher from northern Thailand who was assaulted by Muslim women in a village in southern Thailand’s war zone in May 2006.
The film had its world premiere last Saturday at the Toronto International Film Festival. Even with the current anti-establishment protests and political turmoil, the directors plan limited screenings in Bangkok by late this month.
Running at three hours and 42 minutes, and shot in cinéma vérité style, the filmmakers admit that “Juling” is both “intense and demanding.” It is not an easy movie, but it is powerful and compelling, offering an unflinching and achingly human view of some of Thailand’s social conflicts.
Manit shot about 90 percent of the footage on a small digital video camera. “Because I didn’t have to look through the monitor,” Manit said, “the subjects were more relaxed; people did not feel threatened. I could look at them and smile, so it is like a home movie.” He let individuals tell their tales, recording many of them for the first time.
For him, “Juling,” with its long single-shot scenes, is about capturing emotions. In a telephone interview, he said from Bangkok, “Now and then the media reports the facts, how many are dead, but what about the feelings of the people?” In the last five years about 3,000 people have “disappeared,” died in detention or been the targets of allegedly government-sanctioned extra-judicial killings in Muslim southern Thailand. It took Manit and Ing working with Kraisak – who helped gain access to nearly all the personalities in the film, including Juling’s family and school colleagues, religious and political leaders, and Muslims who have suffered under the Thai government’s military rule in the south – to make the first feature-length documentary on the civilian toll of the war.
Manit, 46, first gained international fame for his conceptual “pink man” photography series, a commentary on consumerism and globalization. The artist, whose work has been shown at the Venice and São Paolo biennales, sees the project as an extension of his art. “My work has always had a political message. Working on this documentary is part of my mission,” he said. He shot most of the footage over four months in 2006, ending with the coup d’état that forced Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra out of office.
The film creates an intimate portrait of a society torn apart by unequal access to opportunities and justice and plagued with violence, yet held together by an unquestioning devotion to the king.
The documentary starts off trying to understand the tragedy of Juling, whose story moved the nation. Juling taught children art in a war zone in the south. In May 2006, a mob of Muslim women kidnapped and brutally beat her, leaving her in a coma.
By the end of the film, what most leaves an impression are the myriad characters and their catalogue of injustices: personal stories of torture (a senator wrongly imprisoned for two years as a suspected Al Qaeda cell member), of grief (a father whose son died in detention), and of the long-simmering anger in Thailand’s predominantly Muslim south.
Ing, an activist writer and painter, served as the director, editor and primary creative force behind the project. Speaking by phone, she said: “People in Thailand are going to expect Teacher Juling adoration in this film and it is not that.” Juling is the medium that makes some of Thailand’s most difficult problems accessible. “There have been more shocking killings of teachers, one was even beheaded, but there was something about Juling,” Ing added.
For eight months, as Juling lay comatose, the country prayed for her, celebrities and schoolchildren visited, and she inspired poems. Her paintings and drawings were exhibited. The Thai media called her the “Sleeping Beauty” and artists – like Manit – donated works to sell to help pay her hospital bills. The only song featured in the documentary is a popular Thai country music piece about Juling. She died in January 2007.
Ing, who had not made a documentary in a decade, got the idea for the film at a fundraising art exhibit for Juling where she found a sobbing young Muslim Thai woman. She is featured in the film.
The one image Ing wishes she could have included in “Juling” was one she saw on television during the current Bangkok protests. “It was an old auntie wearing a crash helmet – people have been donating crash helmets to demonstrators – and she was Thai dancing. She was so happy, so empowered.” Crowds had just forced their way into Government House, Bangkok’s administrative seat.
Citizen Juling opens on crowds as they celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of King Bhumibol’s coronation in Bangkok. Using a hand-held camera, the filmmakers quiz passersby with questions such as “Why do you love the King?” But the interviewees, unused to being asked about the sacred ideological pillars of “Nation, Religion, King,” give mostly cautious answers. It is a provocative start to this powerfully humanistic documentary, which examines the issue of Islamic insurgency in Thailand within the context of the country’s unstable democracy.
Since the Islamic uprising started in 2004, more than fifty Buddhist teachers have been killed in two years. Juling Pongkunmul was an art teacher from Thailand’s north who ventured to the Islamic south to teach at a village kindergarten. She would end up lying comatose in a pool of blood three weeks before the King’s coronation celebration. The case of Juling’s abduction outraged the whole nation, and she became the symbol of national solidarity against southern separatists.
Citizen Juling examines this complex political situation through the viewpoint of Kraisak Choonhavan, Thailand’s outspoken human-rights activist. As he ventures into the south, we also see a different side of the Muslim community. Many do not understand how, after generations of living peacefully with the Buddhists, times have suddenly turned so violent. And the response of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra’s government to those separatist attacks – police brutality, abduction of Muslim leaders, and military oppression – has intensified the mutual mistrust and atrocities on both sides.
In the end, Citizen Juling highlights the need for justice and accountability in a country rife with corruption. It is an immersive and incisive portrayal of an unequal society in which terrorism is not the cause, but a symptom.
THE HUMAN FACE OF TRAGEDY
Uncompromising documentary examines the troubles in the South, using the abduction and subsequent death of an innocent teacher as a focal point
|Scenes from Polamuang Juling, perhaps one of the most important films to be made about the conflict in Thailand’s Deep South.|
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Humanist before it is political, soul-searching before it is Thaksin-bashing, Polamuang Juling (Citizen Juling) is perhaps the most important documentary about our Deep South dysfunction to come out since the outbreak of violence in 2003. The movie has been made quietly, almost spontaneously, and the next question is whether it will get its deserved exposure, either on television or in the cinema, without being subjected to the tyranny of censorship at a time when the political climate is dizzying both in Parliament and on the street.
The title makes it clear that this is an unblinking report into the brutal case of Juling Pongkunmul, an art teacher who was abducted and severely beaten into a coma by terrorists from Gujingruepo village in Narathiwat in May 2004. Travelling into what many believe to be the heart of darkness, the filmmakers – artists Ing K and Manit Sriwanichpoom, and Democrat party list MP Kraisak Choonhavan – use the Juling incident to hold up a mirror to the complexity of our southern malaise and the bankruptcy of the justice system that has betrayed the trust of the citizens. In an intertwining storyline, the doc stares back into the aftermath of the scandalous horrors of Tak Bai, Saba Yoi and Krue Sae mosque, before traversing the Siamese latitudes to a village in Chiang Rai, the hometown of Juling, to show us that the tragedy of being a Buddhist or a Muslim is sometimes not as bitter as the tragedy of merely being a citizen in this strange, deeply troubled land.
“I believe the moving picture can help to expose what’s happening down there, because over the years, we’ve heard such an impossible amount of lies,” says Kraisak, a former senator who’s long worked on southern issues and was a staunch critic of the Thaksin administration. “We’ve been lied to to the point that it’s not even possible for us to imagine what the truth actually is. Sometimes we need to hear blunt statements, otherwise we’ll continue to take everything for granted.
“Every year I get to speak only once – in the parliamentary session,” continues the MP, laughing. “Perhaps I can say something more in the film.”
“Above all this is a movie that ‘listens’ to the southern people,” adds Manit, a photographer whose pictures are known for their sardonic, anti-establishment wit. “Most people have not paid attention to what’s happening, because we’ve grown impotent to all the bad news about the South. This is a complex issue that reflects the state of the entire nation, and I think that we need to take time to listen and to try to learn about all its aspects and implications.”
Citizen Juling runs for 220 minutes, its human face emerging through on-site conversations between Kraisak and villagers, headmen, students, teachers, eyewitnesses, Muslims, Buddhists, imams, local politicians, friends and relatives of Juling, friends and relatives of the “suspects” arrested by the military, wives of those killed at Tak Bai and Krue Sae, and so on. The tapestry is rich and sad, revealing and perplexing. The film makes no effort to hide its distaste for the way Thaksin Shinawatra mishandled the conflict, but it doesn’t make the pretence of being privy to “the truth”. Instead, it shows us that the process of trying to find the truth is perhaps more important than actually finding it.
The idea of the documentary came to Manit and Ing when they attended an exhibition of Juling’s paintings organised by Kraisak in June 2006. At that time, Juling was still in a coma at a Hat Yai hospital, and the shocking violence committed against her had come to symbolise the senseless atrocity of the “southern people” that provoked an outpouring of anger and bewilderment from the entire country. Believing that the cultural media can foster understanding, Kraisak, then a senator, organised a photography exhibition at Parliament House and assembled paintings by Juling and other southern painters to show as a separate event at Queen’s Gallery.
At the exhibition, Ing met a visitor who was driven to tears by Juling’s paintings – or more likely, by the story of this idealistic northern woman who, against everybody’s advice, packed up and went to teach art at Gujingruepo school in Narathiwat’s Red Zone with the conviction that, since she was doing good for her country, there was nothing to be afraid of.
After months in the ICU, Juling passed away in January 2007. She was 24.
‘After meeting her, I realised that even though city people may not be able to relate to the southern people, they should feel related to Juling, and her story can be the door to explore what’s happening in the South,” says Ing, an artist and activist. “It touches me that she sounds like a kind of Don Quixote, a person guided by her idealism. In many ways, her actions reflect the Thai belief in the pillars of chart, sart and kasat – nation, religion, monarchy.”
In the early 1990s, Ing made a documentary exposing the environmental damage inflicted by a golf course, and in 1999 her vehement satire of Buddhist monks, Kon Krab Mah (literally, “men who bow to dogs”) was banned in a high-profile saga that involved policemen storming the theatre to prevent the screening taking place.
But, Ing says, what drove her to make Citizen Juling was less the pang of moral indignation than the need to present the complex emotional landscape of the region, and perhaps of Thailand. “That’s what I told myself when I started, that this is a film about emotion,” she says. In the film, we meet Juling’s parents outside the ICU, and they speak calmly about how they don’t want to hold grudges against the people who harmed their daughter. Then we meet the father of one of the boys killed in the notorious – and quickly forgotten – massacre of the Saba Yoi Muslim football team, who breaks down in tears while imploring the authorities for long-delayed justice.
Meanwhile, there are people who speak, with the same sincerity, about how they fear the southern people because of “their veils” and because “even the name of Juling’s school sounds scary.” Equally stunning is a maverick imam in Songkhla, who speaks eloquently about how it pains him to see his fellow Muslims “fighting over power, instead of fighting to improve the religion.”
By confronting the divisive environment – and pointing out that this is the consequence of a failed policy – the doc pushes past the platitude of a “reconciliation message” that risks hiding unpleasant realities behind the land-of-smiles myth. And that’s only possible because Kraisak’s presence opened many doors to Ing and Manit, who followed him with a camera as the then-senator made a trip to the southernmost provinces to inquire about the case.
As the air is thick with mutual mistrust, it’s impossible to imagine any random person wandering into some village with a movie camera expecting to be greeted with co-operation – or to be greeted at all. It’s even worse if that person, say, is escorted by authority figures, like soldiers or policemen. Kraisak’s status as a politician who publicly speaks against the authority has earned him the trust of the southern people mired in the sense of prolonged injustice, and somehow they open up to him.
“If anything, the movie stresses the point that the justice system of this country is not functioning,” says Kraisak. “The South is an extreme case, but it’s a microcosm of what’s happening everywhere in Thailand.”
And it will be no small injustice if the movie goes unseen by a wider audience. Manit and Ing are concerned that the film’s daunting length, over three-and-a-half hours, will dim interest even from alternative movie houses, though they believe it’s possible to divide Citizen Juling into a series for TV.
But it goes without saying that their principal concern is censorship. Since the new Film Act, which will introduce a ratings system to Thailand, is still to be delivered from the womb of the Culture Ministry, the process remains with the police. The police consider each film along with a group of representatives from the government and cultural agencies, who can demand filmmakers cut scenes they deem “inappropriate”. Nevertheless, the new Film Act still retains the right of the state to cut or ban films that may disrupt “national stability” – deliberately open phrasing that can be applied to films that do not play in favour of the powers-that-be, especially ones that have a political edge.
“Let’s see what we can do, but it’s my dream to show this small movie to Thai audiences in Bangkok,” says Ing.
Maybe in the the rest of country too. Despite the many southern faces we encounter in the film, it is a burly northern man who springs out to capture our attention. A Thai man of Akha origin speaks with a mixture of grief and fury about the plight of hilltribe people: the persecution, the fear, and yes, the state injustice that has left a wound inside his soul. “We’re also victims,” he says. What citizen Juling faced, we realise, may not be so different from what we, and other citizens, are facing.