Uruphong Raksasad: Self-sufficiency moviemaking
Feature by: Kong Rithdee
"In the harvest season the whole village would come out to work in the fields. The men would work the scythes and the women would cook. The fields were in yellow and gold. A mango would fall from the branch when a gush of wind swept past. And at night when the moon was full I would sit in front of my house listening to my uncle play his sueng [northern mandolin]. We would see a man bicycling home after visiting his girlfriend in another village. And we shouted 'Who's that? Who's that?', but it was dark and sometimes there was no answer and we weren't sure if it was somebody we knew."
The scenes took place twenty years ago. But two decades seem long enough for Uruphong Raksasad to describe the pictures of his agrarian utopia as if they were impressionist paintings from a long-gone century, preserved in the privacy of his own memory. Or maybe they actually are. Over the past years, Uruphong, a native of a village in Chiang Rai, has set out to record the fast-disappearing existence of what he calls "his happiness" -- the farming society and its people as well as their beasts -- and his 88-minute digital movie is a luminous diary of the pastoral Lanna, which has changed, according to the 29-year-old filmmaker, "so shockingly from the back of my hand to the sole of my foot in just twenty years".
In Stories from the North, Uruphong strings eight (and a half) short movies he previously made into one long opus, and it becomes a broad brushstroke of the daily lives of men and women of the North, their farming chores, their culture, their hopes and problems, told in a nearly wordless visual sweep. The movie earned rapt praise from several international film festivals it has travelled to during the past 10 months. In June it won the top award from the Jeonju cinefest in Korea. Last month it was shown as part of the film showcase at the Thai Culture Festival in Paris; British curator Tony Rayns also programmed it into the Vancouver International Film Festival, an important cine-gathering of young Asian directors that takes place every October.
On home soil, Stories from the North was screened, without much publicity though, at the Bangkok International Film Festival in February. Yet the screening that honoured the true spirit of Uruphong's grassroots filmmaking was when he brought a DVD and showed it to the villagers of Chiang Rai who appear in his film. In a period when Thai movies are more and more ingrained with middle-class sensibilities, either in the form of teen-oriented commercial packaging or urban indie swagger, and when it seems that Bangkok boys (and some girls) solely represent the new wave of aspiring filmmakers -- Uruphong's regionalism and bucolic sensitivity testify to the idea of filmmaking at its purest, cheapest, and most personal.
"I usually work alone, with a DV camera. If I need to use a boom microphone I carry it myself. It's not a matter of form but a matter of money. Each short film costs me very little, like 5,000 or 6,000 baht. But maybe it's not so little since I don't make any money in return!" says Uruphong, a Thammasat University graduate whose speech, and lifestyle, seem as ascetic as a monk.
"My idea is to tell the stories of my home village in Chiang Rai, the stories and images that I remember from my childhood. The scenery, the people, the way of life -- it's as simple as that. I'm not trying to present the picture of a utopia, because farmers' lives are difficult and we have to struggle a lot. But at least they are the images of real happiness that, I believe, even the rural people themselves are forgetting since they've grown to believe that development and modernity will give them a better life."
In the age of irony it has become a cliche, accented by dewy-eyed nostalgia, to talk about the past glory of rural simplicity and agricultural community. But Uruphong's films, Stories from the North in particular and his other shorts as well, replace such easy sentimentalism with the spiritual power of the landscape, the expanse of rain-soaked paddies, and sometimes the docile buffaloes oblivious to the changes around them. The rugged, weathered faces of northern farmers, housewives, monks, musicians and children in his films speak not of casual bliss but of hard-fought serenity.
His is not a collection of "exotic" cinema, but a record of lived experience. Indeed each of Uruphong's movies has the Courbet-like quality of an impressionist painting from a bygone era.
"I think an artist, and his art, should do something to the society he lives in," says Uruphong. "I think my movies can at least remind people that we can live our lives at a slower pace. We can take time to look back and see if our one-way ticket to 'modernity' is the only way of life. Perhaps my movies can suggest that there are other roads we should consider in our development effort -- we've gained a lot in the past 20 years, but is it worth what we've sacrificed? People in the country know happiness. They've lived it. But the pressure from mainstream society is so great that they're convinced they can leave behind what they've had and set out to possess something new."
Hardly since the 1970s have Thai filmmakers approached their art from a non-Bangkok point of view. If local wisdom is the kernel of Otop products [Editor's note: One Tambon One Project, a government-initiated project of mostly handicrafts, "aimed at improving incomes in village communities to help alleviate rural poverty". (http://www.tatnews.org/emagazine/2178.asp)], grassroots filmmaking should be included in the campaign too -- and Uruphong's work could best serve as the prototype of self-sufficiency moviemaking. Born to a farming family in the district of Terng, 60 kilometres from Chiang Rai, Uruphong developed a passion for still photography in highschool and came to the capital for the first time when he was 18, after having secured a place at Thammasat's Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communications.
After graduating he went to work for a TV production company, but felt increasingly frustrated by the system that cares for nothing else but ratings. "I'm not a radical, but I have my own ideals," he says. "I understand that a television programme needs to attract viewers and advertising, but I just don't want to be part of that machine. Well, in truth I think the world would be more peaceful if all TV stations were shut down permanently."
Life as an independent filmmaker is perhaps as hard as that of a northern farmer. Uruphong mostly scraped through doing editing work for friends. All the money he earned went into the production of his short films, and he now lives in a government-subsidised housing estate, Ban Ua Ar-thorn, in Pathum Thani. "It's good that my films have won some prizes so my cash flow is a bit better," he laughs. "But I'm not complaining. How much money you need depends on your lifestyle. Mine is not so expensive. Even my movies are so cheap to make."
"Initially I had the idea of trying to get Stories from the North shown in the theatre, but I don't have the strength, financially and managerially, to work myself into the system. Like they say in the North, sometimes you go look for an underground wellspring because you need more water. But when you find it and crack it open and the spring overflows to become a stream, you may be too excited and fall into the stream and drown yourself. I'd rather not let that happen to me."
But in truth, a little more money would do Uruphong good: the man is planning his next project, an all-encompassing Lanna epic that will take him to every northern province from Payao to Mae Hong Son to meet the local craftsmen and musicians and document their arts and customs. His eyes light up when he begins describing his grand plan. "But first ," he smiles, "I'm gonna have to save some money for a new camera. The only one I had is already broken."
Article first appeared in the Bangkok Post on October 13, 2006. Republished here with the permission of the author.