When in Bangkok this past February, I made it a point to casually ask the Thai filmmakers I met whose work they felt deserved attention. The response I received most was Sasithorn Ariyavicha. I first encountered the polarizing cinema of Sasithorn when I programmed her film "The Birth of Seanema" in .MOV, an International Digital Film Festival held in Cebu, Philippines, March of 2005. Reactions of the viewers I spoke to afterward-- namely, the jury of the festival (the audience was but few), was rather violent. But each detractor has been matched with equal verve by an adamant supporter, testifying to the durability of a cinema that seeks to speak new languages.
Sasithorn Ariyavicha is somewhat of an underground hero in Thailand. Let us listen as Graiwoot tells us more. - Alexis A. Tioseco
One month ago, Chalida Uabumrungjit of the Thai Film Foundation introduced me to the films of Toom—Sasithorn Ariyavicha, accompanied by the enticing words "the films have a very poetic feel". The following day, I experienced her five films all at one go and the first image of the first film left me momentarily speechless. There are Thais who make these kinds of films?
Certain dimensions of her films provide for emotional release, and an exploration of one's own memories.
Sasithorn has been watching films seriously since high school. She was a regular of the cinemas at Goethe and Alliance Francaise.
"At that time, I was in a life-meaning phase. I knew it was something interesting but I didn't know what it was."
MTV was another place where she could fully set free her interests.
"Back then, MTV had just begun. I would always record it [the programs]. I felt that it had a strange way of presenting images. At that time, I had no idea that it had stolen a lot of the formats of experimental films. I didn't even know what experimental films were."
After graduating with a major in film from the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communications from Thammasat University, Sasithorn stepped into the field of advertising. After working as a copywriter for two years, it was finally time for her to do what she had long dreamed of-- filmmaking-- and the first point that she chose as the foundation for her dreams was further studies.
(The following interview was created from multiple conversations and question and answer sessions via e-mail.)
Part 1: The Creator
Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn: After that you furthered your studies?
Sasithorn Ariyavicha: Yes. Looking back at that point, I [realize] I was very naïve. I thought that by studying film I would be able to make films and that everything would go smoothly, but it wasn't like that. Living in New York I knew that there were millions of people who made films, and everyone called themselves a Filmmaker. There were limited resources, but everyone had to fight for them.
The good thing about living in New York was that I learned so much outside the classroom. All kinds of art, theatre, music-- that was true learning.
GC: Did you study personal filmmaking just like that [directly]
SA: There was no specific major in that. The place I studied at was called The New School of Social Research. I studied Media Studies.
I chose the place because other schools were very business-focused-- after graduating you would go work as an employee, or you would be Spike Lee at NYU, which is not what I was interested in.
This school was more about giving you the freedom to do whatever you want. The teachers were small filmmakers, documentary makers, most of whom were independent filmmakers.
The initial stages of going abroad to study were very unsettling. I went to Syracuse which is outside of New York, but it turned out that I experienced very bad culture shock. It was a campus town. You cannot see anything at all. No culture, no sign of movement whatsoever. We merely stayed in the dorms, leaving them only to study. The professors were very conservative. I couldn't stand it anymore. Is this what you call abroad? I immediately decided that I wouldn't stay there anymore and moved to New York.
GC: What did you do after graduate studies?
SA: Before graduating I knew that I no longer wanted to go back to Thailand because I preferred the life in New York and that it would be difficult to make my type of films in Thailand. At that time I did not have a DV camera and independent filmmaking in Thailand did not exist yet, so I tried to stay on, doing odd jobs from helping out in independent film productions in New York to being an audio-visual technician, as well as trying to make films (video) and apply for grants-- very difficult.
The kind of films I made did not follow the trend of films that received grant applications during that era of political correctness, so I realized that I would have to do something related to issues of my own status as part of a minority group. Compared to others, it would take at least a full year to receive 2,000 dollars, so I thought that I shouldn't bother-- doing full-time work provides more income, and you don't need to write up a project wooing the board members who would provide funding, and I already had issues that I gave importance to. Simply put, not only were the kind of films I made not of interest to the mainstream, it wasn't of interest to those outside of the mainstream either.
After trying to stay in America for a while, I knew it wouldn't work out because the cost of living was very high. At that time I did not have a full-time job, so I had to come back to Thailand. When I came back I tried to go into the advertising industry. When I showed my films to the big production houses, they asked me what the point of making them was, so I had to find other kinds of work to do. Finally I got a job as the manager of the multimedia department of a media company. I was doing that for a while and then returned to America because I felt that the many perspectives and values I faced in the industry in Thailand were from different worlds from mine. New York has many drawbacks, but after living there for a long time I learned to know which places were mine. There are spaces in terms of thought, lifestyle, and there is always movement. There are people from all corners of the Earth. It is one of the most energetic cities in the world, which allows it to be a more open society.
GC: How was your life in New York after that?
SA: One of my friends introduced me to a translation agency that was looking for a project manager. This wasn't a translation position, more like a producer where I had to manage the translation of a piece of work from beginning to end. The translation agency was a company with various departments with an established work system. They wanted to control the quality of the work, and in many cases the project would be translated not only into one language, but ten languages. Everything had to be managed. I applied. I had made my own films from beginning to end before, had experience in production, in translation, and had done coordination work in computers, so they accepted me. At first I didn't think it would be a big deal, but the people there made sure they made the most of the money they paid us.
I had never done any work in my life before that was as heavy as that. You had to simultaneously manage many projects, and they don't work like Thais-- they're mad-- the work was very heavy. If you weren't meticulous or didn't finish your work on time for two to three times, they would ask you to leave on that very day. I've seen it. Every so often you'll have people who come to work in the morning and by late morning they've packed up their stuff and gone home, never to come back again. There was a lot of pressure.
GC: Narrative films begin from the script; where do ideas originate from for your kind of films?
SA: Mostly it is from images that arise. I try to have a script but in the end it usually doesn't work very well. When I was first making Birth of the Seanema, it was very structured-- there were people and characters-- but when I added words for them I felt that it was no longer true for me. I was thinking in terms of the images, but not beautiful postcard-style images. I wanted to enter the dimension of the profound depths of moving images. I felt that film is always mainly used as a tool for storytelling, to such an extent that the other elements of the film are not given enough importance as they should.
The history of films has been engulfed by narrative films such that the audience has gotten used to the fact that certain images must be taken into account because the narrative tells you to. I am interested in moving images. I am interested in how to enter the dimension of the deeper depths of moving images. I'm not sure whether I've successfully done that or not.
I haven't been happy with any of the films I've made, but as Woody Allen once said "When you're first making the film you have beautiful dreams about it, but at the end you just want to get it over and done with" (laughs).
GC: Could you elaborate a bit more on your filmmaking?
SA: Actually it was only recently that I could visualize a concrete direction [for them]. Looking back at all my films now, I find that Transfigured Night is the only film that kind of literally follows the script. It's the film that I dislike most in terms of story or content. It's too dull and literal. The rest of my films, even if I wrote scripts for them, never follow their scripts. The scripts were just starting points. And films like Drifter and Winter Remains don't have scripts at all. They were just collections of images without any intention whatsoever to tell stories.
I discovered that the direction in filmmaking most appropriate to me was about image collection first and then gradually constructing a film out of those images. It is the type of filmmaking without using a narrative as the lead, rather taking the feelings that I have towards the environment that will become the moving images as the lead. Therefore my films required that I did all the filming myself, because as a basis, I directly communicated with the specific environment using my personal feelings in terms of the image. Some people have said that I should be a cinematographer, but I disagree because it's probably not my forte to film according to what each of the directors want, and each of them have very different styles.
For me, cinematography covers so much more than a cameraman who just does his or her job, because it is an important foundation which gives life to the film more than many other elements.
I think I have the characteristics of a writer rather than a filmmaker, which is enjoying doing things alone without having to deal with so many people. I also like work in which I am the sole creator of the work without having to go through or be dependent on other people. Filmmaking requires dependency on many other people, and in my kind of filmmaking, I find it much easier to make the film by having a concept or some kind of direction or clear narrative-- maybe not a ready-made recipe, but at least something like a map. It saves time, but I feel that almost every time I make a film, it's like beginning all over again, starting in the dark, without any map of any sort. This method is not good in terms of time, meaning that, even though a vague initial idea is there, it's merely a springboard from which after you jump in, it's no longer the main pillar, but rather you are left to swim to the unknown. I've tried to make it so that there is a narrative and clearer characters, but when it comes to the actual filming, I do not have feelings to communicate with it, so I end up swimming in circles in the middle of the ocean allowing the film to build itself up. On the other hand, when I get to that point, I intentionally allow it to go that way. I know there are faster methods, having done advertising work before and being a person who keeps up with art work, for example focusing on an idea or concept, or finding something to be the clear concrete foundation and then reacting with that foundation.
Whatever is the case, I don't want to use those methods. It doesn't give me the opportunity to directly experience the formation process of the film. I also want to know whether or not I will discover something outside of that thinking sphere if I don't use those methods. It might be something that I never knew. It is like journeying without a map; it is directly using my own senses as the navigator to find the film and my own creative direction. The results are a double-edged sword because I might get totally lost, but at the same time I might find new places that I have never known and places that really suit me. For example in Birth of the Seanema I traveled using my senses to lead me. It allowed me to find a direction of filmmaking and a storyline in the narrative which allowed me to communicate in my own way, in a way I had never known before. Actually, searching for that which we do not know using this method is nothing new. It is very, very old, but old or new is not as important as my feeling that it is a method that allows me to experience the creative process at a different level, as opposed to the other methods. I prefer it this way. It is like a process that slowly distills itself until some concrete form is finally created.
For people in general, films are entertainment. For many others, in the academic sense, films perform the role of telling something. For some people, in order to confirm that film is different from literature or theatre, storytelling or photography, they have to experience the camera and film. What is "film" to you? What is the moving image? What is the dimension that is deeper than images?
This kind of question is the kind that really makes me uncomfortable. Nothing is fixed because if it is fixed, it is already dead. To me, what is more interesting is whether it could be something more than what was first mentioned. I do not know what "film" is and I don't think it is important because once you are able to clearly point out what it is, it becomes an established idea which is no longer of interest to me.
As for what the deeper dimension of moving images is, I don't think I can describe it in words. Just watch the films that I like-- I don't know whether my films successfully reach that dimension or not. If you watch it and feel that something communicates a different dimension but is inexplicable, it might be just that.
GC: Many times, the general audience will watch this kind of film and say that they do not understand it.
SA: Don't expect this kind of film to have a large audience. I don't hope for much. If the audience is content, I am happy. If they aren't, I understand. When I was first learning about it, even I couldn't understand it.
GC: What is the starting point for someone who wants to watch experimental films?
SA: Easy. Just watch.
I think it must be a trend among Thai cinephiles to aggressively interpret. There's nothing wrong with interpretation. Presently, many narrative films depend on interpretation as well, but the way in which it is interpreted seems similar to the tradition of literature. If you gain something from the film, then it should be okay already. Personally though, I feel that this is a method [that is more suitable to be] used for studying literature. There must be another way to go deeper than that.
I don't mean to put down literature. Literature is valuable in itself, but film has been overly influenced by the format of literature such that we have not developed any unique characteristics of film as much as we should, so the development of film has not gone very far. Nowadays, if you aren't a narrative filmmaker, then you are an experimental filmmaker. We've been separated into two opposite extremes.
I feel that experimental films and narrative films are different species, not opposite such that there is no way they can mix like water and oil, meaning they can combine across species.
GC: Where did you find funding for Birth of Seanema?
SA: It was my own funding from working in New York. It came to a point where I had to make a feature, even though I know they aren't necessarily better than short films, but it was a matter of what I would do next in order to have money to continue filmmaking. If you make short films you have to continuously use your own money, so I tried making one feature, to see if there were any possibilities or people who would provide money for the next film.
The funding was the money I had collected after working full-time in New York for two years. It was very tiring. I used the money to buy a camera. I have to thank whoever it is that invented Mini DV technology because it helps to save so much time.
(In subsequent issues: Part 2. The Creation and Inspiration, Part 3. The Spirit)
Article first appeared in the Thai-language film magazine Bioscope (Issue 34, September 2004).
It has been translated from Thai to English by Vipavinee Artpradid for Criticine)