A Conversation with Sasithorn Ariyavicha pt.2
Interview by: Graiwoot Chulphongsathorn
Graiwoot continues his conversation with experimental Thai filmmaker Sasithorn Ariyavicha.
Part 2: THE CREATION & INSPIRATION
What is the theme of Birth of the Seanema?
I was interested in moving images -– how to get into the soul of the film images. Anyway when I was making it, I wasn’t really fixated on this idea. It was more of a “just do it” attitude. Indeed, there is a narrative element in the film (texts are inserted to describe what is happening), but it came after the images had been made. This is contrary to the general method of filmmaking in which images are used to serve the story. In this film, the “story” was used to serve the images. It is there to make the images flow.
In this film, there’s something that has never appeared before in your films, namely the images of Bangkok. How are they different from New York?
No differences, actually. I wanted the film to have a sense of “anywhere-ness”. I was interested in rootlessness. It’s almost as if I tried to efface the roots altogether. I am not that interested in film as a cultural medium in the sense that just because you are Thai, you have to make films that are rooted in the culture, or use it as a way to commodify the culture in the style that the TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) is so keen on -- you know, in which local culture is hyped up to lure international tourists.
Whether or not it’s a Thai film is not an issue to me. The film will speak for itself. It will tell who you are.
Isn’t it necessary that we should search for Thai-ness? Many people say that most Thais already make films using foreign films as a basis -- they say “I want to make a film like Forrest Gump” or “I will make a film like Michael Bay’s”, but very few people make films that tell stories that are close to them or faithful to the social environment in which they live.
I think the idea of National Cinema or of categorizing films according to their geography and culture is a colonial legacy. The film itself will say who you are and who you are in this case should not be limited to nationality. It’s just too narrow. I don’t believe in fixed identity. To me, identity is constantly in flux. As the world and our lives are changing, so are identity and our idea of it.
Which filmmakers are your sources of inspiration?
I tend to like a variety of films rather than the styles of any specific filmmakers. I liked films from the 60s, films by the French New Wave. A lot of exciting things happened in cinema in those days. You can feel the vibration. After that, this special kind of spirit and passion seemed to die down.
The film I liked best is The Color of Pomegranate, by Sergei Paradjanov. The film threw me into a state of deep shock. Some films send shock waves to you on an emotional level, but this film got to me on a physical level as well. I felt an agitation in my body and my heart was pounding so fast. I wouldn’t want to watch it again because I doubt I would be able to relive that experience. There was something densely spiritual in the images. I felt that I had finally discovered a film that spoke to me on the same wavelength. Godard once said about this film: “You should have to walk ten miles on country roads to see this film”. It made me believe that something very powerful that we have no words for does exist.
What about Chantal Akerman? (Belgian independent filmmaker, created Toute une nuit, Night and Day, La captive)
A genius and a revolutionary. I wouldn’t say I like all her works. One of her films that I liked seems very ordinary compared to her other films. It’s called News from Home. It was filmed in New York.
Are there other filmmakers from younger generations that you like?
At the beginning of the 1990s, the film I liked was Distant Voices, Still Lives by Terence Davies. It's a very poetic film in the way it used pop music of the 1940s and 1950s, which was a major form of entertainment for working-class British, to tell the story.
1999 was a good year. There were quite a few films that I liked, like I Stand Alone (by Gaspar Noe, director of Irreversible), The Blair Witch Project, Fucking Amal. It may sound rather strange that a filmmaker like myself would like these kinds of films. The films that I liked in later periods are usually not considered high art in the traditional sense. They are films that are easy to digest and sometimes could be considered very commercial, but at the same time there is something fresh or artistic in its own way.
Or films like Moulin Rouge, Kill Bill Vol.1 or Adaptation -- I like the way they were able to combine postmodern ideas, lifestyle, culture or technology with commercialism or sensationalism –- like Hollywood or MTV styles, or pop culture -- and turn them into films for mass consumption and contemporary works of art at the same time.
Part 3: THE SPIRIT
Making an experimental film doesn’t make you even a baht (Thai currency). Why do you do it?
Making films and making money are two different issues to me. The general understanding of the term “profession” has always been tied to earning money. But if we cut the knot that ties these two things together and take earning money or earning a living as exchanging our labor, time, and skills or knowledge for money and think about “profession” as what we do for our personal fulfillment -- that it’s some kind of a life mission--this would not be an issue. For me, if I want money I’d just go and do things I’ve done before. Godard (again) said, “Making films is about spending money, not making money”. He was right on.
How does an independent filmmaker like you make a living?
I freelance doing translations. I’m somewhat lucky in that I’ve lived overseas for a long time, so I have overseas clients. In reality, you don’t make much money. So I also have to do other things, like web works, copywriting, writing annual reports--whatever comes. Not much pay, though.
If I got two to three big overseas projects a year, then I would be okay. I sort of get by this way and from the money I saved up from New York. And I am not a big spender, anyway. This kind of filmmaking is definitely not glamorous work and not for someone who looks for financial stability.
It was said that 95% of Birth of Seanema was done by you…
Yes, I did everything myself - from choosing and buying all the equipment, coming up with ideas, to the actual shooting and finishing of the film. This is not a good way at all to make films because it's very unlikely that you’ll make the best film you can under these kinds of conditions. I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.
What advice can you give to independent filmmakers?
You are talking to someone who is about to quit filmmaking, so the advice and experience I can talk about is the side that is not very pretty. I guess if you want to make films with a similar approach, you would have to enjoy working with other people or have a financial sponsor who does not hope for anything in return.
Actually, compared to other feature-length films, this film cost nothing. But there were hidden costs, such as daily spending, long-distance transportation and living expenses for personal trips I had to make, rather high medical expenses -- New York gave me a couple of chronic ailments -- and other miscellaneous expenses. The most important thing is the annual income I would have earned had I worked full-time.
As for studying, if you see the tendency that after graduating you probably wouldn’t have funding for your film or no one would be interested in funding the kind of films you make, I suggest that you don’t go to film school. I think you should study something that you can make a comfortable living out of. Get a skill that is commercially in demand, so you can make money and spend it on your films.
I feel that if I had that kind of skill, I wouldn’t have had to work so hard or continually be in financial instability like this. I feel I wasted too much time studying film. Most of the things I learned about films could be learned outside of school. You can learn film techniques outside of the classroom. Nowadays with DV, editing on computer is so much easier. If you want to learn about films, go watch lots of them. There are large and diverse film collections in Thailand these days. Read a lot. It’s now so easy to get whatever information you need on the internet.
Why are you quitting filmmaking?
The first thing I ask myself is whether I want relive this experience. Making this film was not fun or memorable at all. When you’re making an ultra low-budget film like this, you often need to ask for unpaid help from people, which is not the kind of experience I would be eager to have. If they believe in what you are doing and commit to the project, then it’s great. If not, you can't ask them for commitment. The work would then fall somewhere in between.
The second thing is that right now I need to make money because my savings are almost finished and I’m just too old to keep going on this way. If I can’t find funding for the next film, filmmaking will only be a hobby, not something that I’ve been trying to do full-time. You know that when you work full-time, it’s difficult to find the time and energy to do your own things on the weekends or holidays. I really admire people who can do that. So you probably won’t be seeing any new films from me anytime soon.
It seems that the main problem is only funding, since you have plenty of creative ideas.
Actually, I don’t. I think works that go beyond ideas are more challenging. I’ve been looking for works like that. Never seen one so far.
You’ve been making films for more than half of your life. Have you had enough?
It’s not about having enough or not. If I had the means to do it and my savings weren’t depleted, I would make more films, because I still have some images and ideas for films. But I might need to have had enough because I don’t have the means [to make new films anymore].
Hope this would be useful to those who are starting out along the same line. No intention to discourage anyone. But what I’ve said might make you rethink your compatibility with this kind of work. If you feel you don’t have the compatibility, would you be willing to trade off something you have, like your time or labor for it? Or would you be able to think of better ways? It might help you plan and find funding much more easily. In any case, be prepared that nothing comes easy.
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)