Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Mary-Ann Monforton (BOMB’s Associate Publisher) and Jan Apanich from Palleewong Trading and Beerlao. Photo by Hazel Monforton.
“I’m not a good storyteller,” whispered Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul in the middle of a four-hour program devoted to his work at the New Museum last Sunday. It was a statement that, of course, not one person in the room agreed with. The audience, half-full, were all devotees of the placid figure at the front of the stage—who else would agreeably sit in uncomfortable mock-wood chairs for such a long period of time? The few who wandered in unknowingly, a common occurrence during museum-based events, left abruptly within the first hour. Sitting in the back of the theater, I watched each deserter carefully maneuver their way in the dark toward the door. The whole process seemed appropriate for a filmmaker who more than once mentioned the purification process embedded in his work.
The event, attached to the artist’s current exhibition at the museum, revolved around his Primitive project. A series of films, videos, photographs, and installations made over the last three years, Primitive was created while traveling around the north-east of Thailand, interacting with the local population. The project culminated in the feature film, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, which took home the top prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival and is currently gracing screens in this country.
Apichatpong, sitting at the front of the stage with a laptop, controlled the large screen above. Images flickered and twitched before our eyes. Billed as a “master class,” the event, instead took the form of an informal chat or off-the-cuff performance. Occasionally, Apichatpong would break into the video, cutting the sound and adding a few terse comments. Most of this was background information: where the film was made, how long it took to shoot, who he worked with. The director spoke briefly on the influence of American experimental cinema (“a tool of freedom”) and contemporary Iranian cinema (“the line between fact and fiction”).
During all the chatter, a theme began to develop: crew, collaboration, family. More than once, Apichatpong referred to the experience working on his projects as “family filmmaking.” The artistic process is not monolithic; everyone plays a role in shaping the work. “I always ask actors,” the director later responded, “what would you do in this situation?”
This collaborative spirit extended to the local kids that form the core of the Primitive project. In 2009’s I’m Still Breathing—a single channel video that is part of Primitive—teenagers from the village of Nabua play themselves in a music video, set to the music of popular Thai rock band Modern Dog, running wildly down a dirt road. The atmosphere is one of celebration, even as smoke—resembling tear gas—begins to appear and a flaming soccer ball is violently kicked around—echoes of the tense political climate in Thailand. It’s not clear if the teenagers are running toward a goal or away from a threat.
The second half of the show was composed almost completely of still images, both from his research into the Primitive project, as well as from the still-in-progress Mekong Project. This was the most exciting part of the program, a free-form slide-show that mirrored the artistic process: part travelogue, part collage, part experience. Many of the images for the Mekong Project were incongruous, and Apichatpong, when questioned, said he had no clue how they would fit it. They were simply moments, images to remember and disremember.
The final act of the performance consisted of a lengthy question and answer period. The director spoke about Hollywood offers after Cannes, which include a boxing film; his thoughts on working for luxury brands and commercial advertising companies (“If Hou Hsiao-Hsien can do it, I can do it.”); his interest in landscape, and his early studies as an architect. When somebody in the audience asked him how these studies influenced his work, he responded, “Architecture is my past life.”