Art/Culture  •  In Convo with

In Convo with: Ing Kanjanavanit

On the anniversary of the October 6 student protests, we discuss Ing K’s banned film, Shakespeare Must Die, as the filmmaker submits her final appeal to overturn the censors.

October 06, 2017

In August, the Central Administrative Court ruled to uphold the 2012 film censor ban of Shakespeare Must Die, the Thai language adaption of Shakespeare’s Macbeth that has been called both a threat to national security and cultural poison. The last film to receive funding from the Culture Ministry under the Abhisit government, the Shakespearean horror includes brief footage of the destruction from the 2010 red shirt riots and visual allusions to the events of October 6th 1976, with critics accusing director Ing Kanjanavanit of anti-Thaksin propaganda and reopening the country’s recent wounds. We spoke to investigative journalist turned documentary and horror filmmaker Ing about how a direct translation of Shakespeare had become so controversial, her experiences challenging the Thai censors, and what it’s like to have her work branded cultural poison.

2Mag: What was the process of securing funding from the Culture Ministry under Abhisit like?

Ing: Some 50 films got that money, we were the last to get it, and we were the only ones that had to submit the script! We had to shoot footage before we got the funding. We were the only ones. They wanted to see the regicide scene, the killing of King Duncan, because the killing of a king is sensitive. We showed it to them uncut and they said, “Wow this is amazing [and] really spiritual. It’s not about the king, it’s not about anything. It’s about conscience, it’s about good and evil within a person, the struggle within a person.” I said, “Yes! That’s Macbeth, it’s a struggle within a guy’s mind. That’s it.”
Still from Shakespeare Must Die, courtesy of Ing K
2Mag: Your 2013 documentary about the censorship process hasn’t been blocked by censors but has been informally blocked from showing in cinemas. Why is that?

Ing: The Censor Must Die ruling is a big victory. The censors cited a legal clause that says films made of events that really happened don’t need to be submitted. So, theoretically, all cinema verite, films that are absolutely unadorned, like a documentary without narration, which is my style. [So now] I can cite the ruling they made on Censor Must Die and not submit my next documentary, Bangkok Joyride.

But then they threatened every cinema. According to the cinemas, the censors said, “If you show it we’ll sue you because we never gave them permission to film.” It’s absurd, because when you see the film it’s obvious they’re talking to the camera; the chief of the censor office became so friendly with the camera [that] he became a very endearing character because he was the go-between and [these weren’t] his decisions. That was the main character [of the documentary] right there. It’s kind of sad, meeting him again in court and being on the opposite side of the courtroom.

2Mag: What makes film censorship so serious and troubling?

Ing: All other artists have full human rights: filmmakers do not. It’s a legal fact. Do you have to submit your artwork [or writing] before you show it? No. But if you make a film, seven people in a dark room—god knows who—can just decide for 60 million people. Why is that, why do I have to accept that, and why aren’t more people fighting it?

If you don’t fight, you don’t receive. Nobody is going to just hand it to you. From years of writing investigative stuff, I know exactly where the line is, including about the institution. [But the bureaucracy is] timid. They stop about 50 miles before we hit the line. If we don’t keep pushing, the line will [move closer] and we’ll have nowhere left to stand. I’m not looking for trouble, I’m merely trying to reclaim my space. I think people know it’s ridiculous to ban films in this day and age—you can find anything on YouTube. This is an ancient law that should be gone already, [but in Thailand], the film industry, there’s no united front. We have nobody to lobby on our behalf [and] there isn’t any lobbying power. Other filmmakers secretly give me a lot of moral support but never in public—they would be terrified to have their picture taken with me because then they’d be tainted by the radical [element] and the censors [might] come after their films.

2Mag: Do you think the censorship board is equally applying the same standards to all films?

Ing: The film we compared in the court case was Boundary, a documentary that had the opposite treatment [from us]. They were banned and the ban was reversed in two days without having to appeal. We used it to prove that there’s political interference in the censor process, [because] how can you be banned and then unbanned in two days without having submitted an appeal?  

Article 112 (lèse majesté) and the film banning law, they’re both meant to protect something. Lèse majesté is supposed to protect the institution of the monarchy and the film ban is supposed to protect the public from cultural poison, but the truth is it actually works in the opposite direction because both laws have been abused and used against political enemies. 112 hurts the monarchy and film-banning dumbs down Thai cinema and the Thai public.

Some films [that are] much more violent than Shakespeare Must Die, nothing happens to them. The film that won best Thai picture this year, By The Time It Gets Dark, is about October 6th! Am I the only one not allowed to talk about October 6th? Not one squeak out of the censors, not one squeak out of the public, nobody objects to that film. In court, one of the judges said to me, “Oh the relatives will be upset, October 6 is recent history. It’s OK to make films about Ayutthaya but you can’t talk about the Bangkok period because it’s too recent.”

The censors actually don’t seem to abide by any rules of any sort. So where’s your security as a filmmaker if the rules are going to change every time there’s a change in government? Where’s the rule of law? Where’s the security of life and property?
Still from Shakespeare Must Die, courtesy of Ing K
2Mag: Do you think a film has the ability to “poison society?”

Ing: No more than anything else. Not any more than an ad for a good life as lived with VISA Card or getting you to drink Coca Cola or eat fast food. I think fast food is more poisonous than a Shakespearean horror movie. Why am I the poison? Because I don’t have the same vision of the love of nation as you do? I don’t make films to criticize because I don’t make propaganda. People might wonder why I’m not defending myself [against all these accusations], but there aren’t enough hours in the day, or there isn’t enough strength in the heart to explain yourself and do what you want to do. Just do what you want to do.

In my eyes, culturally, [Thailand is still split between] the free Thais and the fascists. Because they’re always telling me that I hate my country, I’m this poison. Who are you to say I’m this evil poison? How dare you. Who are you? Because they think they own Thai identity. I am not Thai, they are. My vision is not Thai, their vision is Thai. Who says so? Who made you God? They really think that it’s one culture, absolute. Normally, you wouldn’t run into that unless you submit your film to censors, and then the shock is tremendous because it’s so far from the normal—when the Thai state turns against you, it’s shocking. The nice easy chilled out Bangkok life, the other side, it turns Kafkaesque
2Mag: How do you respond to claims that the footage of red shirt protests and the film’s Dear Leader character are criticisms of Thaksin and his followers?

Ing: As an artist you absorb everything that happens around you, you’re a sponge. The red shirt riots happened right in the middle of shooting and we had to stop for two weeks. So of course I went out and got footage, footage of burning shopping centers and wreckage. Of course I’m going to get that and I’m going to use it.

[But] to say I made this to make fun of Thaksin is beyond insane, because everybody else who hates Thaksin just buys a 20 baht whistle, blows the whistle, screams and gets it off their chest. Sitting down, translating Shakespeare, writing a screenplay, casting people, testing actors, shooting a movie, I mean, really? Do you think I would sacrifice years of my life just to make fun of you? I think whoever thinks that is a bit vain.

It’s Macbeth, word for fucking word: it is the most literal translation. Two percent of the dialogue is mine. It’s all Shakespeare, including the long talking head scene between Macduff and Malcolm where they discuss the qualities of kingship.
2Mag: You and your team are filing a final appeal. If you win, what would that mean?

Ing: If we win, miracle of all miracles, you almost don’t have to change the law because the censors would be automatically restrained [because of precedent]. Which is why they’re not going to let us win, because the ramifications of our victory would be enormous, and I think they know it. But they should go by the facts, by the evidence. If they do, we would win.
Under One Flag, 2006. Photo by Manit Sriwanichpoom