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"Nothing Is More Interesting Than Real Life": An Interview with Filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul

by dave heaton

A documentary film that includes both fictional storytelling and acting as central elements, Mysterious Object at Noon blurs the line between fiction and documentary in intriguing ways. Its central premise is based on the Surrealist technique of the "Exquisite Corpse," where a sequence of people would each contribute to the creation of a story, without knowing much about what the person before had added. In Mysterious Object, the debut feature-length film for Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the people creating the story are regular, working-class people across Thailand, including food vendors, school children, and more. The film continually switches between footage of the storytellers being asked to continue the story, and then continuing it, and scenes from the story itself, acted out by non-professional actors. By the very nature of the technique, the story that they create, that of a woman named Dogfhar and the disabled boy she takes care of, The story takes off in all sorts of imaginative and unusual directions, reflecting the potential of the mind to create. Yet more than anything else, viewers remember the people and places that the filmmakers visited. More than just an exercise in storytelling, the film is a portrait of life in various parts of Thailand, a portrait which is alternately sad, funny, beautiful and touching. It is a complex and captivating film.

Apichatpong's second film continues his focus on the lives of everday people in his home country as they are now, in real life, yet does so in what is on the surface a fictional tale. Blissfully Yours, which has not been widely released in the US but has played at various film festivals (I have not seen it), won the "Un Certain Regard" prize at Cannes. It tells a sort-of love story (or as Chuck Stephens called it in Film Comment, a "nothing-happens love story") set against the backdrop of troubled political relations between Thailand and its neighbor Burma. The film follows a young Thai woman, her Burmese boyfriend, and another woman as they hide out in the forest, in the mountains along the Thai/Burmese border. The film's use of non-professional actors, essentially no script, and a modern-day context are again marks of the director's interest in the ways real-life and fiction intersect. As a student of experimental film, which he studied at the University of Chicago, Apichatpong takes an unconventional, inquisitive approach to filmmaking which is refreshing and yields fascinating results.

When you started making Mysterious Object at Noon, did you expect to be filming it for three years? When filming an essentially non-narrative movie like that, how do you know when it's finished?

It's like a diary. It can go further, but at that point our money ran out, and other projects came in. To me, the other projects were also like a diary, in other forms. So we started another diary.

Did you interview many more people than those who ended up in the film? If so, how did you decide which to include and which not to include?

Yes, there were about 3-4 more subjects. But sometimes it was too boring or too strong to be included in the film. The strong ones could stand as short films by themselves. But they were too far removed or complex from the stories of the Mysterious Object. For example, there was a medium who predicted the fate of Dogfar, but the story was so complicated, and her life was very interesting. We could not fit the footage in without sacrificing the contents. So we decided to leave it out.

Was it difficult getting people to participate in the film? In the film itself, it seems like some of the people were quite willing to offer their ideas while others were more skeptical.

That's also the main interest for me in doing this project. It is to see how far people can open up to the camera, how they would be willing to give us their imagination. With our tight budget, each time we have limited schedule. It is fun for us, too to make them feel at ease. The locations, people's beliefs and education are quite important in how they answer the questions, how much self-esteem they have. I wonder how this project would be with more of a budget or with Hollywood money. It would be more fun.

You have said that the film was influenced by the Surrealist "Exquisite Corpse" technique. What led you to decide to have people act out parts of the story for the film, instead of just using people telling their version of the story?

Actually, instead of people telling stories, I like them to act. But in reality we didn't have enough time and money to realize this. So we had the storytellers and the performers, both were regular people. Only sometimes the two are the same person.

In what ways did making the film affect your approach to storytelling? For example, did it influence the way you used character and plot in Blissfully Yours?

The experience of Mysterious Object at Noon convinced me that nothing is more interesting than real life. So in Blissfully Yours, I had spent a lot of time trying to understand the actors and how to present their lives in my locations and in a super minimal plot. Real life stories provide me the opportunity to branch out fictions.

None of the main actors in Blissfully Yours had professional acting experience. What interests you about using non-professional actors?

They are so fresh, and can open up to my idea of what acting is.

The production notes for Blissfully Yours note that the film was shot chronologically, with the actors developing a relationship as the filming progressed. Could you explain more about this--how did the order in which scenes were shot affect the acting and the film in general?

In the beginning, they didn't quite understand the characters. But my idea is they have to be themselves to be able to understand the motives, they have to open up. In the end, the audience doesn't know much of their stories. But they believe that these people exist. It is the way they move, the feelings, the angst these people are holding. I think they expressed their nature onto film very well. I cannot say what scenes are the keys. But the second part (in the forest) is where they started to 'open up'. They talked, we filmed. Many scenes were discarded in the editing room. But what we kept was the low-fat version of these people.

What can you tell me about your next film, Tropical Malady? Have you begun filming it yet?

Tropical Malady is like an evil twin of Blissfully Yours. It is happening in the same forest, but this time with terror. It is about the man who is trying to get his lover back in the mountains. We have just postponed the production. We will begin filming in September when the forest is most beautiful and most frightening.

Your films have received a lot of attention at film festivals. And here in the US, that is the main place where they have been shown. What is your attitude toward film festivals as a means of getting your films seen?

Of course, as a filmmaker, I am happy to have my films shown in festivals because at most festivals the programmers select the film based not on the commercial aspects. Personally I have a difficult time defining what is commercial and what not. In Europe, the film is more acceptable in theaters. In general, festival exposure is good for the filmmaker and producers as well to find buyers. For a small film, we don't have committed distributors before the film's finished. It is the only place. That means it is our market place. And it gives us opportunity to meet people, interested investors, to be able to make our next projects.

Besides your own films, what else is Kick the Machine involved in? I understand that you're involved in helping other independent filmmakers in Thailand--in what ways are you doing so?

We used to have film workshops and screenings. But now it is our turning point and the financing is quite difficult. So we just do film productions. The government's Ministry of Culture just started a Contemporary Art sector. And we (I) serve as one of the representatives from independent film sides. For the film production, we sometimes hire people who have no experience to be able to learn the craft. We are also trying to get involved in short film culture, by producing shorts by young filmmakers. We won't see the solid results until maybe the end of the year.

You studied experimental film at the Art Institute of Chicago. Do you still consider what you do to be experimental filmmaking?

I don't think so. It is more of a hybrid. It is impossible for me to be a pure-experimental filmmaker in Thailand. It is already difficult at the path I chose. But I always promote experimental thinking, introducing experimental films to students.

You've made shorter films for museum installations in addition to your two feature films. How do you approach those two formats differently? Is it important for you to continue doing those shorter films?

I try to link what I do together like a big diary. The installations and the so-called video arts are like the sketches of the feature films I am doing. Or at least, they share the 'fact-fiction' aspect of storytelling modes that I am interested in at a certain moment. Interestingly, sometimes these rather abstract videos give me a clearer idea of the narrative films.

For more information, check out the Kick the Machine web site. Also, "Mysterious Object at Noon" is available on DVD from Plexifilm. The color photo above is from "Blissfully Yours"; the black-and-white photo is from "Mysterious Object at Noon."

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