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General news >> Saturday June 21, 2008

Hot doc or stale cake?


The drama of anarchy and chaos can inspire film makers as much as the spectacle of unrequited love or unsolved murders. But what actually drives film makers to troublespots, from Baghdad to Guantanamo to the deep South? Topping the list are probably anger, frustration, curiosity, sympathy, patriotism, daredevilry, moral indignation, self-promotion, delusions of grandeur, etc.

Some might feel the itch of liberal guilt, others enchanted by suicide bombings. And there are those who, either out of naivete or arrogance, subscribe to the notion that movies, or art, can change the world, or at least the election results. Noble, yes, but isn't it also as absurd as anything that would come out from that old gob every Sunday morning on NBT?

When Iraq imploded, a platoon of US film makers hitched rides with marine tanks to record the sound and fury of the war in a few dozen documentaries, from the observant Gunner Palace to the delirious Redacted. This year's winner of the Oscar for best documentary is a thorough look at the torture of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan, called Taxi to the Dark Side. The quality and convenience of DV cameras mean film makers today can claim a greater potential in relaying the images from the hot zones the way, say, war photographers during the Vietnam War would grind their teeth with envy.

In many cases these hot docs, which can be categorised as part of independent film-making, also perform another significant function: by showing images that CNN doesn't show, they offer a critique to the way mainstream media report major conflicts. Usually unbounded by commercial and political pressures, these hot-zone docs derive their power from the anti-establishment whacking. Michael Moore is hardly a savoury character and the thesis he proposes is outrageous, but his (in)famous 2004 film Fahrenheit 9/11, to an extent, showed things that no mainstream media at that time did. Michael Winterbottom made Road to Guantanamo in 2006, and some images from that docu-drama remain more alarming than anything we've seen on cable news.

On our home turf, documentary is deemed academic and boring, and the practice of using the moving image as a political shorthand is virtually non-existent. Hardly any film has been made about the southern havoc, and what's disturbing is that a handful that did - usually TV docs - are uncritical, banal and steeped in the phoney "reconciliation" message: the villagers are nice, the soldiers are even nice, and everyone lives happily despite all the bombings. Instead of confronting the complexity of the conflict, they skirt the surface, construct a pretence of depth, and cover the maggots with myths.

Thus it's very saddening that the new "documentary" by Nisa Kongsri and Areeya Jumsai, called Pak Tai Ban Rao ("Our Southern Home"), which is opening at Lido next week, is another stale, empty windbag that gives no insight into the southern plight and - this is so, so bizarre - morphs into a wantonly long, self-congratulatory corporate PR video for Coca-Cola. The film makers, despite the best of intentions, cannot be excused from misleading the audience by calling their film Our Southern Home and giving the impression that this is a movie about the southern conflict, but ending up giving us a different movie ("Selling Coke helps me meet a lot of new people," says a rubber farmer). The film features a lot of interviews with the executives of Haddthip, the Coca-Cola distributor in Hat Yai, as well as a college boy whose father was killed and who has now received a scholarship from, yes, the same company. The story takes place only in Hat Yai, Krabi and Ranong - and surprisingly, it has nothing to do with the red zone of Yala, Pattani or Narathiwat.

I'm sure, however, that it won't be long before someone makes a strong, relevant and politically-conscious movie about the South that will jolt us into a plain of new perspectives on what's going on down there - and the repercussions felt up here in the capital. A group of artists is now doing a piece called Citizen Juling, and more reports on that documentary will appear in this newspaper soon. Movies cannot change the world, but they can change the way people see the world. Unfortunately Our Southern Home is not one of them.

Kong Rithdee writes about movies and popular culture in the Bangkok Post real.time section.

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