Saturday September 20, 2008
Film-maker Pimpaka Towira wonders why journalists the world over persist in describing her as a female film-maker. "As if it were so strange that a woman can make movies," she muses, amused rather than bemused. "And as if it were doubly strange since that woman comes from Thailand."
We meet Pimpaka at her office, a two-storey house on Phahon Yothin whose parquet floors are stacked with sealed boxes of 35mm films directed, mostly, by male film-makers. After releasing her feature-length documentary The Truth Be Told in June, Pimpaka has since donned a different hat as programming director - in simpler words, the chief film selector - of the revamped Bangkok International Film Festival, the city's major cine-jamboree that begins September 23. These boxes of 35mm prints, she explains, have been Fed-Exed to her team for inspection prior to the event. Then with a fortuitous wave of her hand it's Pimpaka's turn to feel bemused by the fact that no one has ever attempted to describe her as a "female film festival programmer", as if gender no longer has any significance once her job title doesn't suggest a woman with a movie camera, struggling to comprehend the world through her lens.
This male-female business is tricky - and absurdly unnecessary - in this age, post -isms, where fluidity is the dynamic discourse, even the new ideal. "When I was younger, I never thought there were any differences in a man or a woman directing a movie. A director is someone who has the ability to direct, and that's that," Pimpaka says. "But I keep being labelled a female director, and more and more I feel alienated. It never crosses my mind that being a woman is a disadvantage in the film business, but it's weird that people try to make me feel that that is the case."
Pimpaka studied film at Thammasat University in the mid-1990s, taking time digging the early boom of European art-house cinema at cultural institutions. After a couple of shorts, she made a splash in 1998 with Mae Nak, an experimental take on the folk legend of the ghost Mae Nak Phrakanong. In a stroke of aestheticised deconstruction, Pimpaka interpreted the case of the headstrong demon - Nak terrorised her village after her death in childbirth - from the point of view of the ghost herself, and not from that of the society that feared her wrath, as most films based on her story did. Mae Nak won the top prize at Image Forum in Japan, and established its director as a promising new voice at a time when Thai cinema was in dire need of new inspiration.
Then came her short stint as a cinema reporter for The Nation. After leaving the paper, it took Pimpaka three years to complete her first feature film, Kuen Rai Ngao (One Night Husband), a sombre drama about an unfortunate bride whose groom disappears on the night of their wedding. The film premie'red with great interest at the Berlin International Film Festival in February 2003, but was considered a flop at home. Still, that was when writers from Japan to Israel started labelling her a "female director from Thailand" who "makes movies about female characters".
"That's true, but I think that's only natural," the director says. "When I write scripts, it's difficult for me to know honestly what male characters might think in a situation. So I write about what I know, about what women think. Women are the subjects in so many movies, but hardly is a story ever told from their points of view.
"Of course there are male directors who make great films about women, like Krzysztof Kies'lowski - his women are so complex, like a perpetually-spinning universe. But still I believe that there's a certain indescribable quality that you can sense in films directed by women. They're not necessarily stronger or more sensitive, but there's always something that a woman would do in a movie that a man wouldn't. It's something about the dimension, or the limit, of the characters, about the way they see the world. It can only be perceived, I think, and not explained."
Perhaps it can be perceived in Pimpaka's latest work, the documentary The Truth Be Told, which follows the ordeals of media activist Supinya Klangnarong after she was sued by Shin Corp, then owned by the Shinawatra family, for comments she made in 2003. Instead of giving us a punchy political expose', as was expected, Pimpaka surprises her viewers by presenting Supinya's family portrait; the movie isn't about a plucky woman who stares down a monster, but a warm narrative about her ideas and ambition set against Thailand's political tumult between 2004 and 2006.
"It was my intention to show Supinya as an ordinary woman, like your average student or office worker," Pimpaka says. "And one day this woman was forced to stand up and fight against something that undermined her belief. I wanted to show that a woman who puts up a fight doesn't need to be exceptionally strong or fearless, and any ordinary woman can put up a fight if she needs to. What I always hope to do is to open up a new perspective for the viewers that's not confined by a stereotype."
Besides planning her next film and programming the BKK IFF - "It's a headache!" - Pimpaka is also producing independent features through her company, the cutely-baptised Extra Virgin, where she collaborates with upcoming (male) directors to find funding and fashioning films that, yes, see through the old confines. Among the projects under her watch are Agrarian Utopia, a pastoral poem about Northern farmers directed by Urupong Raksasat, and A Voyage of a Foreteller, a post-narrative fiction about a man's many reincarnated lives directed Jakrawal Nilthamrong.
A producing job, Pimpaka says, is not all about finding finances for a project; it's also about offering intellectual assistance to the film-makers, to encourage them, in certain cases, to take a leap into the brave new world of cinema. And along the journey Pimpka hopes to nurture her own inspiration to continue making movies about men and women, real or fictional, whose lives she wishes to understand.
"I'm inspired by little things, even insignificant things, like a person I met only once, or a passage in a song, or a fragment of a second when something hits me," says the film-maker. "For me these things are the jigsaw pieces that make up life. These are the things that make a movie worth watching."