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Realtime >> Friday August 22, 2008

Jaruek Kaljaruek, the new chairman of the Federation of National Film Associations, talks about his plans and visions


Jaruek Kaljaruek alternates his conversation between zest and discretion. His eloquence is driven by confidence yet underlined by professional caution. Through the smooth veneer of his voice, he lets you in on the lucidity of his thoughts, expertly leads you down the path of his conviction, and yet screens you out from the sanctum of the confidential.

Then he listens, his lean face still as his stern eyes fix on yours. The MD of Kantana Group, the Thai-owned, internationally respected TV production and movie post-production giant, has the requisite demeanor of an earnest diplomat, a know-it-all go-between, perhaps a politician whose strength is his access to all padlocked doors. No wonder that's principally why Jaruek has been picked to don another hat as the latest chairman of the Federation of National Film Associations of Thailand (FNFAT), a loose assembly of Thai film companies tasked with the near-impossible job of stabilising the progress of Thai movies and gearing them to find glory around the world.

"I'm a figure of compromise, I think that's why the industry trusts me," says Jaruek, sitting in his Kantana office at Meng Jai. "I've always been a professional, and I want to install a professional system into the FNFAT, to make it work like a company, to transform it into an organisation that really matters to Thai cinema."

No one is under the illusion that such a mission is a no-brainer. The FNFAT, or samapan pappayon, has always been a limping conductor of an unruly orchestra, struggling to achieve the synergy of sound from its skilful players. Two-and-a-half years ago, the FNFAT came under the weather due to the aggressive stewardship of its previous captain, Somsak Techaratanaprasert, who boycotted the government-backed Bangkok International Film Festival (BKK IFF) and triggered resentment among the FNFAT's members. Replacing Somsak in March 2006 was the soft-spoken Chaiwat Taweewonsangthong, who managed to restore a degree of harmony in the camp.

By appointing Jaruek, the FNFAT is looking to be more proactive in its agenda. Jaruek's reputation as the chief of Kantana - a private company that started off humbly 58 years ago producing radio dramas and now has TV stations around Southeast Asia and enjoys fame as a world-class post-production venture with top international clients - will lend the weight of professional dynamism to the body. More importantly, the diplomatic persona of Jaruek makes him an ideal person to deal with the government in a bid to fight for state support for the film industry.

Earlier this year, Jaruek took part in deliberating the Film Act with the Culture Ministry - and though he managed to assert the will of film producers to the lawmakers, the final bill wasn't welcome by all Thai movie directors, especially the independent ones who believe the new law is more about control than aid. Jaruek says that his priorities include the anti-piracy campaign and a project to set up an autonomous public organisation to support the film industry, like in Korea, where even small-time short filmmakers are not overlooked by the state.

But his most pressing assignment is to host the Bangkok International Film Festival and salvage it from the pit of humiliation and irrelevance. Sponsored by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), the BKK IFF, slated for Sept 23-30, will for the first time be manoeuvred by people in the Thai film industry. (Over the past five years, the fest was run by an American firm hired by the TAT.)

"The festival has been going for five years, the TAT has already spent 800 million baht on it, so it'd be a shame if we just discontinued it," says Jaruek, who serves as the BKK IFF's festival director. "And it's a good opportunity that the industry people will now run the festival, because it is directly related to the image of our local film industry and the confidence of the international film community."

In short, Jaruek vows to turn the BKK IFF into a quality-based festival. And he's aware that the job is doubly difficult given the bribery scandal involving a senior TAT officer and the American firm contracted to put together the previous fests. The upcoming BKK IFF has to quell the dust of vile gossip and convince visitors that the FNFAT is serious about shaping its own destiny as a promoter of Thai films.

"There are good things about the past festival, not just bad bits," he says. "We'll keep those good things, while we'll try to be more creative and to spread good words. The scandal is out of scope here. We're thinking forward now."

On top of his forward plans is the establishment of a state-funded film body that will improve and support Thai filmmakers - which may even include a kind of pension fund to help film professionals. It is not a new idea, but past attempts to get it off the ground have not been successful. In the new Film Act, which the FNFAT helped "negotiate" with the Culture Ministry late last year, there is a clause that approves in principle the formation of a central, semi-governmental body to oversee filmmaking activities. But it is not clear at this point how the administration, financial resources, scope and detailed responsibilities of this purported agency will work out. Not to mention how it will work to reconcile the conservatism of the ministry with the liberal creativity of modern filmmaking.

"Right now this is the only promise of support that the new Film Law spells out, and without the FNFAT's participation, maybe it would have been left out," says Jaruek, adding that in dealing with the lawmakers, he had to concede certain stances in order to win others. "It's still a concept, but I'd say that this new organisation will work to develop the quality of Thai filmmakers, promote them in and outside the country, and give them funding. This is not only for mainstream directors, but also for independent and the so-called art films."

The FNFAT is known to represent only commercial film studios, and it has been regarded with suspicion by non-mainstream directors struggling on the fringes. But Jaruek insists on his open-mindedness: "Commercial films are important to keeping the industry going, but I recognise the importance of art films too. Without them, cinema won't improve, and the audience won't improve," he says.

"The problem is that filmmakers do not have funding to make art films in Thailand, and these films do not have a venue for screening. I have those issues in mind, and will consider them with the plan to set up the central film body."

In all likelihood the plan seems like a long shot though, given the lengthy process of implementing the Film Act itself. At the moment, three months after the law has been made official, the ministry is still pondering the best way to exercise the rating system, the main initiative of the bill. This means other ambitious plans will inevitably be pushed back from deliberation.

"I'm hopeful though," says Jaruek. "The government has good intentions but it will take time for them to learn about the industry, and it'll take time for us to learn to compromise with them. But the point is we will try to work together. I'm working on that."

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