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General news >> Saturday December 22, 2007

Festival of shame


While the nation ponders whether it's going to be Mark or Mak, the election plot thickens like a Hollywood potboiler on the other end thanks to the FBI.

On Wednesday, a scandal broke from Los Angeles when an American couple, Gerald Green and wife Patricia, were busted by the US Justice Department for allegedly bribing a senior Thai official at the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). The kickbacks were paid, according to the FBI, to secure the deal for Mr Green's company, Film Festival Management, to organise the annual comedy known as the Bangkok International Film Festival (BKK IFF). That FBI report is a fastidious and thrilling page-turner perfect for a movie plot itself. It didn't directly name the TAT official who pocketed the $1.7 million, referring to her (or him) simply as "the Governor", which deliciously gives the document a tantalising air of a P D James detective novel. After a flurry of "Gee, that's disgusting, so who is it?", on Thursday Juthamas Siriwan, former governor of TAT during the 2003-2006 period that Mr Green's company was awarded the contract, resigned from Puea Pandin party and pulled out of tomorrow's election.

Just when you thought nothing could further disgrace the farcical BKK IFF, this worst piece of embarrassment turned up like a climax of a cheap horror film. You'd want to vomit. As much as I felt the mouth-licking thrill while reading the FBI affidavit - which includes details of shady deals, a dubious phrasing that refers to "a relationship" between Mr Green and "the Governor", as well as the spywork of FBI special agents who trailed the accused to a meeting with "The Governor" at the Oriental Hotel (my source: Lord Jim Restaurant) - I felt depressed for the shame brought on this country and Bangkok's main movie festival. And this shame will stick like a scarlet letter if our National Counter Corruption Commission delays the investigation to prove the crime, or the innocence, of those involved in the TAT.

As a culture reporter of this newspaper, I have been a staunch critic of the BKK IFF, particularly between 2004 and 2006, because there were reasons to believe that its management represented a gross misuse of taxpayers' money. When the TAT employed the LA-based firm to run the fest, the budget allocated was as high as 200 million baht, and much of it was spent on conjuring up fake glamour and flying in "guests" - many of them not movie professionals - on business or even first class. (I have been invited to be on the jury of film festivals in more than one First World nation, and they never paid for business-class airfare). Of the 200 million baht, the TAT didn't care to spend just three or four million to do Thai subtitles in order to encourage young people to attend screenings.

The fest displayed a serious case of delusion of grandeur, and in the eyes of many international film professionals, the BKK IFF was a joke - an opinion the TAT tried to counter by issuing a convoy of self-congratulatory press releases.

This past July, the BKK IFF was run by Thais - the contract with the LA firm was cancelled last year after the TAT installed Pornsiri Manoharn as the new governor. The budget was duly cut to 40 million baht, and actually it was a slightly better festival than it had been in 2005 and 2006 in terms of operation and relevance to the local film industry. At least it was no longer run by someone who spent 11 months in Los Angeles.

With this freshly-dug infamy, it's time for the new government, either Mark's or Mak's, to rethink the whole deal. First of all, is it necessary to continue the BKK IFF? If so, then what role should it play, culturally and economically? We can hire foreign specialists to help, but we have so many efficient Thais to chair the event, to programme the films, and to ensure that the fest puts local viewers and film professionals at the centre.

I think the city of Bangkok should become involved as part of the organisers. And as it happens, the other film festival in the capital is the privately-run World Film Festival of Bangkok, so it's possible the government might want to seek cooperation with that event (it runs on a 20-million-baht budget, to fine results) and upgrade it to become a flagship.

Well, if the BKK IFF survives this potentially fatal wound and continues next year, the fitting opening film should be either a) National Treasure: Book of Secret Corruption or b) Lust, Caution or c) Atonement. But if you let "The Governor" pick the gala screening, it will be certainly be Prison Break: the New Episode. That would be very charming.

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

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