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MINORITY REPORT

A student film has pulled off the unlikely feat of shooting in Tai Yai territory

Published: 6/02/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Realtime

It took an uncanny combination of luck, guts and subterfuge, but Nattachai Jaitita, a film student rushing to meet the deadline of his thesis, somehow pulled off an unlikely feat: he managed to be the first person to shoot a movie in Shan, the territory largely occupied by the Tai Yai minority near the Thai-Burmese border where gunfire and skirmishes are daily business. He has real Shan soldiers, with their real guns and grimaces, acting in Tai Lang (or Shan at Dawn), a 30-minute action film whose spontaneous vigour and stark realism take on a strange quality given the nature of its production.

Nattachai Jaitita had real Shan soldiers acting in Tai Lang.

A student film has hardly been this daring, at least in terms of location shoot. Nattachai, a Chiang Mai native who studied film at King Mongkut's Institute Lad Krabang, shot Tai Lang on the film's namesake Doi Tai Lang, the stronghold of the Shan Liberation Army, after getting the green light from the leader of the Tai Yai people himself. With his father, mother and younger brother as his crew, and with only one HDV camera, he went in there and staged a tale of escape and manhunt complete with a couple of shoot-outs between Shan and Burmese patrolmen, a river chase, a few explosions (homemade fireworks), plus the dramatic epilogue of a Shan military parade that took place solely for the benefit of his camera.

"My mother is a teacher in Chiang Mai, and there were quite a few Tai Yai students in her class, so I am sort of familiar with them," says Nattachai. "I got lucky when I met someone who took me to Chao Yod Suk, the Tai Yai leader. I hadn't a plot then, I only wanted to see if it'd be possible to shoot a movie with Tai Yai people. When I said I wanted to make a film about the struggle of the Shan people, he gave his support and instructed his men to help me. So I went to Tai Lang with my family, and we made the film.

"They received us well. They even staged the military parade just for us. The actors, whom I found once I got there, didn't want to get paid, but I paid them anyway because they helped us so much. It was strange, and I realised that I was very lucky."

Nattachai still didn't have a clear plot when he got across the border into Doi Tai Lang. But he went with his instincts and quickly invented the story of a Shan doctor who treks into the jungle and is kidnapped by the Burmese army. Instead of making this a partisan propaganda for the Shan, the young filmmaker managed to turn the crucial encounter between the doctor and a Burmese farmer into a display of humanity: politics may put the two peoples at brutal odds, but on the individual level the Burmese is not the villain here.

Tai Lang feels special not because of its politics but because of its maker’s audacity.

"I knew when I started shooting that I didn't want to make a bad guy out of the Burmese," says Nattachai. "On paper, of course we know what happened in Burma, and though the film is made from the Shan's point of view, with Shan approval, I was trying not to make everything as simple as black and white."

To be honest, Tai Lang feels special not because of its politics - Nattachai is keen on the subject but he's no Shan activist - but because of the audacity, almost the impulsiveness, that took him (and his entire family) to go where no tourists would want to go and shoot a student film that doesn't necessarily require this level of risk and commitment. It is obvious that this is a work of a young man with a lot of passion but perhaps little experience, but what holds the film together, what makes it gripping, is the sense that the guy was improvising and taking risks as he went along.

And somehow it paid off: Tai Lang won a runner-up prize at last year's Thai Short Film and Video Festival, and was picked into the Competition at Clermont-Ferrand Festival of Short Films, Europe's biggest short film event that selected only 70 titles from over 5,000 submissions. Nattachai's film was screened in a 1,500-seat auditorium in Monday, where an international audience expressed interest mainly in the issue of the Shan minority. Nattachai also won the Young Thai Artist Award from Siam Cement.

"I'm interested in the subject because the problem of minority people is universal," says Nattachai. "I know I could do better with Tai Lang. Hopefully I'll get a chance to continue doing something like this in the future."

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