Interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Pt I
DT: In your films, one constant thread is the mystery of people’s relationship to nature. For you, that relationship covers more frequencies than we typically see in film. Can you say why you respond to that theme?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul: I think that film can heighten your senses and the feeling of being in nature. And I hope it can trigger the feeling of how things used to be. You know our ancestors used to live there [in nature], and the richness of life there we tend to forget. The more we live in the city, the further we grow from it. So in this particular film I was trying to do that, especially as a tribute to old kinds of cinema.
Not only that, but also old kinds of ways of living. I see a lot of transformation happening in Thailand. It’s been changing into a very uniform place with superstores everywhere. People’s lifestyles are also transformed by that. I think to go to the jungle reminds you, “Hey, we were living in that condition before.” And it has a precious quality that we tend to forget and also an awareness of being silent sometimes, of being among other life – not only humans. That’s important.
DT: When you grew up in Khon Kaen in Isan, as a boy did you get out into the forest much? Or is it an appreciation you gained later?
AW: Later. Because Khon Kaen doesn’t have a forest [laughs]. But of course if you go out of town a little, you see mountains toward Loei. But I think my influence is from the media and from those trips, and from the jungle adventure books that I read when I was young – they opened my imagination. And of course even though it’s not the jungle, the hospital where my parents were doctors had lots of trees back then. And I remember going with friends to climb trees. We don’t have places like that in Bangkok where you can climb trees, or walk at night and hear the sounds of crickets. And paths with little pebbles, the noise they make when you walk – as a kid, when I look back, it made an impression. And I miss that.
DT: I was interested in your explanation after the screening, of how you thought of Boonmee as an old-school film made in a series of 20-minute reels, with each reel representing a different chapter or homage. One reel for ghost stories, for example. In one section Boonmee is recounting his dream of the future, and “the Past People” are suffering a tyranny shown in a sequence of still photos. It made me think of the early French science fiction film La Jetée. What were your inspirations for that part?
AW: That reel comes from the adventure tale films. When you’d go to the jungle, the director goes to the jungle and you can see that it’s an artificial jungle. We shot day for night and it’s got that bluish-green tint so that you know it’s fake. And it goes back to the early cinema, I think. For the dream, I wanted to go back even further, to when the image hadn’t moved. It’s not a moving image yet, just a series of stills. So they’re talking about the future but the image is very ancient looking, and you get a sense of dislocation of time between the verbal and the visual. It’s a tribute to Chris Marker [director of La Jetée] and the way he talked about the future. But at the same time, you know, that Chris Marker film is a long time ago. So it’s kind of the future of the past. You know what I mean?
DT: It brings the emotional impact of an anxious future, which you would not get if you just filmed it in HD.
AW: Yeah, and of course it referred to illusions of cinema in the idea of photographs. In one shot, there’s a guy crouching and taking photos. That’s kind of the Antonioni character in Blow Up .
DT: You’ve said that when you first went to Bangkok, you tried to hide your Isan background. Could you talk a little about that first trip to Bangkok, some 20 years ago?
AW: I went to Bangkok with my family from time to time, for very short periods, but that time was when I went alone at about 18. I went to Bangkok to do a tutorial for architecture school, and when I’d talk people would laugh at me. And I had this hatred, really [laughs], the feeling that, “Oh this is bullshit. I really hate Bangkok.”
At that time I was very determined that I was not going to go to Chulalongkorn or Silapakorn, because I thought those elite universities were like a club. “You don’t even produce good students,” I thought back then. Not now. I really had an anti-establishment attitude against this idea in Thailand that you have to go to this or that university to be successful. And yet somehow it’s true because, for example there’s a Thai film studio where everyone’s a Chulalongkorn graduate. And if you graduate from Chula you have more chance of getting work with this company. I hate that … and I think it’s dangerous.
DT: We spoke when you were filming in Nakhon Phanom near the Cambodian border in January 2009. Since then a lot has happened for people in Isan. You said then that you were impressed by the teenagers of the village where you were filming. Do those impressions come out in the Primitive project?
AW: In the Primitive installation, I documented the teenagers. It’s very personal, a very subjective experience that I tried to document. It doesn’t talk about politics directly but it’s on the activities—we’d get together and we built friendships – but it has a resonance of the political undercurrents so people can look at it in a political way or not, it doesn’t matter for me. If it triggers them to find more information about this village, that’s great.