Watch out for consensus

Nontawat Numbenchapol’s Boundary (2013) will now be given an 18+ rating rather than an outright ban. The Thai censors have done a half-turn on this documentary, which presents the experiences and perspectives of low rank soldiers and borderland people caught up in the border dispute around the Preah Vihear temple, and touches on the red shirts’ demonstration and state-backed killing in Bangkok in 2010.

The main committee of the film classification bureaucracy made the unusual move of overriding the sub-committee’s decision to ‘rate’ the film as banned, and Nontawat even got an apology from them! But in exchange for the 18+ rate the censors are still requiring him to make one – deceptively – small change to his film. Nontawat now has to mute a few seconds of faintly audible ambient sound in the footage of a mass celebration at Bangkok’s Ratchaprasong intersection, at the point where the speakers on stage are rallying the revellers to wish  H.M. a happy new year.


Small progress then? Maybe, or maybe not. What’s striking about this fairly bizarre episode is the sub-committee’s stated objection to Boundary. Although the whole brouha ended partially in Nontawat’s favour, it’s still worth looking more closely at the wording of the sub-committee’s decision. My initial thought is that in it we find the beginnings of a shift in the rationale and legitimising language of film censorship in Thailand.

The sub-committee provided three ‘observations’ as its justification for the (subsequently overridden) decision to ban Boundary. Two of these have often been wheeled out against Thai films, mostly independent ones, in the past half-decade or so. Similar to the charges against previously banned or cut films, such as Syndromes and a Century (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 2006), the sub-committee’s stated objection describes Boundary as a potential threat to national security and to public order. So predictable are these mantras that they’re not especially worth pausing over. Whereas what’s implied in the first stated objection is important to pay attention to. Its underlying conception of consensual truth reflects a legal logic that began to come into play around the time of the 2006 coup, and which may increasingly shape future justifications of film censorship in Thailand.

The sub-committee’s objection begins with a problematic – to put it politely – over-interpretation of the relationship between that ambient sound in the new year rally footage and the Thai-language film title, which literally translates as ‘low sky, high land.’ Then it goes onto query Boudary‘s presentation of certain text-image assemblage:

เหตุการณ์ที่นำมาเผยแพร่อ้างว่าเป็น สารคดี แต่เป็นการสรุปความเห็นโดยผู้จัดทำ ซึ่งบางเหตุการณ์ยังอยู่ในขั้นตอนการพิจารณาของศาล และหน่วยงานที่เกี่ยวข้อง นอกจากนั้น ยังไม่มีบทสรุปที่เป็นเอกสารอื่นใดมาประกอบการอ้างอิงให้ชัดเจนและเหตุการณ์เหล่านั้น เกิดขึ้นจริงหรือไม่? เช่น นาที 1.48 พื้นที่นี้ “เคยมีการปิดล้อมสังหารหมู่ กลุ่มผู้ชุมนุมเสื้อแดง ซึ่งส่วนใหญ่เดินทางมาจากต่างจังหวัด” นาที 1.58 “มีผู้เสียชีวิตเกือบ 100 คน” นาที 2.04 “ชาวกรุงเทพและกลุ่มผู้ไม่เห็นด้วยหลายคนสนับสนุน และรู้สึกสะใจกับการปราบปรามการชุมนุมในครั้งนี้” นาที 2.09 รัฐบาลไทยในสมัยนั้นอ้างว่าเป็นการกระทำของมือที่ 3 เพื่อสร้างสถานการณ์ใส่ร้ายรัฐบาล” นาที 2.17 “กลุ่มผู้ชุมนุมเสื้อแดงและผู้สนับสนุนเชื่อว่าเป็นการกระทำของรัฐบาลและทหาร” นาที 2.29 “ชาวกรุงเทพฯและผู้ไม่สนับสนุนหลายคนกล่าวชื่นชมรัฐบาลและทหาร”นาที 2.44 “ชาวต่างจังหวัดถูกปรามาสว่าโง่ เห็นแก่เงิน” นาที 45.00 “รัฐบาลไทยและกัมพูชา จดทะเบียนเขาพระวิหารเป็นมรดกโลก” ฯลฯ การบรรยายด้วยตัวอักษรในภาพยนตร์ ที่ให้ข้อสังเกต ในบางช่วงขัดแย้งกับภาพ เพราะในภาพเป็นวิวในชนบท

‘เปิดคำพิจารณาหนัง ‘ฟ้าต่ำ แผ่นดินสูง’ ห้ามฉายในราชอาณาจักร’ Prachatai 24/4/13

[my translation] “Although claiming to be a documentary disclosure of events, the film presents the opinions of its makers. Some of the incidents referred to are still in the process of deliberation by the courts and by relevant organisations. Moreover, the film presents no supporting evidence for its various claims regarding the occurrence of certain incidents. These are, for instance: (min 1:38) this area “was the site of massacre of red shirt protestors, most of whom had come from other provinces to Bangkok”; (1:58) “nearly 100 people were killed”; (2:04) “Bangkokians as well as many people who were critical of the protests enthusiastically supported the crackdown”; (2:09) “the previous government claimed that the unrest was the work of an invisible third hand that wished to undermine it”; (2:17) “the red shirts and their supporters believed the government and the military caused the violence”; (2:29) “Bangkokians and critics of the red shirts noisily expressed admiration and support for the government and the military”; (2:44) “upcountry people were accused of being stupid and money-minded”; (45:00) “Thailand and Cambodia signed a joint communique to list Preah Vihear as a World Heritage site..”


The legal contexts implied are the ones relating to the Preah Vihear dispute and the 2010 violence. What’s striking to note about the sub-committee’s statement, as I’ve highlighted in bold, is the claim to truth underlying its objection to Boundary. The statement associates the category of the documentary film with factual or truthful representation, while assuming that true representations of events and situations of conflict are secured through the legal apparatus. In other words, what can legitimately be made visible or sayable as the truth of particular situations is that which is articulated as such by the law or by agents of the legal apparatus. Sound familiar? It’s the very discourse that has been underpinning the dynamic of political domination in Thailand in the past decade – the discursive determinant of the legal coup that relies on the courts and offices of jurisdiction to produce legitimating verdicts. These legal/lawful verdicts then assume, or demand, the consent of subjects of governmental rule.

This discourse was visibly present in the court’s disqualification of previous prime ministers associated with Thaksin. It played a crucial role in shaping the language and recommendation of the final report of Thailand’s Truth for Reconciliation Commission. The function of the TRCT’s 2012 report was to speak the language of consensus, closure and reconciliation without accountability, largely by shifting the blame for the killing of protestors and others to nameless men in black. The twin of this consensus regime is the logic of utterance of lese majeste rulings, according to which what is true is what the court says is true, and to be accused is to be deemed guilty.

Given that the film censors’ final verdict was to allow Boundary to be shown in Thailand so long as Nontawat agreed to mute those few seconds of ambient sound, ‘just in case’ there was the slightest possibility of the film being read as critical of royalty, it would be hasty to claim that what we’re seeing is the eclipse of the existing, prohibitive logic of censorship. The prohibitive logic underscored such recent cases as the banning of Tanwarin Sukkhapisit’s Insects in the Backyard (“contrary to morality”) or Ing K & Manit Sriwanichpoom’s Shakespeare Must Die (“causes disunity among the people of the nation”). The justification for banning these films, as well as Syndromes and a Century, rested on the auto-colonial notion that the ‘natives’ are not ready to think for themselves. But, if my hunch is right regarding the logic of the sub-committee’s objection to Boundary, then another rationale for censorship is beginning to come into play. The emphasis becomes less on prohibition, justified in terms of protecting the ‘natives,’ than on consensus, justified in the name of lawful truth.

This implication is important to think through in relation to anti-censorship artistic and campaign strategies. Currently there is a tendency to question censorship on the ground of the neutrality of the filmmaker/activist/campaigner – the non-partisanship of one’s critical speaking position. For instance, a common response is to emphasise that the speaker or the film doesn’t take sides, or isn’t and doesn’t aim to be divisive. I understand the calculation that it may be more effective to challenge the conservative forces of Thai censorship in a ‘non-political’ language acceptable to them. Yet the political context in which such utterances are made is one of the increasing capture of collective life by rhetoric of neutrality and the consensual right to rule. This is a mode of ideological domination via the rationale of transcending politics. If my hunch is right, and this mode of capture is indeed creeping into film censorship, then for engaged artists or anti-censorship groups to speak in conformity to the seemingly neutral, seemingly apolitical language of consensus is in itself highly problematic.

May Adadol Ingawanij


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