Sylvielin's Blog

Interview with Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 'Primitive'(2009). Courtesy Kick the Machine Films, Bangkok. Credits : 2009 Kick the Machine Films. Photo/Chaisiri Jiwarangsan

“I’m attracted to the spirit of the bygone era, the handmade quality. I think that even Warhol’s machine-like approach was very human.”             

—-Apichatpong Weerasethakul, extrait from the interview 


Q    When you studied film in Chicago, you’ve been influenced by the avant-garde cinema, especially filmmaker such as Bruce Baillie and artists like Andy Warhol, Marcel Duchamp, etc. What do you see in their work ? 

A    I’m attracted to the spirit of the bygone era, the handmade quality. I think that even Warhol’s machine-like approach was very human.

Q    You began by making films before making video installations. Do you have different approaches when using different medium? What are the effects and possibilities brought by each medium?

A    I guess I answer this question differently each time I am asked. Sometimes I really loathe video, but sometimes I am in love with it. I have to make sure that I select an appropriate medium for each project. Since the image quality of film and video is becoming close these days, I focus on the process. For the making of a feature film I still prefer film because I enjoy the uncertainty of the film format while we are shooting. It’s an internal relationship between me and the camera. It doesn’t show me exactly what it records. For a video, it was more of an idea, a sketch, where the uncertainty lies in the relationship between me and what’s in front of the camera. It’s an external relationship.

Q    Already in your films, the narrative is often in rupture, bifurcation and the time wavers between the past and the present, so does the situation sway between the reality and the imaginary. Do you think the installation to be a more sufficient means of such expression ? Can you talk about the Primitive Project in this regard ?

A    I like the aspect of the installation that allows you to approach the work in different ways. You are one of the characters. In the Primitive Project, the work is like a time capsule that contains imagined scenarios I filmed in a northeastern village. It’s a documentation in a way and the audiences can edit the narrative(s) themselves. Whether it is reality or fantasy is irrelevant.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 'Primitive'(2009). Courtesy Kick the Machine Films, Bangkok. Credits : 2009 Kick the Machine Films. Photo: Chayaporn Maneesutham

Q    The themes of your work revolve around two axis: that of the cultural heritage of Thailand and the political struggles there, especially since the military coup in 2006. The way you treat the subjects is often through a kind of ‘reminiscence’ to establish a kind of special link between the past and now. In many ways, the Primitive Project seems to be an allegorical work. Taking the Uncle Boonmee’s story as its point of departure, it is developed into episodes which reflect obliquely the military turmoil in Thailand and the oppressed situation of the region via the natural phenomenon of Nabua ( the lighting strikes ) or the teenagers throwing objects.

A    few years ago, while I was at my home town of Khon Kaen, I was given a little book called A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives. It’s about Uncle Boonmee who recounts his multiple lives as humans and animals. I was thinking he must be a masochist because he always reborn in the northeast, where it’s arid and politically unstable. I also like the fact that while Uncle Boonmee could remember for hundreds of years, we forget things in our lifetime, things like the tyranny of past regimes.

So I travelled the northeast and focused on the idea of remembering. In the end,I settled at the village of Nabua in Nakhon Panom. It was one of the places the Thai army occupied from the 60s to the early 80s to fight so-called communists. While there is no obvious link between Boonmee and Nabua, that village is full of repressed memories. I decided to work there. I interviewed a lot of people but ended up not using the material. I just worked with the teens to build a spaceship and make our little movies. It’s my process of remembering the place.

Q    In the Primitive Project, there are videos like An Evening Shoot and Phantoms of Nabua, both related to the filmmaking process itself. The first video is about a group of teens making an unknown film ; in the second, with alls its playfulness ( the teens were playing a game ) as well as its tactile violence ( the fired ball ), the teens burned the screen revealing behind it the ghostly white beam of a projector. Apart from implying the violence deeply inscribed in the life of the region – your homeland, is there any specific idea about ‘making images’ as a process or notion?

A   The whole project is about this ‘making images’. When we were in caves, we used fire to see the paintings on the walls. Now that we are in that modern ‘cave’ which is a cinema, we use electric light. Light is one of the main elements here to make things visible: a fluorescent tube, the sun, fire. I imagine these lights unearthing the ghosts of the past in this land.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul, 'Primitive'(2009). Courtesy Kick the Machine Films, Bangkok. Credits : 2009 Kick the Machine Films. Photo : Chayaporn Maneesutham

Q  How does your background of architecture influence your artistic practice?

A    As I had an architectural background, I viewed films from a construction point of view. So my early works are heavily about filmic structure. In the Primitive Project, even though it involves the arrangement of the screens, I feel less conscious about creating a system.
Q Your work is partly concerned with what is disappeared or will disappear. In your films, you prefer the jungle scenery to the urban setting ; you often evoke local legends as elements that are mingled in the mind or the life of some character of the present.

In the Primitive Project, we see a spaceship which seems to be a reservoir of past experiences and expectation in desolation. Would you talk about such an imagery and how you managed to depict it in the videos Making of the Space Ship and A Dedicated Machine ?

A    We often associate a spaceship with something of the future, something neat and polished. Just the word itself inspires the imagination. With local material, we built a ship with the opposite effect to that of a glossy object. I wanted to introduce the idea of a journey into this village – a journey of the teen’s mind, in a hand-made skeleton. As you said, it is a reservoir of experiences, and they are shown in the ship’s surface.

Q  Since 1999, you create your own production company Kick the Machine as a kind of vehicle for producing ‘alternative films’ outside the mainstream studio system in the country. Is it an act in responding to the censorship of the country ? What are the effects and results until now ?

A    No, the existence of the company is not an act against censorship. I think it is useless to talk about freedom in Thailand. So we do what we can do and just sometimes it strikes the nerves of some officials. But we move on. We try to create something different in cinema. We just hope that in the process, we can express a tiny glimpse of the way we live here.

Q    Do you have specific idea in mind about your next projects ?

A    I have been asked to do a portrait of Donald Richie, the distinguished writer and film critic living in Japan. I was not so sure at first. But having met him in May this year, I really want to do this project. Again, I am attracted to his memories. Then there’s this project called Utopia that I dream of making. It is about the decay of science fiction.

(Interview made in August, 2009, before the artist’s solo show Primitive in the Modern Art Museum of Paris/Musée d’art moderne de la ville de Paris, between 2009 and 2010. An edited Chinese version has been published in Artco monthly in Taiwan in December 2009.)


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