Tearing down the wall: Panel finds a way forward over censorship in Thailand

A group of filmmakers and an activist came together in Bangkok to discuss their experiences with film censorship in Thailand, and the ways they have learned to get around it.

From left to right: Martin Barshai, Pasakorn ‘PK’ Vanasirikul, Anucha Boonyawatana, Ploy, and Stefan Rustler.

On February 2, an event was hosted in Bangkok to provide a space to discuss censorship in the Thai cinema. “Tearing down the wall - controversy and censorship in the Thai cinema,” was hosted at Smalls bar.

The organizers were 34-year-old Thai-German analytics consultant Stefan Rustler, and 29-year-old Thai-American film director Martin Barshai. 

Rustler and Barshai said they wanted to host an event that would encourage people to discuss in a constructive way how the Thai film industry could be a powerful tool in tackling censorship. 

“We wanted to create a feeling of empowerment, and make people feel like there’s a way forward. And the way forward is not just blaming censorship and the government altogether. We need to work with all actors involved, and we want to explore different pathways to improving the situation,” said Rustler.

Along with Barshai, a group of directors and an activist joined the panel to speak about navigating Thailand’s censorship laws while making their films. The group included documentary director Naruemon Chaingam, political activist Pasakorn ‘PK’ Vanasirikul, and Anucha Boonyawatana, President of the Thai Film Director Association. Rustler moderated the discussion. 

The panellists shed light on several topics that are often difficult for filmmakers to include in their films in Thailand. They discussed how legal issues and societal taboos worked to censor filmmakers.

Anucha focused on LGBTQ issues in Thai films. She discussed how difficult the situation was about 15 years ago, with an example being the film Love of Siam. Anucha explained how the filmmakers worked around Thailand’s societal taboos at the time toward gay relationships. 

“Back when it was released in around 2005, the film kind of had to disguise itself as a romantic teenage love story, but conceal the LGBT relationship part. When they did promotions they didn’t say this was a gay movie or show the audience a man kissing a man. After that it was really controversial and created a lot of hot discussions.”

However, Anucha said this eventually caused people to become more open-minded. She pointed out how now, Thai society is much more open to LGBTQ movies than it was before. 

Anucha said that about 15 years ago, she still heard the way Thai opinion saw LGBTQ as something “in the closet.” She said that people still didn’t understand the concept of a man with another man, and everything was “very binary.” Anucha says that today, “everything is kind of open for LGBTQ.”

Another panellist, Ploy, discussed finding a way to make documentary films “outside the Thai system” by collaborating on projects with international film crews. Her films have touched upon subjects including slavery in Thailand’s fishing industry, and Yingluck Shinawatra’s rice scheme. 

Ploy said that foreign executive producers “don’t have to go through censorship or ask for permission sometimes.” Ploy noted, however, that foreign executive producers sometimes had to send scripts to be reviewed. However, she added that any filmmakers that want their films to be screened in Thailand must go through the censorship or rating system, no matter where they’re coming from. She said that normal films will be rated or partly censored, while films with political or difficult subjects can be banned.

When it came time for audience questions, Anucha explained the process that Thai films must undergo before they can appear in cinemas.

“If you want to show your film in the cinema, you need to send the film to the censor committee. It consists of five or six people selected by the Ministry of Culture. Maybe some people who work in cinema, some people from religious groups, maybe police, maybe politicians. Then they will screen the film and give the rating. When we changed the system maybe 20 years ago, the decision was made by the police. The police would say ‘cut this cut this cut this, blur this.’” 

Anucha said the topics that are most commonly banned are those relating to religion and the monarchy. Anucha said that due to the power of protests, it is not easy for authorities to simply ban films, so they will sometimes summon film makers if they have a problem with their films. Anucha said authorities will then ask the filmmakers, “can you cut this, can you cut this shot out, can you change this a bit?”


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