Independent may be too bland a description for the shorts and documentaries of radical filmmaker Thunska Pansittivorakul
Truthfully, the guy's as crummy-looking as his movies. Dingy T-shirt and half-junk trainers, faded jeans and worn glasses are incidental signatures of Thunska Pansittivorakul. And he's not so proud of that: His shabby look is not part of the manufactured persona preferred by the rank of young indie artists who obviously confuse being cool with being poor.
Thunska's crummy front is not a costume but a fact of life _ a happy, difficult life from choosing to be a Thai independent filmmaker.
Independent may be too bland a description. Thunska's daring takes make him more like an underground figure, a Warholian experimentalist who toys with counter-cultural, counter-censorship dare-devilry. The only reason he's not controversial (or blacklisted by the Ministry of Culture) is because the 31-year-old is hardly known outside the tiny circle of Bangkok cinephiles _ the few screenings of his eye-opening movies, always at alternative cinema venues, were done with minimum pride or publicity.
From his first short in 2000 to the recent feature-length doc, Thunska has fashioned a hard-edged style that stands him out from the local indie crowds. All shot on digital video, his works have rough, instinctive visuals, and he never flinches when dealing with sexuality _ or homosexuality. A grainy allusion to the act of fellatio gives Private Life a disturbing shrill, while in his seven-minute shocker Unseen Bangkok, a man stands masturbating in front of a camera. In his latest short, the hauntingly sweet Vous Vous Souviens de Moi?, there's a shot of a penis that caught the audience giggling with... what? Shyness, shame, or delight?
More interesting _ and perhaps less off-putting to some _ are his documentaries. Thunska plans a trilogy of docs to capture the wild spirit of Thai youths in their search for cultural identity, and so far he's completed two in the series: the impuslive, dirt-cheap Voodoo Girls, and the vivid record of the lives of four Siam Square friends called Happy Berry. The latter, which shows Thunska's gift for constructing a fun, frank portrait of young souls from random footage, won the Grand Prix at last year's Taiwan Documentary Film Festival and was recently shown at the celebrated International Film Festival Rotterdam.
"I'm getting tired with the word 'indie'," says the indie director. "People want to make indie movies because they think they can escape from the rules, but when we all do that, we're following another set of rules anyway. For me, I want to make movies that I really feel strongly about, and in the style that I think is unique _ not better or worse, but unique.
"Am I conscious of the extreme stuff in my work?," he mulls. "I don't know. I just want to try new ideas, to do something that people will recognise that it's only me doing it. But every movie I make I make it at the moment when I feel something and I need to express it."
In an age where being non-mainstream seems fashionable, perhaps Thunska represents a rare breed of old-school agitator whose rebellious art is driven by ideals rather than by commercial interest (his movies have near-zero commercial value). And his presence might suggest a cultural mechanism at the time when society is slipping into the grip of neo-conservatism.
No wonder the director cites the late rogue artist Andy Warhol as his main influence. Not remotely as monumental as Warhol's, Thunska's "home movies" however inherit the same trashy energy, the foolish, irreverent fun that constituted the basis of the American's pop/gay underground flicks. And like Warhol _ on a much lesser scale though _ Thunska's works can be seen as a reaction against the tendency to straightjacket.
"Censorship is the order of the day in this society," he says. "Everything is seen as morally sensitive, and they prefer to ban, prohibit, cancel, rather than to try to understand the things that are going on.
"I think culture is not only about OTOP. Culture should have something to do with new knowledge and new ideas of the world. I'm not provoking, I'm not inciting any changes or preaching anything. I simply want to show the other side, to let the people know that it exists."
Thunska's planned trilogy is part of his idea to show the life of Thai youths in an honest light _ to present them as human beings instead of characters. In Voodoo Girls (which was rejected by the Bangkok International Film Festival in 2004), the director simply video-ed a group of his female friends as they hang out, party, chat, eat, talk dirty, drink, wonder about their future _ as they live. The movie establishes Thunska's free-falling, extremely spontaneous style that at first seems like a structural mess, but that eventually brings out the intimacy and a kind of unpolished reality that gets us close to the subjects of the movie.
He did the same in Happy Berry, a 80-minute diary of four punk-looking friends who run a fashion outlet in Siam Square; this time Thunska applied more visual discipline, but still let the raunchy charm of his subjects reign. One of the reasons the filmmaker is reluctant to show his work in public is because the people he filmed trusted him so much that they allowed him to capture themselves at their most unguarded moments, and Thunska is not sure if showing it all is equivalent to the betrayal of that trust.
For the final part of the trilogy, the director is now recording the lives of the sensational electro-punk band Futon, a Bangkok-based outfit with multi-national members _ it's the pure-bred indie moviemaker's take on the pure-bred indie band. Spectacular perhaps, though Thunska says that he wants to make Futon different from his previous works _ and without the radical or shocking stuff.
"In all the documentaries I've done, my idea is to sketch an honest picture of young people in Bangkok, to show that this is their lives, and that lives can be imperfect, strange, difficult, fun and diverse. There's no lesson to learn; I just show it as it is," he says.
"When I shoot, I simply record everything as I follow my subjects. Only when I go back to review the footages and edit them that I 'discover' my movie _ seeing which direction the story is going to take. It's more fun this way."
Last November Thunska initiated a network of 15 Thai independent filmmakers who share his vision under the banner Thaiindie (see thaiindie.com). Because the independent film scene in this country remains small, the idea is to promote the output as a brand, which makes it easier to attract attention from foreign film festivals and art exhibitions.
But even as Thunska's work begins to receive more international exposure, or after a foreign producer agrees to finance his movies, it doesn't alter the basic fact that it's impossible to make a living making the kind of movies he wants to make. "My main income is from other activities, like writing movie columns for magazines," says Thunska, chuckling. "It's not easy for me, but I'm happy to be doing this."
That explains the dingy T-shirt and half-junk trainers the guy's wearing. It explains, too, why Thunska's movies _ rough and raw, cheap and crummy _ are more interesting than many of the more expensive ones.
Thunska will have his new short film shown at "Lak-ka-pid, Lak-ka-perd: The Bangkok Invisible Landscapes", a multi-faceted art exhibition that will take place between March 7 to April 15 at different venues around Bangkok. For more information visit www.thaiindie.com or www.in-betweenartproject.com.