DOHA: Before the release of his 2010 feature “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” most saw Thai-born Apichatpong Weerasethakul as a contemporary artist who made films.
But after “Boonmee” won Cannes’ Palm d’Or, more came to see the artist as a filmmaker.
For Joe (the nickname Weerasethakul acquired while a student in Chicago), there’s no practical distinction between art and cinema.
“Maybe it’s not that productive to answer [this question],” he suggested to The Daily Star. “It’s just like my name. ‘Apichatpong’ is just a name. It’s a way that people try to frame you. I just try to navigate this thing.”
During a master class the artist gave earlier this year at Qumra – the Doha Film Institute’s film incubation platform – he said his visual practice is deeply embedded in his study of architecture. The way it taught him to treat time and the way people navigate space, he said, links his cinema and his visual art.
“The idea of space – whether the cinema or the gallery – is so relevant [to my work],” he said, “that it doesn’t matter what it’s called. The bottom line is the exploration. Yeah.”
Being able to walk through the installation context, he remarked during his master class, allows audiences to overcome the sometimes zombielike experience of sitting, stationary. Mobility also changes his means of expression, as its provides a “closer relationship between the camera lens and my eye.”
DFI facilitated The Daily Star’s brief interrogation of Weerasethakul. Though he appeared a bit fatigued from advising the projects of five young filmmakers, and from his master class, Joe was affably measured, frequently following each statement with a thoughtful pause before adding a terminal “Yeah.”
Much as Weerasethakul downplayed the differences between his art and his film, there are distinctions in his approach to short-form work and feature films.
“For me, the shorts can be very spontaneous, something I can shoot myself and try to synchronize with my eyes and the heart. You cannot do this with a [small budget] feature film. The short film is really a burst of reaction to something.”
One short-form piece of Joe’s that’s connected to this region is his collaboration with Chai Siri, “Dilbar,” commissioned for the 2013 Sharjah Biennial. The work shows a clutch of migrant workers who prepared the renovated historic space in old Sharjah that would stage the piece.
Projected in a loop upon a scrim (a translucent screen that allows the audience to see through the projected image), the work re-placed the ghosted presence of laborers in a space they helped erect.
It’s unlikely film buffs will have encountered his explorations at the local multiplex. Up to now, most of his films and art shares an interest in the intersection of Thai traditional culture, popular culture and history – a palette that can seem unfamiliar to those weaned on the cinema of Europe and the Americas.
In “Boonmee,” for instance, the chronically ill protagonist is living his last days in the countryside with his family. If Boonmee’s ability to see his past lives seems peculiar, the plot veers deeper into strangeness when he’s visited by his long-dead wife.
His son, who’d gone missing years before, returns as a hairy beast. If Western audiences find it hard to not Orientalize this story of a man’s final days, Weerasethakul himself describes his narrative and formal decisions in straightforward terms.
“Boonmee,” he told his master class audience, is a tribute to the media with which he’d grown up – ghost stories and royal costume dramas being among the tropes of Thai television and radio drama.
The film also recreates their stiff acting and lighting conventions.
He shot “Boonmee” on super 16 mm film, he explained, because that’s the stock Thai television dramas used in the 1970s. He will not shoot his new project on film, and not just for aesthetic reasons.
“For the new project, I’m forced to shoot with digital. For Netflix you need 4K [4000-pixel resolution], you know that?” he cried, provoking chuckles from his master class audience. “It’s terrible. I love this camera that only shoots 2K.”
When The Daily Star interviewed Weerasethakul, his latest project, “Memoria,” was still in preproduction and the director was unable to discuss it. It was evident from various public remarks from U.K. actor Tilda Swinton – who, like Weerasethakul, was a master at Qumra – that she was enthusiastic about being involved in the project.
With its Colombia location, “Memoria” will be the first major title Weerasethakul will shoot outside the visual, historical and cultural reservoir of Thailand. The filmmaker was uncertain how his practice will react to the relocation.
“I may be too comfortable in Thailand,” he said. “At the same time, it’s become so much harder to make a long-form film in Thailand because there are so many factors that can disrupt the flow of filmmaking, mostly political, yeah.
“So the short form may be the most appropriate to reflect this political and social reaction in Thailand. For long form it’s a really big challenge, so I had to operate differently. I listen a lot and try to absorb.
“At least now, in the script, the movie is more about reflection from outside, about a stranger going to Colombia – that country that has so many memories and traumas, in the people and also on the landscape, with its landslide and the earthquake.
“So for me,” he chuckled, “I feel refreshed and young again.”
Though much of Weerasethakul’s work is concerned with the past – whether Thai history and culture, the pleasures of working with celluloid or the social ritual of going to the cinema – he’s confident about the future of cinema.
“I think we should congratulate ourselves that we’re involved in cinema at this formative stage, when the possibilities are still immense.
“Much as I lament the loss of celluloid, I think we are now at this exciting turning point as well – in this period where analogue is going and digital is coming, where two-dimensional is going and virtual reality is coming.”
“Sleep is like going to the cinema,” the filmmaker told his audience, “but much better.”
Though still primitive, he believes, the technology of virtual reality aspires to a state of collective sleep.
“I believe in the future we’ll be able to share dreams, a process that will bring more empathy ... then I think we will no longer need a camera, no longer need a projector, because everything,” he pointed to his head, “is here.”