I decided to make this film on a humid morning in January in 2018, the New Year’s Eve fireworks from the previous night still popping in my head. After having spent the better part of a decade writing, shooting and then traveling with my second feature, I was determined to make a new film, but this time I would shoot the whole thing in one week, edit it in two, and release it quietly and quickly with as little fuss as possible. I wanted to make a film that was modest in scale, allowing for fluidity and improvisation.
By keeping the budget extremely low, I was able to avoid the often overwhelming and time-consuming process of applying to script labs, development programs, traditional financing and whatever else the international indie film industrial complex requires directors to do these days. With the money my production company had left over from a previous project along with a couple modest contributions along the way, I was able to shoot this film without a script, any proper production plan, or indeed any real narrative to speak of.
Initially, I hit the ground running. The whole thing was filmed in just five days. Having accepted a position as visiting lecturer at Harvard University, I promised myself that I would spend the first few weekends in Boston editing the film, aiming to release it in 2019. But here we are, three years later and the footage I shot back then is only finally seeing the light of day now. In the intervening years since I first shot this material I have gotten married, had a baby, moved to another country, moved back to Thailand, and shot, edited and released a completely different feature film. I am still not exactly sure why or how that happened.
In any case, the spontaneous little film that I made is finally here and now that I see it in front of me and I am being asked to write about it, I am trying to remember what I was thinking when I first decided to make it.
Modern slavery in Thailand is alive and well. Looking back at this trip now and reflecting on forced labour and indentured servitude, I am reminded of the many domestic workers, often from rural areas and of ethnic minority communities, of immigrants from neighbouring Laos and Myanmar.
The starting point? A trip I had taken in 2015 to a province in the western part of Thailand, on the border with Myanmar. Known for various tourist attractions including waterfalls, raft houses, and tamarinds, it is also the site of a forced labour camp during the Second World War. Now that I think about it, the initial impetus for this film probably occurred to me while walking along a railroad that had been hand-chiselled into the surrounding rock surface by a mix of Southeast Asian civilian slaves and allied POW’s who were forcibly drafted into the service of the Empire of Japan (which occupied Thailand during the war). As a direct result of the labour conditions during the construction of the railway, including torture, extreme violence, physical abuse, and neglect, 90,000 civilians and 12,000 POW’s were killed. As I walked along this former construction site, seventy-years after the atrocities took place, I could see the markings carved into the rock surface where hundreds of thousands of humans chipped away tunnels into mountains using hand tools. Looking around me I saw young couples and families strolling along the pathway, holding hands, smiling, taking selfies. A year or so after this visit I would see Sergei Loznitsa’s incredible portrait of visitors to a memorial site that had been founded on the location of a former concentration camp. Loznitsa was puzzled by a seemingly simple yet unsettling question: what were these visitors looking for?
In the end I made a film about the struggle of resisting definition. About cinema’s obsession with definition. About actors representing characters, who represent people, who represent history.
As I watched the young couples hiking along this path, I couldn’t help but reflect on the fact that forced labour isn’t contained within the pages of history and it certainly isn’t exclusive to Japanese colonisation. No, modern slavery in Thailand is alive and well. Looking back at this trip now and reflecting on forced labour and indentured servitude, I am reminded of the many domestic workers, often from rural areas and of ethnic minority communities, of immigrants from neighbouring Laos and Myanmar, who are a daily fixture in the lives of most residents in my home city, Bangkok. They often cook our food, build our homes. Labour rights abuses are so commonly practiced that it is easy to imagine many perpetrators of forced labour are not even aware that what they are doing is illegal or unethical. As I was standing there on that railway I began to reflect on contemporary forms of forced labour, I saw a parallel to their suffering and the suffering of the railway workers. I questioned how much shame the body could take before it breaks down, how much violence, mayhem, death and madness can be endured in one lifetime. As I thought of history repeating itself over and over and over again, of our collective disregard of working class lives, as I stood there in this manmade testament to the limitlessness of human cruelty, a young man asked if I would take a photo of him and his friends.
Making political cinema is difficult. I didn’t make a film about sex workers, or slaves, or prisoners of war. I wanted to make a film about the representation of politics in cinema, but I didn’t even achieve that either. I got stuck. What I was stuck on was something more elemental, one step behind all of that. What I couldn’t get past was something like representation itself, though I am not sure that is the right word. In the end I made a film about the struggle of resisting definition. About cinema’s obsession with definition. About actors representing characters, who represent people, who represent history. Before our five day shoot, I held workshops in which the actors were not assigned to specific roles but rather intermittently changed characters, with each actor taking turns playing each role. Once we arrived on set it was clear who was who, mostly.