Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 2, May 1999

Bangkok's Alternative Love
Film Festival Raided

Chris Berry
Sopawan Boonimitra
  1. One of my fellow jurors at the 1st Bangkok International Film Festival in September of 1998 was Sopawan Boonimitra, a lecturer in the Motion Pictures and Still Photography Department of Chulalongkorn University. She told me that she was one of the organisers of the Alternative Love Film Festival, which would be held in early October under the auspices of Chulalongkorn University. At the time, she was worried she might face problems with the censorship authorities and/or the police, especially because the Bangkok International Film Festival itself was facing censorship problems. As in South Korea, a baffling array of authorities seemed involved with film, and although there are no laws against same-sex sex acts, public visibility was not appreciated.
  2. On October 10, I received a press release. An extract of that text follows, and after it is an e-mail interview I later conducted with Sopawan and took with me to Seoul.

      Friday 9 October 1998, Bangkok

      Thai Police raided a local festival of gay and lesbian films today.

      After flexing its muscles by banning one film and censoring two other films from the International Bangkok Film Festival last month, the "prehistoric" Thai Film Censorship Board has struck again, this time at the first gay-lesbian film festival ever to be held in Thailand.

      The full-house screening of the Alternative Love Film Festival's opening night film was interrupted some ten minutes after it began (at the Saeng Arun Arts Complex) when a uniformed police officer arrived at the theatre door with a court order which stated that a complaint had been received that a group of people are showing "immoral films".

      The projector stopped and the lights went up as the police officer entered the theatre for inspection.

      The audience received him with polite attention and warm applause, and after a few minutes he left the theatre satisfied that nothing immoral or illegal was taking place. "Everyone here is obviously educated people of good backgrounds," he said, and the screening continued. Three of his undercover officers watched the film and found nothing that would endanger public morality.

      But a group of undercover police, including a contingent from the Film Censorship Office, continued to remain at the Arts Centre.

      The Censorship Police were headed by Lt. Col. Piyawat Vichaidith, who last week had denied in front of television cameras that the Alternative Love Film Festival, which had received many threats of a ban from at least one member of the Film Censorship Board, was under official harassment.

      Reminded of this, Colonel Piyawat insisted that he had to act as a complaint had been received.

      The organisers had obtained a copy of this complaint, an official memo from Patamavadee Jaruwon, a member of the Censorship Board alongside Colonel Piyawat.

      Since Patamavadee is also the head of the film department of Chulalongkorn University's Faculty of Communication Arts and the boss of two organisers, Salathaip Jarupoom and Sopawan Boonimitra, this was seen as a personal harassment and abuse of authority and the law.

      The local police office, Colonel Surakit, agreed, and told the Censorship Police that without a court order they had no legal right to enter the auditorium.

      Although Thailand has a free press, film censorship laws date from 1930 and are some of the strictest in the world. "The cinema in Thailand is still under dictatorship," reads a sign on the festival's notice board.

    Interview with Sopawan Boonimitra

  3. CB: How did the idea for the Alternative Love Film Festival come about? Who was involved in organizing it?
  4. SB: During the past few years, a group of Asian films with lesbian and gay themes has been shown in international film festivals. This marked an important step for Asian cinema and gay and lesbian cinemas as a whole. They also represent an alternative cinema rarely seen in Asian countries. I and my colleague Salathip Jarupoom at the Department of Motion Pictures and Still Photography at Chulalongkorn thought it would very useful for film study in Thailand for Thai audiences to have a chance to see alternative films and discuss them. We took this matter to a departmental meeting in January or February of 1998, and it was approved. Most of the staff of the festival are current film students.
  5. CB: Why did the university withdraw its support? Why was the Saeng Arun Arts Complex chosen as a new venue?
  6. SB: The head of the department was asking to see the films and saying it would be against the law if she had not seen them beforehand. At that time, we couldn't provide her with all of the films as the schedule was not yet fixed. Later, the Bangkok International Film Festival had a problem with the Censorship Board, mainly from the head of my department, who is on the board. Before this, small events like ours did not usually have to go through the Censorship Board. It's quite a long story, but she withdrew support and issued a letter saying the festival's theme might ruin the university's reputation.
  7. Originally, the festival was to be held at the Goethe Institut, but they refused us some time later. Then we asked the Alliance Francaise, but they also refused, I hear because the too controversial issue might have caused them a problem later. We considered the Saeng Arun Arts Complex because we had a good relationship with them after organizing some small film festivals together with them before. It's a small theatre, but it was our intention to keep the festival as small as possible all along because we knew it might cause us trouble otherwise.
  8. CB: From the press release, it seems that more than one police force was involved in the raid on opening night. It's all very confusing, but not unlike what I saw happen in Seoul in 1997. Could you explain a little more, please?
  9. SB: The Censorship Board is under the Police Force Department. My head of department filed her complaint with the board, who asked the central police to check the festival out. They sent the local police. That's why there were both local policemen and policemen from the Censorship Board there on the day.
  10. CB: I notice that you placed a major emphasis on Asian and non-Western queer cinema in your programming. Why is that?
  11. SB: We decided that in our first year, we would like to focus on Asian films and it marked a tension within Asian culture and the Asian film industry. We also wanted to let Thai audiences see some of our neighbours' images of gay and lesbians. Some of the gay and lesbian-themed films from Hollywood were screened in Thailand, but Asian images were much more rarely seen.
  12. CB: Were Thai translations of the films available?
  13. SB: No. Because most of the films were not in English, they already had English subtitles.
  14. CB: What sort of audiences did you get for the festival, both in terms of numbers and composition?
  15. SB: It turned out quite successfully. Most of the audience were gay and some were lesbian. And there were a lot of straight people who came out of curiosity. The theatre seats two hundred, but sometimes we had people sitting on the floor.
  16. CB: Internationally, Thailand has a reputation for being a relatively democratic and open country, with the freest press in Asia. Its sex industry is also internationally known, giving people the impression that Thai culture is very liberal and tolerant in regard to sexuality. In these circumstances, the problems you encountered would surprise many foreigners. Why do you think a large sex industry with live sex shows as well as prostitution is allowed to exist while the screening of films in which, for example, women's breasts, are shown is illegal?
  17. SB: This is a very difficult question. If this festival had been organized by the gay and lesbian community as private screenings, there would have been no problem. But this festival just threw everything in the face of society, and so some people could not handle that. The law is still in the age of the dinosaurs. This is a Buddhist country where we allow people to lead their own lives, and so long as it's not in everyone's faces they can pretend that they don't know.
  18. It's still a question amongst us why we can have a free press but the situation for the film industry is like it was fifty years ago.
  19. CB: Looking ahead, what lessons have you drawn from this year's festival for future events?
  20. SB: At least one good thing that happened was that a large section of the audience supported us and they want a second festival. The censorship laws are still a big problem for us and other festivals including the Bangkok International Film Festival. This year's festival caused Thai society and the press to look into the issue with an open mind. That's surely also a good thing that came out of it. Before the festival, the BBC interviewed me and asked me if I was not afraid that it would cause social problems, but now we know that Thai society is mature enough to take it. After all, the festival was for the sake of education.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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