Thai filmmaker receives rare honour

HE Ambassador Karel Hartogh and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Photos courtesy of The Netherlands Embassy of Bangkok

On Tuesday, gentle ghosts haunted the residence of the Netherlands ambassador.

In a warm, inspiring ceremony, Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul was presented with the Principal Prince Claus Award by Ambassador Karel Hartogh. A major European art prize, the Prince Claus Award has been given to artists from around the world on the principle that “culture is a basic need”, and that art is inseparable from a nation’s development.

Apichatpong, an internationally recognised filmmaker, is the first Thai to become a Prince Claus laureate.

The ceremony attended by around 100 guests began with a screening of Letter To Uncle Boonmee, a 2009 short film in which Apichatpong worked with teenagers in a northeastern village to explore the memories of past violence committed by the state during the communist scares of the 1970s. The film exemplifies Apichatpong’s lyrical elegance and the intense sensibility in the way he blurs fact and fiction, past and present, and the memories of a person and of his ancestors — and of the ghosts of history that will never be driven away.

Ambassador Hartogh said the film was “a masterpiece”, and quoted the Awards Committee on their citation for honouring the Thai “… for visual richness, spiritual lyricism and intellectual depth of his provocative works, for his subtle yet powerful examination of the Thai realities that resonate beyond his own society, and for inspiring others by remaining true to his own vision and principles”.

Guests at the award ceremony on Tuesday. Photo: PASTELPUI

The filmmaker then took to the podium and, true to form, delivered a strong and touching speech in which he recounted his childhood in Khon Kaen province, where the hospital where his parents worked was his playground.

A connoisseur of ghosts and spirits, Apichatpong recalled the time he walked home at night and, spooked by the dark, a catalogue of Thai ghouls popped up in his head: the headless ghost, the ghost with exposing entrails, the ravenous demon wandering the fields looking for blood, etc. The point he was making, however, is that Thailand is a place of multiple realities, and the freedom to be able to capture them is the most important for artists.

In his last feature film Rak Thi Khon Kaen (Cemetery Of Splendour), Apichatpong tells the story of soldiers infected by a plague of sleeping sickness. In the speech, he also alludes to the climate of suppression that has become the norm since the 2014 coup.

He said that the award was an encouragement to “continue to be humble”. He also hopes that “with more voices, there will be more tolerance, and more freedom”.

The Prince Claus Fund Programme Co-ordinator Fariba Derakhshani. The Netherlands Embassy of Bangkok

The Prince Claus Awards honours outstanding achievements in the field of culture and development, and artists chosen as winners are those that create works that reflect the state of their countries.

Apichatpong is the Principal laureate of 2016. Other laureates include Kamal Mouzawak, a food activist from Lebanon; PeaceNiche, the cultural space that promotes democratic discourse in Pakistan; Bahia Shebab, a graphic designer from Egypt whose works fuse Arab politics with feminism; La Silla Vacia, an interactive web portal in Colombia; and Vo Trong Nghia, a Vietnamese architect who promotes sustainable architecture.