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New movie explores Thai-Burmese relationships

In the new Thai film Tee Wang Rawang Mahasamut (The Isthmus), a Thai girl develops a strange malady after her maid from Burma died. She begins to speak Burmese, despite having no knowledge of the language before. And thus begins the metaphysical blurring of mental and geographical boundaries, as the girl and her mother take a road trip to Ranong, the coastal border town populated by migrant labourers from Burma, officially known as Myanmar.

This is the first feature-length film by university lecturers Sopawan Boonnimitra and Peerachai Kerdsint. Touching on the issues of border, identity, space and language, the duo blend fictional narrative with documentary-style poeticism in a story that seems to be about migrants but, as Sopawan and Peerachai say, is in fact about Thailand.

The film opens 16 January at House, RCA, Bangkok. We talk to Sopawan about her experience making the film.

In your mind, is the film more about Burma or about Thailand?

In the beginning, we wanted to do a film about a Burmese person in Thailand. But once we started working on it, we felt that we were talking about ourselves. We realised that the most interesting angle was the relationship between Thai and Burmese people, because a lot of problems we’re facing now are rooted in that relationship. So we wrote a story about a Thai woman who has to get involved with Burmese migrants in Ranong province, and we decided to tell the story from the Thai perspective. We came up with the character of a Thai mother who’s lost her Burmese nanny.

Your field of interest is “in-between” space. Can you elaborate more on that?

The state of “inbetween-ness”, the need to dissemble frames and to question various kinds of borders — to me these are important in the world today. I used to focus on sexuality and how it was strictly tied to the concept of “nature” — but “nature”, to me, is also something we construct in order to create lines and borders. Then I became interested in other forms of segregation as a result of the statehood. I studied [migrant people] who lingered in the state of “already left but haven’t arrived yet” — the people who had to leave their countries to go somewhere else. In many cases, their integration within a new society is always an ongoing process, legally and socially.


The story takes place largely in Ranong, and the province is a prominent character in itself. What’s your impression of the place?

Ranong is an unusual place. I define it as a province that is shy with strangers but talkative to its friends. The first time I went there, it was quiet and ordinary, but after many trips and after spending time there, I found it very appealing, full of different dynamics and energy from the diversity of the people. There are Thai, Burmese, farang, Chinese — and there are Christians, Muslims and Buddhists. When we went to make a film about the place, our priority was to portray this character, so the film would discuss diversity in its many dimensions, physical as well as something else, including belief, superstition, dream and memory. I like poetic realism films, such as the French film L’Atalant, or the Thai films from the 80s such as Uka Fah Luang and Butterflies And Flowers. Our films have certain similarities in terms of being stories about ‘small people’.

Why did you choose to make a fiction film instead of a documentary?

The origin of the project came from my research trip with students who studied documentary films. We went down to Ranong many times and I began to hang out with Burmese people there. Some of them became my friends. I found that they’re lively and good-humoured people, and I began to see the way they perceive the world, their optimism, the faith in Buddhism, and their perseverance in dealing with unfortunate circumstances. I wanted to tell their story from an angle that’s not too depressing, that can send out the message of hope. So I thought that making a fiction film would give me more room to discuss all of this and make the whole thing more personal.

The issue of minority groups is a key political and social debate in many countries, from the Rohingyas in Burma to Muslims in Europe. To you, what’s the most important factor in our understanding of the issue?

The ability to see things and understand the world from “the other side” is the most important — the ability to think from an angle that doesn’t have you at the centre. Also, the realisation that our perception of “the others” is made up partly of prejudice and myth is crucial. An obvious example is the way some Thais look at our neighbouring countries with bias, due to the indoctrination of certain values and prejudices.

Lastly, what’s harder, teaching film or making film?

Both are difficult. Filmmaking is a dream, a personal ambition, but once I began I realised that it wasn’t just about me. At times we thought ‘why are we doing this?’ but still we had to push it until it’s done. Teaching – well, it’s the Thai saying that teachers are just ferrymen. We have to take care of the lives that we didn’t create but this is our responsibility. For us, the hardest thing is anything to do with humans.


This article was originally published in the Bangkok Post on 16 January 2015.


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