The rather long and tongue-twisting name of Apichatpong Weerasethakul may not be at the tip of the tongue for the average cinephile in Bangladesh, but it is ubiquitous to any serious follower of contemporary independent cinema anywhere in the world. Winner of the Cannes trifecta of Palme d'Or, Un Certain Regard and jury prize (in different editions), the 47-year-old from Thailand has been a darling of the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) for nearly two decades, and this year featured one of the festival's biggest attractions: SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL, a mega-installation in the form of a fully-operational hotel whose guests got to experience cinema at Weerasethakul's “preferred plane of existence”—of sleep and dreams.
On the first day of IFFR when I was told we should put forward our interview requests through the festival's Press Desk, I put down Weerasethakul's name rather wishfully, fully aware how slim my chances are of landing an interview with one of the festival's biggest stars in a sea of seasoned and acclaimed journalists. It proved a great decision: I did get a schedule, albeit a 20-minute group interview alongside Aldo Pedro Padilla Poma (a film journalist from Chile) and Paige Lim from Singapore, a fellow Young Film Critics participant. What made it truly special was that it took place inside the stomach of SLEEPCINEMAHOTEL—sitting in a close circle on floor cushions with dim lighting and an ambient soundscape in the background.
As the three of us took turns to try and get three interviews out of him in one conversation, I got a peek inside his silently brilliant mind about why he likes the films he does, and his philosophy as a cinematic “truth teller”.
The Daily Star (TDS): Your name came up in Bangladeshi news recently when there was a film from Bangladesh—The Wheel (1993) by Morshedul Islam—on a list of your favorite films from the 20th century you gave to French VOD service La Cinetek. That film is 25 years old, but there are other films on that list that are much older than that, and it made me wonder: how do the films you like stay with you?
Apichatpong Weerasethakul (AW): I was struck, educated, and influenced by many films during my 20s and 30s, and I watched a lot of films, especially when I went to study art and experimental film in Chicago… because in Thailand, there were no festivals at the time. So at that time I was exposed to those films and I watched a lot of films. I think I watched The Wheel in Thailand, later. It was such a big influence to come back to Thailand and work on my own (pauses) memory. I wasn't inspired by the US… I don't have a memory there. But when I started to make movies in my 30s and 40s, I started to watch less and less films. So the list you mentioned is from the period when I was intensely watching films.
TDS: There are two other films on that list I found that are from the Indian sub-continent: The Chess Players (“Shatranj Ke Khiladi”, Satyajit Ray, 1977) which is an iconic film, and the rather experimental The Saga of Khayal (“Khayal Gatha”, Kumar Shahani, 1989). Because I come from the region, it's of curiosity to me and our readers—what is your impression of films from that part of the world?
AW: I have to say I don't know much… I don't have that much chance to see films from there … only in festivals. The films on that list are those that I saw, so I don't think it is really justified for me to speak about the contemporary ones.
TDS: From the ones that you saw was there anything specific that stood out for you, or did they speak to you for different reasons, individually?
AW: I think the use of soundtrack and music is what strikes me. And the sense of time and the simplicity was really striking, at least in the movies that I like.
TDS: Going back to the list of your favorite movies, it has American titles like Re-Animator (a campy American sci-fi horror comedy from 1985), I Walked with a Zombie (a 1943 horror film which the New York Times at the time called “a dull, disgusting exaggeration of an unhealthy, abnormal concept of life”) or the original The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). Why are these films among your favorites? What are the things that strike you when you watch a film?
AW: It's the authorship. I look for the person behind the film. Sometimes you see the film and they have a good story and good special effects but that's it. It's like a living thing when you encounter a human being. If you like that guy or girl, you have a special connection because you know him or her. Sometimes when you see a movie, you can see the director; you can sense their personality… something you really cannot feel in mainstream Hollywood.
TDS: At your talk, you spoke about your commitment to tell the truth about difficult things like the Thai junta who conduct a sort of “attitude adjustment” where dissidents are detained and conditioned in a certain way before they reappear. This has happened in various forms around the world with authoritarian regimes, and it has been happening to some extent in Bangladesh where people suddenly go missing and when they reappear after months, they don't say anything. When you're addressing something like that in your work, something that is so much a part of the fabric of society and is a reality that is so universal… how does that universality of this truth play in your portrayal?
AW: I can only know that it's connected; it's something that's a pattern of authoritarian regimes—the fear of information, the fear of (pauses) Facebook. But I only express in my own way. I am not an activist, so for me it's more about how do I present these feelings? Not only being in the place of no freedom, but there are pleasures in life too. So I try to present these in my films. I think if people are honest when they make images, and there will be different voices; combined they will be a testament of time. It doesn't have to be a protest film or anything. It's just the different colours of life at a particular time.
The Daily Star's Fahmim Ferdous attended the 47th International Film Festival Rotterdam (Jan 24-Feb 3, 2018) as part of its Young Film Critics Programme. More of his coverage of the festival can be found at iffr.com/en/blog.