The Thai Filmmaker Documenting Life at the Margins

Why you should care

Because displaced minority groups need to be heard.

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Five years ago, Nontawat Numbenchapol struck up an acquaintance with a boy living in Bangkok while working on a PBS documentary about Shan people, an ethnic minority group from Myanmar. The boy told the documentarian that he hoped to become a photographer and filmmaker, and the two connected on Facebook to chat about cameras.

By 2016, Numbenchapol noticed that the now young man’s online photos had changed.

“He was no longer in Bangkok. He went back to live in the buffer zone with the military and he had [photos of himself with] guns,” the 35-year-old filmmaker tells OZY. “I realized then, ‘Oh, this is my next film.’”

[No Boys Land] is meant to expose the plight of refugees — while prompting Thai audiences to consider what a military-sanctioned reality could look like.

The “buffer zone” refers to Thailand’s northwestern border shared with Myanmar, a country whose military has long warred with its ethnic minorities. Decades before the current Rohingya humanitarian crisis, the Shan, Karen, Kachin, Mon, Chin and even the ethnically Burman majority fled their homes seeking refuge in Thailand. Some groups, like the Shan, have their own armies, and self-governing areas have emerged along the border.

Those residing on the border now have grown children, who in turn have children themselves — an entire generation coming of age without ever experiencing life outside of a military zone. Numbenchapol is set to explore this topic in his upcoming documentary, No Boys Land, shot entirely on his own because of the heightened sensitivity toward visitors entering the zone. It is tentatively set for release at the end of 2018.

It’s little wonder that Numbenchapol felt compelled to tell this story, as his first two features — Boundary and By the River — also focused on people living in the margins of society. The former, released in 2013, was initially banned by the Thai government due to its charged subject matter: the feud between Thailand’s two political factions, the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, and the impact of this misplaced nationalism on the villagers living along the Thai-Cambodian border.

The ban was lifted after Numbenchapol agreed to mute the soundtrack for a few seconds when the royal family is mentioned; he insists that any Thai would recognize the central message of Boundary through its Thai title, a proverb about the need for opposing sides to understand each other.

Later in 2013, By the River premiered at the Locarno International Film Festival, winning a Special Mention Award. It is another portrait of misery at the margins, this time centering on Karen villagers reeling from the effects of a 1998 ecological disaster involving lead leeched into their river from mines upstream. Lush scenes of rural life play against the haunting suggestion that villagers’ lives were sacrificed for financial gain.

Pailin Wedel, a Thai-American journalist and documentary filmmaker, says the art house tone of Numbenchapol’s work sets it apart from traditional documentaries that focus less on aesthetics and more on distilling information. His approach to editing, she continues, “borrows a lot of narrative storytelling from the fiction world. … Every one of Nontawat’s documentaries is a visual masterpiece.”

Komtouch Napattaloong, a producer for No Boys Land, also applauds the filmmaker’s inventiveness — and his refusal to back away from taboo topics. “A lot of the subject matter he does is topical and very necessary, and he tackles it in a fresh way,” says Napattaloong. “He’s very consciously trying to do new things with a documentary. He’s very interested in blending fiction and nonfiction.”

A striking example of this genre subversion is Numbenchapol’s latest feature, #BKKY, released last year. The film is a fictional narrative based on interviews with 100 Bangkok teenagers who spoke openly about their fluid sexuality, parental pressures and aspirations. One part scripted story, one part talking heads, it provides an imaginative, revealing look at young people’s lives in the Thai capital. The filmmaker, utterly transparent about straddling the border between fact and fiction, can be heard directing the amateur actors — and he uses the abrupt snapping of a clapperboard to remind audiences they are in the realm of docudrama. His next project, Doi Boy — the story of Shan soldiers he interviewed for No Boys Land who later moved to Chiang Mai to work as male prostitutes — will mark his official foray into fiction filmmaking.

Numbenchapol, a native Bangkokian, came to his interest in film early. His mother recalls that as a baby, he would try to grab the camera from his father during family photo sessions. The son of two academics, Numbenchapol was expected to follow that path; instead, he obsessed over films like Edward Scissorhands, Babe, AI, Gattaca — each featuring a protagonist struggling against the expectations of a predetermined social structure.

In college, he filmed a documentary for his thesis project about a group of friends who were extreme skateboarders. It caught the attention of GTH Studio, Thailand’s most successful studio (before closing its doors in 2016), which provided Numbenchapol with funding to turn it into a longer movie. Later, he worked as a stills photographer for filmmakers, including one of his icons, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, who won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival in 2010.

After more than a decade in the industry, Numbenchapol says that No Boys Land comes closest to his ideal: a documentary feature with the aesthetic of narrative film that explores life at the edges. In stark terms, the movie is meant to expose the plight of refugees while prompting Thai audiences to consider what a military-sanctioned reality could look like.

“I am worried about my friends, my love, my family,” Numbenchapol says. “Will they have a destiny like that in the future with a military government structure?” He doesn’t have an answer, nor is it a question he expected to grapple with. But with all of his projects, Numbenchapol’s deep dive into the subject matter breaks through to other layers. “Every time I work on a documentary, it always gives me more than I think,” he says. “It never turns out to be what I expected.”

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