Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Rak haeng Siam (The Love Of Siam, Thailand, 2007)

Director: Chukiat Sakveerakul.

Principal cast: Witwisit Hiranyawongkul, Mario Maurer, Sinjai Plengpanit, Kanya Rattapetch.

When Thailand is mentioned, first things that come to my mind are long, paradise-like beaches overcrowded with Western charter tourists and gay life pulsing around the clock in Bangkok with its world famous ladyboys and prostitution. Somehow, the word ’conservative’ doesn’t fit into the overall image of the place. But I guess the Thai society outside of the beaches and gay bars is a rather different story. In fact so different that when „The Love of Siam” was released in cinemas across the country the promotors did everything they could to conceal the fact that the focal point of this almost 3 hour long film was a gay teen romance. Basicly advertised as a straight teen romance flick (a very popular genre in Thailand, it seems), the film’s posters feature two girls and two boys, there are hardly any promotional photos on the film’s website showing the two main characters together and the film’s trailer clearly misleads viewers making them assume that this will be another one of those sugarsweet „boy meets girl” Asian productions. I can just imagine the unsuspecting „traditional family” movie-goers coughing their popcorn back up when realising what they have been „tricked” into watching, especially if they have brought their „innocent” prodigy with them. I’m a little surprised the director hasn’t gone into hiding as a result.

The plot of „The Love of Siam” centers around two boys and their families who live as neighbours in one of the suburbs of Bangkok. We meet them first time when they’re aged about 11 or 12. Mew lives with his ailing grandmother. He is a bit of a loner, picked on by others at school and not really having other friends than his late grandpa’s piano. One day, when Mew is attacked in the school’s toilets, his neighbour Tong comes to his rescue. Eventually, the two boys bond and become inseparable. In the meantime, Tong’s older sister Tang (yes, the choice of names isn’t very helpful for non-Thai audiences) goes missing on a trekking tour in the jungles around Chiangmai in the north of the country. Her disappearance without a trace leaves her bereaved family stunned. Especially her father seems to be overwhelmed with grief and tries to drown his sorrows in whiskey. Not being able to cope with the situation, Tong’s family moves away leaving Mew without his best friend.

We meet the two families again after what seems to have been five years. After Mew’s grandmother’s death he now lives with his aunt and is a lead singer in a boyband called August. He is also the composer of all the songs that the band performs. One day, when Tong (not knowing the identity of the lead singer) wants to buy their latest album from a records stall, the stall-keeper informs him that the album has been sold out but quickly points in the direction of the band itself since he has talked to them a moment earlier. Tong follows after the band and recognises to his big surprise his long-lost friend Mew in their midst. They exchange phone numbers, and soon Tong finds himself drawn to Mew in a way he has never felt with Donut, the girl he’s officially dating. At the same time, a Chinese girl named Ying whose family moved into Tong’s house after his had left, spends her free time practising „white magic” which she is learning from a book, hoping to make Mew fall in love with her, just like she is with him. Her somewhat unconventional tricks – flipping Mew’s shoes on his porch and stuffing his hair into her teddy bear – don’t really bring about the desired results. Instead, Mew finds himself emotionally involved with Tong and can now (surprise, surprise!) finally write the love song so needed for their band to reach new heights of popularity with the teen girl crowd. He performs the song at a garden party arranged by Tong’s delusional father who is celebrating the return of his lost daughter (in fact just a decoy planted by his desperate wife) and the two end up kissing in the garden after the guests are gone. This is witnessed by Tong’s mother who is all but happy (’a hard drinking husband, a missing daughter and now a gay son’). She tells Mew to end their relationship behind Tong’s back. Mew and Tong are thrown apart but Mew’s love song performed at Siam Square (hence the name of the film) brings them back together. Or does it? The ending is in fact surprisingly ambigious and begs for a sequel. Well, maybe that was the intention.

„The Love of Siam” could have been set as a TV soap opera as it certainly has all the ingredients for it – several parallell drama subplots with rather weird twists on a par with anything „Santa Barbara” has had to offer. At the same time, the acting on the part of most actors, especially our pair in love, is surprisingly realistic, balanced and „non-soapy”. Another thing that separates this film from the mainstream Thai cinematography is the diversity of the society it portrays, even if it doesn’t seem so seen with Western eyes. Tong’s family are Catholics, and apparently the controversy of having a Catholic family as main characters in a Thai film meant for the masses has been almost as big as portraying a gay teen romance. But as for the gay aspect, the main shock is said to have been that the two boys at the heart of the story aren’t shown particularly effeminate. The Thai society can evidently live with those „poor creatures born with the wrong genitalia” (there are even special toilets for transsexuals across the country) but still finds it rather difficult to accept that a man can be gay without constantly having to wiggle his behind and squeak instead of speaking. Nor are the two boys in question forced into prostitution and dying of AIDS. Actually, they seem to be just like any other kid on the block and I guess that is the main point of controversy of this film. With this in mind, I believe that we can safely call this film groundbreaking in contemporary Thai cinematography. Here I have to add that when the film was recently shown on Thai TV the pivotal scene with the two boys kissing was omitted. It seems that the ground in question hasn't been broken with the Thai TV broadcasters yet.

As for concealing the true nature of the film in its marketing, the director himself has admitted that his objective was to reach a wider audience. It reminds me of my own experience at this year’s Kratkofil, a short film festival in Bosnia, when the festival’s organisers completely omitted any reference to gay and lesbian when they included my selection of gay and lesbian short films in their programme. Most of the people who had come to watch my selection had no idea that it was a queer one but only a few left. Had they announced it so that everybody would know beforehand, maybe no one would have come at all. Seen from that perspective the director of „The Love of Siam” might have been right in his tactics: by „tricking” the audiences he made them watch a different reality which in the end wasn’t that different from their own.

„The Love of Siam” is a sincere and rather convincingly made film about family ties and different kinds of love – Tong’s father’s self-destructive love for his lost daughter, his mother’s love for both him and her estranged husband and, of course, Mew’s and Tong’s first aspirations to find love for another human being outside of their families. While one kind of love is desired and even encouraged, another kind of love can be seen as dangerous and a threat to the other love. In a way, this films aspires to show that no love can be a threat to any other love and for that it deserves an immense credit. I can definitely recommend this film, especially if you don't find it all too tiresome to read subtitles for 3 hours. This aspect is certainly compensated by the charm and beauty of the two main leads.

Here is a video compilation of some of the romantic scenes from the film with Mew's love song presented as a karaoke sing-along both in Thai and English

Monday, 20 October 2008

Na sončni strani Alp (On The Sunny Side Of The Alps, Slovenia, 2007)

Director: Janez Burger.

Principal cast: Ibrahim Nouhoum, Kany Michel Obenga, Samuel Camara.

"On The Sunny Side Of The Alps" is not directly an LGBT-related film. However, I believe it deserves to be mentioned here since it's about racism and xenophobia which are soulmates of homophobia. This short film is set in Slovenia and depicts what seems to be everyday lives of ordinary Slovenes. Nothing extraordinary except the entire cast is African.

Here is the director's statement:

""On The Sunny Side Of The Alps" used to be the slogan of a promotion campaign of the Slovene Tourist Board which wanted to present Slovenia in the best possible light - as a beautiful subalpine country, full of hospitable and friendly people. However, recent racist and xenophobic events present Slovenia in a far darker light. It is most concerning that racist and xenophobic rhetoric is being used also by political elites, but even more concerning is the fact that their populist tendencies find fertile ground which helps their political credit to grow. This film is a reaction to the increasingly bizzare situation in my country. A film about a typical Slovene family which would never find shape if finance officials knew that this is the first Slovene black-African film."

Indeed. Apparently, he made the Slovene film funders believe that he was about to make a film which could basicly be used for promotion of tourism to Slovenia, intending to cast a number of popular Slovene actors, but when he got the funding he simply hired black actors for all the roles in the script and the result is simply hilarious. I guess he won't be getting more money from the Slovene film funders, but something tells me he doesn't really care about that. To my knowledge, he's already got funding for his new full-length film in Ireland. Now it remains to be seen if the Irish Tourist Board will be equally upset with the outcome!

"On The Sunny Side Of The Alps" is a witty comedy with subtle humour and an unmistakable Alpine (or, should I say, subalpine?) touch. Still, you don't have to have visited the country to fully enjoy it. And since cinematography is a visual art form, the message won't be lost on most viewers either.

Here you can watch a fragment from the film

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Queer Sarajevo Festival, a highly personal account

Photo by Rašid Krupalija.

If you had come to Sarajevo last week you would have seen large billboards across the city in connection with the forthcoming municipal elections. Quite a few of them state in massive letters – Sarajevo na evropskom putu or Sarajevo on Road to Europe. Yeah, sure – what about a fast track? Municipal elections have rarely got anything to do with pan-European issues but in this case the billboards’ authors might just have struck the chord with what’s at stake in their city and country, unknowingly.

Queer Sarajevo Festival was opened on Wednesday, 24 September in the premises of the Academy of Fine Arts. The occasion was also used for the opening of several exhibitions – a photo exhibition by Irfan Redžović, a sculpture exhibition by Alma Selimović (both from Bosnia) and a number of queer art works from different parts of former Yugoslavia. The hall with the art exhibitions where the opening took place was bursting with people – the organisers clearly weren´t counting on so many people showing up. In fact, it was almost impossible to see the art works for all the people. At one point, a representative of the Dutch embassy, being one of the main funders of the festival, gave a speech in English concluding it with „Long live the Queers!” followed by a speech in Bosnian made by Boba, one of the local organisers from Organisation Q. The crowds cheered and the whole atmosphere was lively but rather relaxed – the weeks of hate speech from parts of the Bosnian media and most political parties seemed rather distant.

In the meantime, the opposing crowd outside was growing bigger – the daily Ramadan meal at 7 pm was over. As the opening was coming to a close, I and three Bosnian friends of mine decided to move further and went outside. The crowd didn’t look particularly friendly but on the other side, at least at that moment they weren’t shouting or chanting anything and looked relatively calm, no doubt largely due to the presence of the police in front of the building. When we decided to start walking, a guy standing next to me silently tried to block my passage and pushed me. I asked him what his problem was but he didn’t reply. We started walking and I noticed that a group of those people also started walking in the same direction. One of the two girls in our group decided that we´d better get into her car which was parked on the other side of the Academy, not far away, so we turned right and walked through a line of policemen who were standing outside. The other side was badly lit and deserted – no civilians, no police. I kept watching our backs but nobody seemed to follow us at that point. But that was only a moment of calm before the storm. As we had reached the parking lot, I suddenly saw with the back of my eye that a group of people were running at us and a second later we were attacked from behind. I tried to turn around to defend myself and get away from them but fell and found myself surrounded by what seemed to be four young guys who started kicking the living daylights out of me from all sides. Somehow, I managed to get back on my feet and get out of the circle, so I started running all I could without looking back. As I was running, I noticed I was basically blind on my left eye and my hands were covered in blood. I also couldn’t help noticing how badly lit and deserted the streets were at that point. Absolutely no police presence 50 meters from the Academy. I eventually reached a place where I felt I was safe and my friends collected me from there. Most of that night was spent in a local hospital where they kept sending me from one clinic to another and eventually stitched me up. At the emergency room we also saw some other victims of the attacks that night. Two guys who had left the venue in a taxi were followed for four kilometers, then brutally dragged out of the car, threatened with guns and then beaten with them.

Towards dawn we were all taken to a police station where we gave our statements. This process took an incredible amount of time and the police officers in charge found it important to ask questions like what the maiden name of my mother was. Eventually, I and a friend of mine were driven to my hotel room with some police escort and we could finally get some sleep.

On the following day I was taken back to the hospital for some further checks but otherwise stayed in my hotel room all day watching TV including an episode of JAG with one of the main characters hospitalised after he stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan. It seemed somehow appropriate. In the evening I was visited by some of the organisers who told me that the Festival as a public event wouldn´t continue since the police claimed that they couldn´t provide any protection for the participants or the organisers but that they would try to stage some of the planned events in secret locations for specifically invited guests. I was supposed to take part in a panel debate after the screening of John Greyson’s Lilies together with the director himself on Friday and although in a poor physical condition I still wanted to go through with it.

The day after, on Friday, I had to go back to the clinic of „facial reconstruction”. The organisers suggested that I go to their office after that as they were planning to take me and the other guests of the festival to „the only safe restaurant” in town for a dinner later that day. What I couldn´t quite foresee was that I was to stay inside that office for about 24 hours. Plans kept changing as the phones never went silent around me. The organisers even used my phone at times (I had my own Bosnian pay as you go SIM card) as they weren´t sure if their phones weren’t bugged. „Bugged by the police?” – „Yes, you never know who they are really working for”. At one point some of the organisers left for the airport to collect an artist who was coming to the festival to stage a performance. A car had followed them. Boba, the girl who remained in the office with me, switched off the lights, I sat down on the floor – just in case. After a number of calls back and forth we learned that they were now safe – they drove back from the airport with a police escort which they finally managed to get. Although offered, I decided not to leave. If they followed after me, they would learn where I´m staying and that place was definitely not safe. Not knowing who was lurking outside and what those people could come up with during the night, I decided to seek protection from a different source. Being a Danish national, I phoned the emergency number of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs. About twenty minutes later I got a phone call from the Danish embassy. It turned out to be the ambassador himself. After some negotiations the embassy managed to persuade the Bosnian police to dispatch a police car to the area which was to keep an eye on us all night long. I guess it did, I never saw the actual car but that night will probably go down in my personal history as the longest night I had ever experienced, full of sounds of stopping cars and slammed car doors. At some point toward the morning I finally fell asleep.

When I woke up the next morning, I knew I didn’t want to spend another night in that city. The organisers put me on a plane to Zagreb on Saturday afternoon after a rather remarkable drive through the city, first to my hotel room and then to the airport, which seemed rather surreal and, if anything, a bad reprise of some crap Hollywood film with Svetlana in the front seat trying to hide her face under a hood and me at the back seat constantly looking back. The day had come that I felt I had to be airlifted out of Sarajevo, just like those people in the early spring of 1992 as the Bosnian war was becoming a reality. The only difference being that there now wasn’t a war or any shelling or shooting and the other people at the airport didn’t seem to be in distress. This was pure terrorism and not many ordinary people in Sarajevo seemed to care. I left but the local organisers stayed and so did thousands of Bosnian queers, many of them too afraid to leave their houses after what had happened.

One of the parties contesting at the municipal elections in Sarajevo on 5 October, Stranka za BiH or Party for Bosnia and Herzegovina which is led by Haris Silajdžić, one of the three rotating presidents in that country, has the whole city plastered with another set of billboards – these ones read 100% Europe. It is also the same party that has been the most ferocious opponent of Queer Sarajevo Festival publicly. What can I say to this? They probably mean 100% Europe as of 1933 when Hitler was democratically elected as Germany´s chancellor. There is, of course, no connection between people governing Sarajevo and Bosnia, people like Haris Silajdžić, and Europe as of 2008. Whichever road to Europe these people believe they are travelling, it hasn´t existed for decades and at the moment it certainly resembles the Old Bridge in Mostar after it was blown up in 1993. I sincerely hope the events from last week will serve as an eye-opener to the larger public.

Queer Sarajevo Festival was opened on 24 September but it was never closed. All the performances, film screenings and other events never took place and are still waiting for their audience. An audience which is there and which will not disappear, no matter how much certain parts of the Bosnian society may wish them away. It is therefore up to the Bosnian public, but also the international community, to make sure that these events DO take place and a significant part of this EU candidate member state's population can feel free from both the state and private terrorism which characterises the country at the moment.

Here is some footage made by Croatian TV on the opening night