Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a Cannes Festival Palme d’Or prize winning filmmaker—but you knew that already. Despite our pride in his international recognition, his art often remains difficult to penetrate. His movies move at a glacial pace, dotted with subtle folkloric references, and with no apparent plot. Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (the movie that won him the Cannes prize) is actually part of a larger art project titled Primitive, a multimedia exhibition which explores the two narratives of Uncle Boonmee. First, Uncle Boonmee’s power to move through time, accessing both the future and memories going back many generations. Second, the village of Nabua’s persecution by the Thai army, who believed it to be a hotbed of communist insurgency during the Vietnam War. Through a series of (mostly) videos, Primitive returns to these two themes again and again.

Why do an exhibition?
It’s always related to the films or short films I’m doing. It’s a kind of rough sketch, or an opportunity to do something abstract that I can’t do in a movie. For Primitive, there’s Uncle Boonmee [the movie], a book, short films—many fragments. And sometimes it’s almost a performance when I collaborate with the people [in Nabua]. But since there’s less money here, this exhibition is more intimate [than the Primitive exhibitions abroad].

You’re dealing with the memory of people killed by the Thai army. Do you ever self-censor?
Even though the work is political, I don’t feel a need to censor myself. I don’t want to make a heavy political film. The installation should represent yourself, your take, your shared memories of the people there, with the hope that afterwards people can go back and talk about what happened or look it up on the internet.

Still, it is very political.
It’s impossible not to talk politics. The education system is just an illusion in Thailand. The way I grew up, the education I received, the history books of my nephew, they’re full of lies, full of propaganda. What Thailand has been going through is lies, many lies. We went to listen firsthand and record many hours of conversation with the older generations [in Nabua], to reeducate ourselves, even if it’s rather late. There are certain key institutions involved, like the army and... Something is still there. It’s about the fear, the cultural fear. Faith and fear. You worship something and, at the same time, you can’t step out of line.

You don’t worry about getting in trouble?
This exhibition is very mild. It’s not political at all. It’s very personal. It’s a journey with these kids to a spaceship. It’s about escape and all that. It has a reason behind it but living in this country, I know what I can say and what I cannot. I don’t want to be too direct anyway.

Is that the goal, though? Do people have to dig deeper to figure it out?
It’s like my film. When I make it, it’s for me, my curiosity for the place. When it’s shown, it has a life of its own. So it depends on the individual viewer, whether he or she wants to dig, how much you want to know about the background. If you don’t care about it, take it all in visually, it’s OK. For me, I have my own references but again, like other artists, I don’t mind other interpretations. That’s what art is supposed to be.

Why Nabua? Why is its past so important?
I want to know myself. Like when I make movies, I always select actors that have a lot of experience that I don’t have. People say, they are not professional. But for me they are very professional, professional at being human beings. They’ve gone through so much. But for me, my life is so simple, so I want to learn. Making movies is a pretext, a path to that. Being in Nabua has really allowed me to share and understand better, through new friends, how as a country we became what we are now. Communism was a big turning point for Thailand, how the Americans came, how people felt left out until now.

Has your art changed Nabua?
I don’t know. I’ve sent them DVDs but I haven’t gone back. I’m going back next year with the Jim Thompson Foundation, when we plan to host the exhibition in the village. I didn’t want to change their lives. I wanted to be there, not as a tourist, but not as an inhabitant. It is sensitive. Sometimes you treat them simply as subjects, and it’s like taking advantage of them.

Has funding for your art improved since you won in Cannes?
In Thailand, it’s always on and off that you don’t really have much hope in the government. Sometimes it’s coming, sometimes not. I tend to be cautious about government funding. They want you to do certain things. If I have a choice, I prefer not to have funding from them. If you look at art from countries with funding, it’s very academic and boring. Maybe the artwork would be more interesting with less money.

What’s next?
I’m finishing one very romantic film of a hotel on the Mekong, in Nongkai. It’s a one-hour film called Mekong Hotel. My crew go there and my friend, who is a guitar teacher improvises and plays guitar for an hour. My crew is trying to rehearse a movie about this ghost who goes around eating innards. It’s like a documentary but every scene is shot in a hotel room.

And will the movie in the movie ever exist?
I hope so. This is almost to find out, what is this movie? The fun part is shooting it in a hotel. It’s full of melancholia. And then I’m doing a film festival in March with Tilda Swinton, in Yao Noi, next to Phuket. It’s very snobbish and by invitation only but we’ll do a more public one in Bangkok. Then I’m doing a short film with her and writing a feature film, hopefully to be shot in 2013.


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