When memory goes digital

An interview with writer & director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit of 36

XJ = Xu Jia. NT = Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit.

Caution: contents are emotional!

XJ: How did you come up with the idea of this film?

NT: I think it was six years ago, when I went to Berlin Film Festival and had to stay in a hostel, I noticed a message on bulletin board from someone to another person: “Alex, I left the memory at the counter.” From then on, I was inspired. I know that the word “memory” here is like a memory card, or something, but it just read memory. And yeah, that made me think that, we put our memory in digital storage, more and more. But that year, it just started: you just use a flash drive, like a quite small storage. I didn’t get any more idea about it.

Five years later, when I was looking at my hardware, I had got, like, six hard drives before I edited the video. And I took a lot of digital photos more and more. Now I think if the drive crashes, everything would disappear. You know, in times of digital photos, it’ll be gone forever. Lots of data, many files, many things will be gone. It’s like we can’t trust the digital equipment, digital device because like a drive, when it’s gone, it’s gone. That made me think about the story more and more.

So when I wanted to make a feature film, I wanted to make a film that I was involved very much, and I wanted to tell a story in my era, that means, the digital era. Thus I started this project. Because for me, I am a child of digital era, when we take a digital photo, it’s like, we don’t really remember anything – we just put our memory in the file: when you snap, you snap, but actually, you can’t remember anything, you just snap, snap, snap and snap. You keep everything in your hard drive and then you forget.

Sometimes, when you look at a photo in your hard drive, you can’t remember why you took this photo. I think this is the way people remember things in digital era: we just take it and we don’t remember. Actually, sometimes, we can’t remember anything. We know we have a hard drive and we know we can keep it so we never check it and we actually can’t remember it. We record, but we don’t remember. This is our generation.

XJ: But, I think you remain hopeful, as in the last scenes, we can see the desktop wallpaper of the boy’s Mac is a photo of him and the girl, and it’s been two years: he actually remembers. And the girl, too. She goes back to the rooftop. The film doesn’t say that they are hand in hand but in a way, they remember each other: that’s such a delicate touch. I mean, you don’t say explicitly that they live happily ever after, but in a way, they are.

It’s interesting to see that we seldom see the face of the boy, it’s always the back. Is there any reason?

NT: I think it’s because there is only memory between the girl and him so no one else can remember his face. It’s memory between her and him.

XJ: It seems you set the camera steady in each shot. Can you talk about it?

NT: I think “36” comes from 36 pictures in one film roll so I try to imitate it. I divide the film into 36 shots, like still pictures. I think when you look at a still picture; you can see there is something in it, moving. (XJ: That means you memory is living and breathing?) Yes. So I try to do something like that: when you see a still picture, you see something moving – that comes from your memory.

XJ: For this reason alone, I think your film would be recorded in the world film history because it seems your film is the first who touches this topic with depth. On the surface, everything is so light-hearted. Especially the boy, he speaks so softly. Like “-Oom. -Sounds like a girl’s name. -Like a girl? I don’t think so. Maybe there are a lot of girls named Oom.” He is very soft, but, we can feel his deep attachment with the girl. Well, we have seen films featuring a sound engineer, like in One Fine Spring Day; and other filmic depiction of different roles in the film industry, like a script-writer or a cinematographer, but it’s seems this is the first film featuring an art director and a location scout. So how did you come up with this idea of role-setting?

NT: I think for location scouts, they usually have to snap everything when going to the site or real location. They are the ones who use digital camera a lot and a lot. Sometimes they just snap and they don’t remember anything. I think it fits the story. Because, for me, the location scout always goes with the art director, maybe they get into some relationship.

And I love the old place. (XJ: “A place with a past.”) Yeah, a place with a past. When you go to Thailand nowadays, you will see a lot of new apartments or condo medium and they have to destroy the old place really fast. Because the government doesn’t have a policy to reserve that, the old buildings will be gone really easy. The motel you see in that film, after our shooting, it was destroyed. (XJ: So anybody who spent some time in that motel would watch your film to recollect some beautiful or a very sad memory) Yeah, because the last day when we shot there, there were some contractor walking around that site. (XJ: Interesting, it’s like God’s will: since it had already been recorded, then it could be erased.) So I wanted to talk about memory, photo and place. The story between a location scout and an art director is very suitable to this film.

XJ: You were in Berlin six years ago and that was because of your short film? Can you talk about it?

NT: Yes. I think it was the first international film festival for me. I made a short film. (XJ: How old were you at the time?) I think 22 or 23. It’s like I just sent them a short film. To a special program. Actually, it was the Berlin Talent Campus. (XJ: OK, you are an accredited talent, a certified talent.) They had a special theme of “Home Affair” so I made a documentary about teenagers and Thai politics.

That year there was a coup d’etat in Thailand and I tried to record the dialogue of teenagers on the night of the coup d’etat. They really had fun with this situation but actually it was a very serious situation, but I tried to portray Thai teenagers and Thai politics within a documentary, just five minutes. I went with a quite light digital video: I showed the text message on the screen, together with a TV scene. (XJ: Like a scene within a scene?) Yeah, because that night, we couldn’t go out so we communicate only through MSN that year. (2006) TV was banned so every channel was closed because of the coup d’etat. (XJ: Thaksin?) Yeah, yeah, that year.

I think it is an event that still affects now. In that year, politics to Thai teenager, it’s like nothing to them, but after that, they get more and more serious. It’s just like a start of everything. (XJ: So how are the teenagers in Thailand now?) I think they are aware of politics more and more. They came to the point that they fought against each other; they had a fight because of politics: their ideas conflicted. In the past, they didn’t know anything; they just had fun. It’s like government was bad, but that was far far away from them. It’s like they knew there was corruption in the government and that was all. Nothing deeper. But now they learn more and more. (XJ: And do something maybe?) Yes, a lot. On Facebook. They created a Facebook page and do a lot.

XJ: Yeah, you also have a Facebook page, with several thousands of fans. You are well-known!

NT: Yes, I am. Because in Thailand, I am a filmmaker and I’m a writer so there’s an audience and that’s a reason all this come together. (XJ: You write stories or?) A book. About Thai subculture. I think it’s like some local Thai culture that general people don’t count as a Thai culture because they always think Thai culture is like Thai dancing, Thai food, Patio, the sea, the beach, or something like that. But there is a lot of some very local Thai culture: for me, it’s very Thai, but general people don’t think it’s Thai. For example, Ginseng. There is an online Ginseng shop that advertises when you eat Ginseng, your family will be good. It’s like a law. Superstition. Something like this. If you eat that or you take that, your family and everything will be back to normal, good. You can recover your relationship. (XJ: That even?!) This is propaganda, but I love it. It’s not about health. It’s about everything in your life. (XJ: Right. A skeleton key.) Yeah. Yeah. I think it’s like a Thai belief. A really local belief that, actually, for me, it’s very Thai.

But the government or some tourist organization don’t want this to print out on the front page. (XJ: So it’s an unwritten tradition? People do that, yet there’s no book. But now there IS a book.) Yeah. I tried to write something about this. (XJ: So the book has been translated into English? I hope.) Maybe in the future. (XJ: Because there are so many foreign tourists and residents.) Yeah. Now I am trying to write a book for the foreigners, too. It’s like a Bangkok guide, but you go to very local places and make them new big tourist sites.

XJ: Beautiful! I haven’t been to Thailand and once watched the film The Beach and thought Thailand was like: “Bangkok. Good-time city. Gateway to Southeast Asia. Where dollars and deutschmarks get turned into counterfeit watches and genuine scars… You wanna drink snake blood?” Or happy-go-lucky: Yeah, let’s go to the beach and sunshine! But your film adds a new beam into the Thai spectrum. Thank you for that. I’m gonna recommend anybody I know to watch this film! Well, can you talk about foreign influence over Thailand?

NT: Yeah. Thai people love to blend old beliefs with new technology. You know, we have a belief of making a merit for the next life: you have to do good things in this life in order to have a better life in your next life. But now if you are busy, you can put money into a machine that helps you to make a good will.

XJ: Oh really? A machine of good will? It reminds me of Ang Lee’s “a Good Machine production”. And yours is “A Very Sad Picture”. It’s so funny! People use, let’s say, Universal, Paramount or Capitol, but you are like, A Very Sad Picture. You know, people want to go higher, stronger, and swifter while you just turn around and give the back to the audience: A – Very – Sad – Picture.

NT: Laughs. It’s actually a phrase we used a lot when we talk to each other while we were shooting. I love this phrase because when I say “very sad” – I often say “very sad” to every situation, good or bad. (XJ: Oh, everybody in Thailand, or you?) No. No. I spread it. (XJ: Right, so you have the patent: It’s mine: “A Very Sad Picture”.) Yeah. You know, when I say, “very sad”, everybody will laugh. (XJ: Right. It’s your trademark. So anytime people hear “very sad”, they’d know “oh, he’s coming, or he’s back.”:) Laughs. You know, because I have no film company, but I need to add a title in the first take of the film. So, “A Very Sad Picture”, I just typed it on the first draft of the film when we were editing.

XJ: Right. You didn’t think much as you used it every day. Spread the message. Like V for Vendetta, everybody wears this mask and says, “Yep, very sad.” – How is your day? – Very sad… Even if you are very happy. It’s a Ginseng. Cures everything. – How is your relationship? – Very sad. – How is the film festival? – Very sad. (NT: Laughs. It’s without any meaning. Just a catchphrase.) Yes, you just say it. It’s a subculture, too. In every culture, or region, there is slang. It’s great!

NT: And people coming to see my film might think it’s a comedy or something because of this. (XJ: Yeah, people might be misguided. It’s good to surprise them.) I don’t know if it destroys the mood or what. Laughs. (XJ: Right. Anyway. It’s like everybody else is trying to play a poker face and be serious, be the authority, but you just say “How very sad you are!” This is brilliant.)

XJ: Right. Just now we were talking about foreigner’s influence over Thailand, and you talked about how well Thai people can combine old with new. Does the praying machine have a special name? (NT: Not really.) How does it work? (NT: You just put money inside.) And that’s it? (NT: Yep.) Alright. It’s like when you go to the temple. (NT: Yes, it’s in the temple!) Right, you pay for your sins and pray for forgiveness. (NT: And this is like Thai belief plus technology.) Right! This is automatic! Before, we give the money to some monk with a bowl and now… well, are the monks out of work now? Jobless? (NT: No. No. No.) Or they get more money? (NT: Yes.) So they can now sit on the beach, maybe, singing “O mani mani hong” and then count the money at night. (NT: Yes, a new business for the temple.)

OK. How creative! So you mean this is foreign influence or Thai people’s own creation?

NT: I think Thai people adapt to everything. It’s like when Korean music is really popular in Thailand. (XJ: Too?) Yeah. I think it’s been four to five years. (XJ: So do you young people dance Gangnam Style?) Yes, a lot! (XJ: You do? And you have a Bangkok Style?) No. It’s like, when K-pop is really popular, we also have a Thai boy band, which looks like the K-bands. We try to adapt to everything.

They actually do plastic surgery (XJ: for a girl, or a woman) and their models are the Korean. They actually want to look like the Korean. (XJ: Interesting! In China, too. During some one-week holidays, the flight to Korea is always fully booked, a lot going there to get a plastic surgery. And we have an actress, who had a round face tenish years ago, but now her face is a heart shape. Since she’s a regular on different magazine covers, some girls want to have a face shape like hers. You know, like the painting “the scream”.)

XJ: So you studied film-making in college or?

NT: No. I didn’t study film. I studied humanity, Liberal Arts. Actually, I was a Chinese major, but now I can’t speak Chinese. Laughs. 我不會說了。[I am not able to speak Chinese now.] (XJ: 你說得很好啊。In fact, you speak very well. ) 不好。不好。[Not so well.] You know, a Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul won the Palme d’Or in Cannes in 2010 that was really inspiring to me, as he didn’t go to film school, either. He studied architecture in college and his film has a different approach from the regular ones. He adds a new way, a new perspective in film-making. Before, when I was watching Hollywood movies, I didn’t know how to make my own film. There are too much going on: dinosaurs, big ships, CGI. But after watching Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, I got the idea that there are other ways to shoot a film, without special effects.

XJ:… Facebook is reported to be one of the top reasons for divorce and break-ups. Tagging and check-in are the undoing.

NT: Yep. Actually, I tried to imitate the Facebook element. When you see the title of each scene, it’s like the caption of a photo when you post photos, sometimes you just write some personal sentence and other people would not understand the personal relationship between you and the photo.

XJ: OK. So you are imaginative and you do hands-on work. Also, you incorporate the virtual community into your own filmmaking.

NT: Yep. I’m a child of the digital era. Laughs. I’m addicted to Facebook. I’m like, a digital kid.

XJ: So you use Facebook every day?

NT: Yeah. Almost every day. (XJ: Voice over from the A. P. Pacharin: Almost all the time!) It’s like, I grow up in the digital era. In my first short film, I also used digital equipment. I have not chance to shoot each film with real film. I think it’s OK to use a digital device to tell a story, because idea matters, the story matters.

XJ: In the film, Oom asks Sai “… did you use film camera?” Sai says “I just use digital camera now, it’s a lot easier to share, to print and it’s not expensive.” It sounds like your words!

NT: Yeah. Something like that. But if you use a film camera to shoot things, you need to take you time because you need to print it out to see. When you shoot something, you have to think. When it takes time, while you are shooting, sometimes, you can memorize it more: Why I took this picture? What was happening at the time while I was shooting? Film camera makes us memorize more.

XJ: You wear Woody Allen glasses, but your film is, by no means, Woody Allen. Do you have some favorite directors?

NT: Yes, but it changes every day. At the moment, what pops up is Harmony Korine, the director of Gummo. He’s also got a film in this festival: Spring Breaker. His films are quite raw and it’s quite underground. I love him because he always creates something new. Sometimes, his film is very boring. Before Spring Breaker, he made Trash Humpers, something like that.

He always creates something new and very bold, to me. And I think it’s good spirits for the film-maker to always create something new and don’t fear to fail. Because, sometimes, his new film doesn’t work, but I always expect one new film from him. Always. Because I know he’ll always do something (XJ: Challenging) Yeah. I love challenges. I think it’s good for me because he’s the one who can challenge himself to go to new territories. To create something new to defy our tradition. Also, there are some Hollywood directors that I like: Cameron Crowe, director of Jerry Maguire because I also like narrative films. I also love Roy Andersson, from Sweden. And Tsai Ming-liang.

XJ: It’s like, for other people, those are just grapes, OK, we eat grapes or dry grapes, but you make the grapes into wine. We use Facebook every day and we are addicted, too, but we didn’t think “Yeah, we can make it into a film or distill an idea out of it.” So in that sense, I think you are a young philosopher. What kind of books do you read? Do you read a lot?

NT: Em. Mostly it’s Thai book. But I always read non-fiction book so that I can go into the real source of human. I don’t read fiction book much because it’s like something that has been digested by some author already and we can only get the method from the author. But if we read non-fiction book, it leaves space for us to think or to analyze about it.

Mostly, there is no specific topic for me: it changes over the years. Like this year, I am interested in design or printing. I try to read various topics because I know when you write a script, you need to know many things: I try to read the things that I never knew. Sometimes it’s about economics, sometimes it’s about philosophy.

I try to read a lot of books, as much as I can because I know it’s the start to lead me to the new topic, to the new world, and maybe to the new movie. Because if you don’t’ read anything, when you work a new project, it will be the same and the same, you know, self-repetitive. I like to learn many topics from the very low counties to the very complicated. I think there is a connection between the two. (XJ: Right, highbrow and lowbrow.) Yeah. For example, music: I am listening to pop music, like bubblegum music, teen music, and I also listen to independent music and post-rock music.

I think it’s good to listen to everything. It’s like you taste everything as the same. Nothing higher than anything else. Because I think some people will take post-rock music better than bubblegum pop music. (XJ: Yeah, like there’s superiority.) As for film, I think even films from Cannes Film Festival are main stream films. I think it’s the same. Everybody has his own duty, you know. Somebody wants to entertain people, while sometimes others want to create something new.

I think it’s different roles. Well, I need to study everything because sometimes you can take two really different things and blend them together. (XJ: Right, mix and match, the very gist of post-modernism. Or let’s say, contemporary status, a lot of fusion.) Yeah. I think it’s my interest.

XJ: So were you like this when you were a child or you are like this after you became a filmmaker?

NT: I think I am like this for a long time, for I never refuse very pop music and I also read everything and listen to any kind of music; I also watch every kind of film, too. I try as much as I can. But it’s like, while I watch independent films, I also enjoy Hollywood films because sometimes, it helps to each other. In 36, I learned a lot from a film studio in Thailand. And sometimes, when I work for the film studio, I got something from independent film to mix with a film from a studio. I mean, when you work for a studio, it’s mainly like Hollywood films, but I try to make the film in a somewhat experimental way, or create a new way. I want to create a new way to tell main-stream stories.

XJ: Has the Thai audience already seen your film?

NT: Yes, six months ago. It started before we went to the film festivals.

XJ: Have you seen any good movie during this week?

NT: No, because I have to work for my new project: I just got a funding from Venice Film Festival, which called Biennale College Cinema. They gave me funding to make a micro-budget film with a quick process. I have to finish this film before this year’s Venice Film Festival because it will be premiere there. So now it’s like, I just learned the news last week so I have to start script-writing. So when I am here, I have no chance to watch a film: I have to work now and finish it within about six months.

XJ: How about 36? How much time did you spend on it?

NT: Em. I wrote the script in half a year but the shooting just took five days: no money, no money. At first, I thought it would just be a small movie, 15 minutes or something, but when we shot, it became longer and longer. But it’s OK, I just let it flow. So it becomes my first feature film.

XJ: How is the distribution?

NT: There’s no distribution in Europe or in the U.S. at the moment. Not yet. But we try.

XJ: And in Asia, it’s like mostly in Thailand so far?

NT: Yeah. Because in Thailand, it was like a self-distribution by myself. After I finished the film, I took it to a museum and rent a small conference room to make a screening. It was quite successful so we moved to the auditorium of Alliance Française in Bangkok. It got bigger and bigger. And finally, we could take the film to the art house cinema in Bangkok. (XJ: So it kept growing just like your film.) Yeah. It was screened in the cinema for two months. Because people kept coming, the cinema thus continued screening this film. As the profit of the film rises, I can pay more to the crew because they should get the standard pay for their work.

XJ: How big was the budget?

NT: 20,000 USD. I shot with a DSLR camera.


Afterword: It might just have gone by as yet another song, but when you heard it in your favorite film: 36. It becomes sentimental. For the first time in film history, the transition from film camera to digital camera and the change of us humanity’s relationship expectancy and frequency are shown on the big screen, together with an echo from people’s emotional wave. The film stands out not just because of its unconventional story-telling and original structure-designing; it is a poetic picture of our mindset and mentality: fleeting, precarious and fragile. People skim through one chapter after another without much pondering, or time to ponder. Before you know it, it’s gone. The moment. The nuance. The one. Gone without a trace. Though sometimes there would remain a shell of a hard drive. As a souvenir or condolence. Or in a very sad situation, a reminder of a past wound that keeps reopening itself. As time flows, your heart doesn’t ache any more. Yet when the thought of him occurs to you at a certain point, you are plunged into an unspeakable nostalgia. There goes the music: เก็บผ้า by YELLOW FANG from Thailand.

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