By Andrew Biggs
Back when I was working at Channel 3, one of Thailand’s two major free-to-air commercial TV stations, there was a unique department consisting of three very refined, elegant ladies.
They were older women who dressed immaculately, often in colorful Thai silk dresses. Their hair was perfectly coiffed; softly-spoken and friendly, they always greeted me with a smile and kind words. Once they gave me a book on how to transliterate Thai words, which was very generous of them.
When Channel 3 was at the Emporium these ladies had an office directly across the hall from mine, which was probably why I got to see so much of them. Our relationship was a casual and courteous one; we would chat about the weather and our health as we passed one another in the hall, me off to my raucous crowded office, them returning to a dark room where they sat in front of TV monitors.
Their appearance belied their role at the channel — the censors. Their job was to vet TV shows to ensure wanton violence, gratuitous sex, foul language and as much as a whiff of intoxicants would be deleted before being foisted upon the general public. Otherwise mass anarchy could ensue.
What an irony; that these ladies who exuded poise and prim sobriety should be subject to viewing the myriad depravities of humanity. How ironic, also, that the difference between civility and anarchy was just three discreet unassuming ladies in Thai silk.
Each major channel had such a department; self-censorship so that whatever government was in power didn’t have to do it for them. Self-censorship is bad enough; imagine the government doing it for you.
(Only once in 20 years of making TV shows here was one of my programs censored, thanks to Kylie Minogue’s almost non-existent hot pants in her music video for Spinning Around. The Channel 9 censors felt her dancing was too raunchy for Thai youth, encouraging them to have sex, something that apparently goes against Thai culture. We covered her bottom with a graphic.)
TV stations censor themselves. Unfortunately for the Thai film industry, the government does it for them.
When the issue of movie censorship intermittently rears its head, I immediately think of those lovely ladies from Channel 3. This is probably an erroneous association on my part because the Channel 3 ladies’ task was functional and time-saving. The movie censorship board is a little more insidious.
The Bangkok Post’s film guru Kong Rithdee once wrote an excellent piece, explaining the state of Thailand’s movie censorship board in light of a scandal involving a film called Arpat.
His article provided convincing arguments against the board’s decisions, but Mr Rithdee failed to address the single most damning piece of evidence that supports abolishing the board forever, and that is the fact that there are 42 fine upstanding members of Thai society who are certifiably sane. I haven’t gone completely mad; I am about to explain what I mean.
Thailand has a censorship board called the National Film Board. It’s under the Culture Ministry and is actually six revolving committees. Each committee comprises four government officials and three members of the private sector. Sometimes the board is just five members but let’s not get bogged down in the details.
A movie called Arpat was held up by the board. The movie, whose title means “Misdemeanor” — the kind only committed by monks — is all about a novice monk who displays human tendencies. There are scenes of a monk kissing a girl while in another scene, a monk drinks alcohol. The board banned the movie claiming these scenes “could destroy Buddhism”.
This news came out the week the movie was going to cinemas; within a few days cuts were made and the film finally hit the cinemas at 8.30 pm Friday week ago. It was the kind of publicity money could not buy, and indeed, some industry people believed the controversy was manufactured to put more Kylie Minogue hot pants on seats. And suspiciously, the movie was cut and passed within days of it being released; as anybody who has done business with the civil service here knows, nothing moves that quickly.
Censorship is a very delicate issue, especially in a country like Thailand where face and perceived reality take precedence over the truth. For the film board, their task is to ensure no movie “disrupts national security,” as Section 29 of the Film Code states.
A movie disrupting national security? What a broad, scarily open-to-interpretation little phrase that one is. Has there ever been a movie in the history of mankind that has brought down a government? Disrupted national security? Destroyed a religion? If Kylie’s hot pants had been shown on my TV show that Saturday afternoon 15 years ago, would there now be, say, 69 million people in Thailand as opposed to the current 68 million?
There is a fundamental flaw in having a film censorship board. Here is the logic: That board has six rotating committees of seven members whose task is to view movies and delete anything that may cause Thais to become divided and unruly, destroy religion or, apparently, have sex.
But wait – those board members are Thais themselves. If indeed their work is legitimate, then they themselves must be adversely affected by the scenes they have watched.
Perhaps somebody who has been to the film board could enlighten us on this, because I never have. What are the 42 members that make up those six boards like? Do they have nervous tics? Do they display homicidal tendencies? Are they intent on bringing down the government? If they are like this, then good; their work is justified and they are providing a service to Thai society. Better to have 42 miscreants than 68 million.
But what if they are not? What if they are normal?
The fact the film board members remain upstanding members of society means they are doing a job that does not need to be done.
This presents me with no comfort. I would never, ever presume to curtail the livelihood of my three favorite ladies at Channel 3, although I still feel the need to shield their well-bred eyes from the scenes they are vetting. And yet strangely those scenes seem to have had the opposite effect on them; the more they see, the more well-rounded and philosophical in their approach to life.
Could it be … could it just be … that exposing the masses to such allegedly-divisive scenes could start the masses thinking? Scrutinizing? Critically analyzing? Methodically examining and coming to one’s own conclusions? Perish the thought.