03 November 2021

Transgressive Cinema


Un chien andalou

Un chien andalou, released almost a century ago, begins with one of the most horrific images in film history. There is a disconnect between the film’s antiquity and its graphic imagery, though what is most shocking is that the violence is clearly authentic: we see a razor slicing a real (bovine) eye.

The breaking of taboos on screen is all the more transgressive if the act is unsimulated. I’ve written an introduction to the representation of real death, sex, and bodily emissions in cinema, followed by a comprehensive filmography.

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04 October 2021

Red Lines:
Political Cartoons and the Struggle against Censorship


Written by Cherian George and designed by Sonny Liew, Red Lines: Political Cartoons and the Struggle against Censorship is a guide to the censorship of contemporary political cartoons around the world. The focus is on recent cases, though there are some historical examples of caricature and wartime propaganda. (Victor Navasky’s book The Art of Controversy has a more historical perspective.) Red Lines features cartoons subjected to lawsuits and bans, though it also covers cartoonists who have been harassed, sacked, deplatformed, arrested on trumped-up charges, or otherwise intimidated. The scope is truly global, and the cartoons under discussion are all reproduced, making this an extremely useful survey.

In terms of recent newspaper and magazine cartoons that have faced legal challenges, Red Lines covers all of the major cases though doesn’t include any unfamiliar ones. The examples it cites have all been previously mentioned on Dateline Bangkok: Zunar, Musa Kart (twice), Zapiro, LeMan, Stephff, Mana Neyestani, and Aseem Trivedi. The most explosive issue in political cartooning this century—the depiction of Mohammed—receives extensive coverage in Red Lines, and the twelve Jyllands-Posten cartoons are reproduced alongside others created in solidarity (from Le Monde, the Philadelphia Daily News, and الحياة الجديدة).

There are more than thirty pages devoted to the terrorist attack on the staff of Charlie Hebdo, and two of that newspaper’s Mohammed covers (from 2006 and 2011) are included, as is a tasteless 2013 cover mocking the Koran. My only criticism is that the events leading up to the 2015 attack are not fully explained: a timeline in the book juxtaposes the Koran cover and the attack, implying a direct connection, though they occurred more than a year apart. A more likely trigger for the attack—a 2014 cover depicting Mohammed being beheaded—is not mentioned.

28 September 2021

“Distortion that incites youths to be led astray...”


Family Club

The Ministry of Education is investigating a series of eight children’s picture books published this month. A spokesperson for Deputy Minister of Education Kanlaya Sophonpanich announced yesterday that Kanlaya has set up a panel to urgently inspect the books, as she believes they stir up hated and promote “distortion that incites youths to be led astray.” She also threatened the publisher with legal action.

The books were published by Family Club, who advertised them with a knowing wink as suitable for children aged five to 112. (The lèse-majesté law is article 112 of the Thai criminal code.) Rather than spreading hatred, as Kanlaya claims, they promote the opposite: tolerance, freedom, and equality. Three of the titles refer directly to the current anti-government protest movement: The Adventures of Little Duck (เป็ดน้อย); Mom, Where Are You Going? (แม่หมิมไปไหน?); and 10 ราษฎร (‘10 people’).

One of the books, Children Have Dreams (เด็กๆ มีความฝัน), features a quote from protest leader Panusaya Sithjirawattanakul on the back cover. Another title, Hack! Hack! The Fire Dragon (แค็ก! แค็ก! มังกรไฟ), was written by protest leader Sombat Boonngamanong, though its theme is environmental rather than political: he works as a firefighter in Chiang Mai, and his story is about the dangers of forest fires. The others in the series are Who Has No Head? (ตัวไหนไม่มีหัว), The Call of the Birds (เสียงร้องของผองนก), and Chit Phumisak (จ จิตร ชีวิตอัจฉริยะไทยผู้ใฝ่เรียนรู้ จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์).

25 September 2021

บทปราศรัยคัดสรรคดี 112



The United Front of Thammasat and Demonstration (UFTD), one of the key student groups leading the current anti-government protests, has released a new booklet, บทปราศรัยคัดสรรคดี 112 (‘speeches on 112’). It features a collection of speeches delivered at past protest rallies, all in support of the UFTD’s campaign to abolish the lèse-majesté law (article 112 of the Thai criminal code). The booklet’s main title is a quote from the 1932 revolutionary manifesto by Pridi Banomyong, ประเทศนี้เป็นของราษฎร ไม่ใช่กษัตริย์ตามที่เขาหลอกลวง (‘our country belongs to the people—not to the king, as has been deceitfully claimed’).

Naturally, in today’s political climate, publishing such a booklet is legally perilous. Copies were given away at Three Kings Monument Square in Chiang Mai on 21st September, and yesterday the UFTD announced online that they planned to distribute it at a rally outside BACC in Bangkok today. This announcement caught the attention of the police, who intercepted some copies that were en route to the rally today. Nevertheless, the booklet was available at the rally, and was handed out in exchange for a token donation.

This is the third booklet on the monarchy to attract unwanted attention from the police. 10,000 copies of Arnon Nampa’s สถาบันพระมหากษัตริย์กับสังคมไทย (‘the monarchy and Thai society’) were seized in March, and 50,000 copies of the UFTD’s ปรากฏการณ์สะท้านฟ้า 10 สิงหา (‘an earth-shattering event on 10th August’) were confiscated before they could be distributed at a rally in September 2020. (Arnon’s booklet was later given away at a rally at Ratchaprasong in Bangkok on 3rd September.)

Of course, by announcing their intention to distribute these booklets, the protest groups are essentially daring the police to ban them, and the censorious authorities are only too happy to oblige. Aside from their provocative contents and their brushes with the law, the three booklets also have a common colour scheme: Arnon’s has a blue cover, the first UFTD booklet is red, and the new one is white. These correspond with the colours of Thailand’s tricolour flag, symbolising the monarchy, the nation, and religion respectively.

Thai Soaps:
An Analysis of Thai Television Dramas


Gerhard Jaiser begins his book Thai Soaps: An Analysis of Thai Television Dramas by distancing himself from “people who appreciate lakhons as entertainment or even as an art form”, admitting that “I myself do not.” Thai soap operas (known as lakhon or lakorn) are justifiably dismissed as nam nao (‘dirty water’), though they still deserve to be analysed, and Thai Soaps is the first book to do so.

Jaiser’s book (published in 2017) begins with a detailed examination of lakorn narrative structure, character archetypes, and other conventions of the genre. The second chapter makes nuanced comparisons between various original series and their modern remakes, helpfully guiding the reader through the sometimes confusing multiplicity of lakorn versions.

A chapter on lakorn and politics notes how censorship is determined by the political climate. For example, the Thaksin Shinawatra satire เหนือเมฆ (‘beyond comparison’) was uncontroversial in 2010 because “at that time, the Democrat Party, favorable to the Yellow Shirts (and to Channel 3), was in power”, whereas its sequel was censored in 2012, when Thaksin’s sister Yingluck was in office. Ing Kanjanavanit’s film Shakespeare Must Die (เชคสเปียร์ต้องตาย) suffered a similar fate for the same reason.

Jaiser is surprisingly uncritical of the deeply problematic representation of minorities in lakorn. He does discuss the asexual nature of gay characters, the increasingly negative stereotyping of Westerners, and the almost total absence of black people, though he doesn’t call this out as homophobic or racist. He even seems reluctant to condemn the reprehensible depiction of rape in lakorn, noting that they portray it as “an act that can even increase the love of the female victim for the rapist” yet criticising this in only mild terms as “questionable”.

Thai Soaps includes a valuable appendix listing major lakorn series, with their Thai titles, plot synopses, and (in most cases) original transmission dates. It’s a good example of not judging a book by its cover—which features a fairly unappealing snapshot—because this is a first-rate study of a second-rate genre.

19 September 2021

The Queen’s Gambit


Chess grandmaster Nona Gaprindashvili is suing Netflix for defamation, and seeking $5 million in damages. Her lawsuit relates to the final episode of the Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit, released last year. In the episode (titled End Game and directed by Scott Frank), a chess commentator compares the lead character, Beth Harman, to Gaprindashvili: “The only unusual thing about her, really, is her sex. And even that’s not unique in Russia. There’s Nona Gaprindashvili, but she’s the female world champion and has never faced men.

The lawsuit, filed on 16th September at the Federal District Court of Los Angeles, claims that “Netflix brazenly and deliberately lied about Gaprindashvili’s achievements” and describes the reference to her never having faced men as “manifestly false, as well as being grossly sexist and belittling.” The episode is set in 1968, by which time Gaprindashvili had played competitive chess against dozens of male players, though The Queen’s Gambit is a drama series, and is thus surely entitled to artistic licence.

03 September 2021

La Télé d’ici Vacances


A television presenter in Ivory Coast has received a one-year suspended jail sentence for promoting sexual assault. Yves de M’Bella, the host of La Télé d’ici Vacances (‘TV here on holiday’), was also fined $3,600 after he invited a man to demonstrate with a mannequin how he had previously assaulted women. The guest, Kader Traoré, was jailed for two years and fined $900. The programme was broadcast on 30th August by NCI.

31 August 2021

“We should not have published the article...”


In an out-of-court settlement, The Sun has paid damages to cricketer Ben Stokes and his mother, Deborah, after they sued for invasion of privacy. The lawsuit was in response to a Sun story published on 17th September 2019, which dredged up a “secret family tragedy” that took place in 1988.

The newspaper initially defended the article, written by Nick Parker, as it was based on public records of the incident from New Zealand newspaper archives. In a cursory apology published yesterday, The Sun said: “The article caused great distress to the Stokes family, and especially to Deborah Stokes. We should not have published the article. We apologise to Deborah and Ben Stokes.”

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13 August 2021

“Mike Lindell is begging to be sued...”


Dominion Voting Systems has filed defamation charges against right-wing cable TV channel One America News and conspiracy theorist Mike Lindell. The lawsuit, filed on 10th August, seeks $1.6 billion in damages for “false and manufactured stories about election fraud.” (An egregious example is ‘Dominion-izing’ the Vote, a segment first broadcast by OAN on 21st November last year.)

OAN also broadcast Lindell’s ‘documentary’ Absolute Proof, which was deleted by social media platforms as it contains so much misinformation about the 2020 US election results. Dominion spokesman Michael Steel told CNN in February that “Mike Lindell is begging to be sued, and at some point we may well oblige him.”

Dominion has previously sued Fox News, which broadcast equally absurd claims of election fraud. Another voting technology company, Smartmatic, has also sued Fox. Donald Trump continues to repeat lies about election fraud fed to him by Fox and OAN. The ultimate impact of such dangerous misinformation came on 6th January when Trump incited a riot at the US Capitol.

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23 July 2021

“These three books have a lot of seditious material inside...”


Sheep Village

Five people who created children’s picture books were arrested in Hong Kong yesterday and charged with sedition. Police accused the five—all members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists, which published the books—of producing subversive literature to undermine national security.

The three books in question are all set in a ‘sheep village’ (羊村), which serves as a metaphor for contemporary Hong Kong in an example of political satire in the tradition of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. More than 500 copies of the books were seized and, at a press conference after the arrests, superintendent Steve Li said: “These three books have a lot of seditious material inside.”

One of the books, 羊村守衛者 (‘guardians of sheep village’) is an allegory of Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests. Another, 羊村十二勇士 (‘twelve warriors of sheep village’), refers to a dozen Hong Kongers who were arrested last year when they attempted to escape into exile by speedboat. The last book in the series, 羊村清道夫 (‘the cleaners of sheep village’), is a reference to medical workers who went on strike in an attempt to force Hong Kong to close its border with China during last year’s coronavirus pandemic.

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09 July 2021

Thai Cinema Uncensored

Bangkok Post
My book Thai Cinema Uncensored is reviewed in today’s Bangkok Post newspaper, on page 10 of their Life arts supplement. In his review, Chris Baker (who co-authored the excellent Thaksin) calls it a “splendid book.” He also describes it as a “fascinating book which has relevance for film, contemporary culture and politics in general.”

11 May 2021

Artn’t

Vitthaya Klangnil
This morning, two Chiang Mai University art students facing criminal charges turned their police summonse into a performance art event. Outside the police station, Vitthaya Klangnil carved “112” into his chest with a knife, in a protest against article 112 of the Thai criminal code (lèse-majesté). Vitthaya and fellow student Yotsunthon Ruttapradit have been charged with contravening the lèse-majesté law and the Flag Act, following their display of a banner depicting the Thai flag without its central blue stripe (which symbolises the monarchy).

The two students are co-founders of the art group Artn’t. They displayed their modified flag in March at the Faculty of Fine Arts, and the Constitution Protection Association (a self-appointed moral watchdog) filed charges against them under the Flag Act, which prohibits “any act in an insulting manner to the flag, the replica of the flag or the colour bands of the flag”. The lèse-majesté charges stem from anti-monarchy graffiti written on the artwork.

The students were both released on bail this afternoon. (Parit Chirawak and Chaiamorn Kaewwiboonpan were also bailed today.) The banner is similar to a piece by Mit Jai Inn shown at last year’s Status in Statu exhibition. Mit’s installation, titled Republic of Siam, was a large roll of fabric with a pattern of red and white stripes, thus it also resembled a Thai flag without the symbolic blue stripe.

06 May 2021

Putin’s People

Putin's People
Five lawsuits have recently been filed against the author and publisher of Putin’s People. Catherine Belton’s book (subtitled How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West) received superlative reviews when it was published a year ago. Belton was the FT’s Moscow correspondent for six years, and Alexei Navalny brandished a copy of her book in his viral video Дворец для Путина: История самой большой взятки (‘Putin’s palace: the world’s biggest bribe’).

Roman Abramovich filed the first libel suit on 22nd March, challenging Belton’s allegation that he purchased Chelsea FC on Vladimir Putin’s instructions. Belton writes that “Putin directed Abramovich to buy the club, claimed a Russian tycoon and a former Abramovich associate.” Aside from these two off-the-record sources, she also interviewed Sergei Pugachev, whom she quotes directly: “Putin personally told me of his plan to acquire the Chelsea Football Club in order to increase his influence”.

Pugachev, a defector from Putin’s inner circle, was described by a UK High Court judge in 2017 as “a person quite willing to lie and put forward false statements deliberately if it would suit his purpose.” Belton acknowledges his reputation as an unreliable witness, though she quotes him extensively nevertheless.

On Tuesday, the FT revealed that four other lawsuits were filed against Belton and her publisher, HarperCollins, last month. In what appears to be a coordinated campaign to silence any criticism of Putin’s regime, the Russian businessmen Mikhail Fridman and Shalva Chigirinsky sued for libel, as did the Kremlin-controlled oil company Rosneft. Peter Aven, Fridman’s business partner, sued for breach of data protection.

01 April 2021

“Thailand’s complainer-in-chief...”

Chian Mai University
Chiang Mai University’s Faculty of Fine Arts has been criticised for censoring political artworks created by a pair of students. The row is centred on a banner representing the Thai flag, with the central blue stripe replaced by transparent material. The flag’s blue stripe symbolises the monarchy, thus the banner could be interpreted as a republican statement. It was removed by the dean of the Faculty on 22nd March.

Two days later, the University issued a statement in support of the dean, noting that the banner was a potentially illegal alteration of the flag. On 26th March, Srisuwan Janya, head of the Constitution Protection Association pressure group, filed a complaint with Chiang Mai police accusing the artists of violating the Flag Act of 1979. Lèse-majesté charges are also likely. The Flag Act prohibits “any act in an insulting manner to the flag, the replica of the flag or the colour bands of the flag”. Srisuwan, a self-appointed moral guardian, was dubbed “Thailand’s complainer-in-chief” by the Bangkok Post in a headline on 18th March 2019.

The banner is similar to an artwork by Mit Jai Inn shown at last year’s Status in Statu exhibition. Mit’s installation, titled Republic of Siam, was a large roll of fabric with a pattern of red and white stripes: like the student’s banner, it resembled a Thai flag without the blue stripe.

27 March 2021

“Fox recklessly disregarded the truth...”

Dominion Voting Systems yesterday filed defamation charges against Fox News, seeking $1.6 billion in damages. Their lawsuit accuses the network of broadcasting “a series of verifiably false yet devastating lies” and “outlandish, defamatory, and far-fetched fictions” in the aftermath of last year’s US presidential election.

Fox News hosts Lou Dobbs, Maria Bartiromo, Sean Hannity, and Jeanine Pirro spread outlandish conspiracy theories in the weeks after the election, seeking to cast doubt on Joe Biden’s victory by falsely alleging that Dominion rigged the election. Dominion’s lawsuit states: “Fox recklessly disregarded the truth. Indeed, Fox knew these statements about Dominion were lies.”

The allegations of election fraud were also repeated on a daily basis by Donald Trump himself, who refused to concede the election. The ultimate impact of such dangerous misinformation, and the culmination of Trump’s efforts to undermine confidence in American institutions, came on 6th January when he incited a riot at the US Capitol.

Fox News defended another of its hosts, Tucker Carlson, against defamation charges last year, arguing that his show should be viewed with “an appropriate amount of skepticism”, and last month Fox Business cancelled Lou Dobbs Tonight, its highest-rated show. Smartmatic, another voting technology company, is currently suing Fox for $2.7 billion.

20 March 2021

สถาบันพระมหากษัตริย์กับสังคมไทย

Democracy Restoration Group
Royal Thai Police
Democracy Restoration Group
This afternoon, police searched the offices of Same Sky Books and confiscated 10,000 copies of a booklet by pro-democracy protest leader Arnon Nampa. The booklet, สถาบันพระมหากษัตริย์กับสังคมไทย (‘the monarchy and Thai society’), contains the text of a speech delivered by Arnon at Democracy Monument on 3rd August 2020.

The booklet’s publishers, the Democracy Restoration Group (DRG) campaign, announced yesterday that it would be given away at a REDEM protest rally at Sanam Luang this evening, and many copies were distributed there despite the police seizure. (Arnon had previously distributed small quantities of the booklet last year.) Riot police used water cannon, tear gas, and rubber bullets to disperse the protesters, as they had on 28th February.

Today’s police raid has echoes of an almost identical case last year, when an announcement that a similar booklet would be given away at a protest drew the attention of the authorities. That booklet—ปรากฏการณ์สะท้านฟ้า 10 สิงหา (‘an earth-shattering event on 10th August’)—was also seized by police before the rally, though some copies were eventually distributed.

This year, the DRG also distributed a larger booklet, ปฏิรูปสถาบันกษัตริย์ ยืนหยัดในประชาธิปไตย (‘reform the monarchy, persevere for democracy’), which summarises the campaign’s objectives. The booklet explains the DRG’s grievances related to the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic, though controversially it also reproduces a report by the UK news website The Independent about King Rama X’s lifestyle in Germany.

10 March 2021

“I have realized the wickedness of a
person who calls himself a scholar...”

Nattapoll Chaiching
Nattapoll Chaiching
Historian Nattapoll Chaiching’s book ขุนศึก ศักดินา และพญาอินทรี การเมืองไทยภายใต้ระเบียบโลกของสหรัฐอเมริกา 2491-2500 (‘feudal warlords and the eagle: Thai politics and the United States 1948-1957’), about Thailand’s relationship with the US during the Cold War, was a runaway bestseller among liberals and political enthusiasts when it was published last year. His earlier work, ขอฝันใฝ่ในฝันอันเหลือเชื่อ ความเคลื่อนไหวของขบวนการปฏิปักษ์ปฏิวัติสยาม (พ.ศ. 2475-2500) (‘I dream an incredible dream: the anti-Siamese revolutionary movement 1932-1957’), published in 2013, also saw a revival in sales after it was among five titles seized by police from the offices of the publisher, Same Sky Books.

Nattapoll has been heavily criticised by conservatives, culminating in a lawsuit issued on 5th March. In December last year, Chaiyand Chaiyaporn, a professor at Chulalongkorn University, accused him of falsifying references in the Ph.D. thesis on which his Cold War book was based. A week later, an ultra-royalist former monk, Suwit Thongprasert, accused him of lèse-majesté: “I have realized the wickedness of a person who calls himself a scholar and has got a Ph.D. who dared to develop a thesis with false information... harmful towards the royal institution.” (Suwit’s statement was issued under his monastic title Buddha Issara, though he was defrocked in 2018 as a result of his role in the 2014 PDRC protests.)

Last week, aristocrat Priyanandana Rangsit sued Nattapoll and Same Sky Books for defamation, seeking ฿50 million in damages. According to the lawsuit, Nattapoll’s books incorrectly assert that her grandfather, Prince Rangsit Prayurasakdi, sought an improper political influence over Phibun Songkhram’s government in the 1940s. She argues that this misrepresentation of her ancestor—who died seventy years ago—tarnishes her family name, and is thus defamatory to her personally.

05 March 2021

Thai Cinema Uncensored

Art Review
My book Thai Cinema Uncensored is reviewed in the March issue of Art Review magazine (volume 73, number 1), on page 111. Reviewer Max Crosbie-Jones writes: “Thais and Thailand watchers will recognise the bigger story, an all-too-common narrative arc streaked with moments of fear, absurdity and humour, in Hunt’s lingering closeups on the mangled, hidden wreckage of film censorship.”

16 February 2021

Mike Ward S’eXpose

A long-running defamation case came before the Supreme Court of Canada yesterday, when lawyers representing comedian Mike Ward argued that his stand-up routine about Jérémy Gabriel was not discriminatory. Gabriel suffers from Treacher Collins syndrome, and Ward joked about attempting to drown him because he had not yet died from this genetic disorder.

The gag was part of Ward’s live show between 2010 and 2013, and is included on his live DVD Mike Ward S’eXpose (‘Mike Ward exposed’). In 2016, the Human Rights Tribunal of Quebec awarded Gabriel $35,000 in damages, and this decision was upheld by the Quebec Court of Appeal last year. A final verdict from the Supreme Court is expected in the next few months.

15 February 2021

Thai Cinema Uncensored

The Big Chilli
The first print review of my book Thai Cinema Uncensored has been published, in The Big Chilli magazine. The full-page article is on page 25 of the January issue.