31 March 2023

Break Your Silence:
An Exploration of Topics Thai Artists Don’t Dare to Talk About

Break Your Silence

Last night, the Unidentified Theatre troupe held a durational performance art event at Cartel Artspace in Bangkok. The crowdfunded project, Break Your Silence: An Exploration of Topics Thai Artists Don’t Dare to Talk About, explored various sensitive social and political issues, and challenged the widespread self-censorship practised by mainstream Thai artists.

The performance culminated with the spray-painting of “112” and an anarchist symbol, in solidarity with a graffiti artist who was arrested on 28th March after he spray-painted the same content onto the outer wall of Bangkok’s Temple of the Emerald Buddha. (‘112’ refers to the lèse-majesté law, which is article 112 of the Thai criminal code.)

In an artist’s statement, Tassakorn Theratapdhewan (founder of Unidentified Theatre) highlights the undemocratic, violent nature of Thai politics: “we have a government that came to power through the barrel of a gun... This is the reason why the authoritarian government doesn’t serve the people, but rather does everything to silence them and oppress them. The people who protest on the streets are met with violence, tear gas, rubber bullets, and even worse”.

Break Your Silence is part of the PTSD exhibition being held at Cartel Artspace from 25th March to 10th April. (PTSD, in this context, stands for “Parliament / Treacherous / Sedition / Dictators”.) There will be another, more extensive, Break Your Silence performance at the same venue on 8th April, pending a further round of crowdfunding.

30 March 2023


The Commoner The Commoner

Posters calling for the abolition of the lèse-majesté law were removed from the National Book Fair in Bangkok yesterday, on the orders of a plainclothes police officer. Staff at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Center removed nine posters from a stall run by The Commoner, before the event opened today. The fair runs until 9th April.

The posters featured a “112” logo, a reference to article 112 of the Thai criminal code. A graffiti artist was arrested on 28th March after he spray-painted “112” onto the outer wall of the Temple of the Emerald Buddha in Bangkok. The temple is part of the Grand Palace compound, and therefore a highly symbolic and sensitive location for such a slogan.

This is the third time that police have confiscated items from stalls at the book fair. Last year, a banner featuring hashtags such as #รัฐบาลเผด็จการ (‘dictatorial government’) was removed from the Same Sky Books booth, and t-shirts were confiscated from Same Sky’s booth in 2014. (The Commoner previously published สมุดระบายสีเสรีภาพ/‘freedom colouring book’.)

29 March 2023

End in This Generation

End in This Generation

Karntachat Raungratanaamporn’s photobook End in This Generation was published this week, in a limited edition of 500 copies. Karntachat has photographed the recent wave of anti-military student protesters, and the book documents the protests from 10th August 2020, when Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul called for reform of the monarchy, until 12th December 2021, when demonstrators announced that they had collected more than 200,000 signatures on a petition to abolish article 112 of the criminal code (the lèse-majesté law). (One of the most powerful photographs shows “112” carved into Panusaya’s wrist.)

End in This Generation is the latest of a handful of photobooks devoted to the protest movement, the others being There’s Always Spring (เมื่อถึงเวลาดอกไม้จะบาน), EBB, #WhatsHappeningInThailand, and No God No King Only Human. Like No God No King Only Human, it’s a larger, coffee-table book, and—in another similarity between the two publications—its title is one of the protesters’ slogans, aligning the book with the aims of the protest movement.

End in This Generation

No God No King Only Human and End in This Generation both have their fair share of stunning images, though the glossy colour photographs in End in This Generation are even more striking. Unlike in No God No King Only Human, the photographs in End in This Generation are presented in chronological order. Both books provide dates and locations for each image, though End in This Generation also features a timeline of the protest movement.

24 March 2023

“It was like setting a time bomb...”

Three people who sold a book about Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protest movement have all been jailed. They were among six people arrested in January, and had been held in detention until their trials began on 17th March. The three pleaded guilty, and they were sentenced on 20th March. In his summing up, judge Peter Law said that the book could have reignited the protest movement: “It was like setting a time bomb”.

Free HK Media founder Alan Keung, who had promoted the book online, received an eight-month sentence. Alex Lee, the owner of the booth where it was sold, was sentenced to five months. Lee’s wife Cannis Chan, who edited the book, was sentenced to ten months.

The untitled 300-page book, featuring photographs of the protests, went on sale on Christmas Day last year at a Lunar New Year fair at Ginza Plaza. It was distributed by the Shame on You Grocery Store (影衰mi杂货店), and forty-three copies were seized by police, who described it as “a seditious book about a series of riots”. (400 copies had been printed by Copyman.)

In 2021, the publishers of the Sheep Village (羊村) series of children’s books about the protests were also arrested on sedition charges. They were sentenced to nineteen months in prison last year, and earlier this month two men were arrested merely for possessing the books.

14 March 2023

Sheep Village

Sheep Village

Two men were arrested in Hong Kong yesterday, for the possession of seditious publications. The charges relate to the Sheep Village (羊村) series of children’s picture books published in 2021, and the men face up to a year in prison if found guilty. (The publishers of the Sheep Village books were convicted of sedition last year. The books are now being distributed from the UK, and are also available online in English translations. The publishers of another book are also awaiting trial in Hong Kong.)

One of the books, The Guardians of Sheep Village (羊村守衛者), is an allegory of Hong Kong’s 2019 pro-democracy protests. Another, The Twelve Warriors of Sheep Village (羊村十二勇士), refers to a dozen Hong Kongers who were arrested in 2020 when they attempted to escape into exile by speedboat. The third book in the series, The Cleaners of Sheep Village (羊村清道夫), is a reference to medical workers who went on strike in an attempt to force Hong Kong to close its border with China at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

13 March 2023

Nine Folk Tales

Nine Folk Tales

Are children’s stories traditional or old-fashioned? Do they teach age-old values or foster outdated stereotypes? Could they even have a propagandist function, promoting conformity and obedience? The editors of Nine Folk Tales have commissioned nine new versions of classic folk tales to subvert the narratives that children are usually spoon-fed, and to encourage critical thinking. Rubkwan Thammaboosadee and Palin Ansusinha have produced a box set of revisionist folk tales, drawing on examples from Aesop’s fables, the Brothers Grimm, and several traditional Thai tales. In Eat Your Stories (กินเรื่องราว), their reader’s guide to the collection, they argue that these familiar fables “teach us to stay within the moral framework ruled by social inequality.” In a nutshell, the objective of their updated folk tales is to “dismantle old tales by telling new ones”.

The new folk tales are allegories that promote social and economic equality, justice, and freedom. The nine books are: The Frogs Who Desired (กบเลือกนาย) by Narsid, My Mother’s Memory (ความทรงจำของแม่ปลาบู่) by Thiptawan Uchai, Girl with a Face of a Horse (แก้วหน้าม้า) by Ping Sasinan, In Hunger (ก่องข้าวน้อย) by Namsai Khaobor, The Fisherfolk’s Journey (ตาอินตานา โชคชะตาและปากท้อง) by Laksanapon Tarapan and Wiriya Wiriyapat, Rabbit and Turtle (กระต่ายกับเต่า) by Sanprapha V., A Ghost Story (ผีทักอย่าทักตอบ) by Arty Nicharee, Buffaloes Dream of Being Human (ควายอยากเป็นคน) by Tepwut Buatoom, and Little Red Riding Hood (หนูน้อยหมวกแดง) by Rubkwan Thammaboosadee.

Nine Folk Tales

Some of the tales have political subtexts, the most overt being Buffaloes Dream of Being Human, a fable in which a group of buffaloes seek a better life in the big city. In Thai, kwai (‘buffalo’) is an insult aimed at poor voters, especially those who supported former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. (Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s video Silence addresses this pejorative, and it has been reclaimed by some pro-democracy protesters.) The story includes thinly-veiled references to Thaksin—“Monkey, a friend of the buffalo, was elected as the city’s governor”—and the yellow-shirt protests that paved the way for his removal from office: “A mob of the ‘Louder Voices’ expelled Monkey from the city.” (Similarly, Charuphat Petcharavej’s short story Hakom/ห่าก้อม also features a proxy for Thaksin: “A group of villagers had driven him out of the village”.)

Another book in the set, My Mother’s Memory, indirectly confronts the violence suffered by the Octobrist generation in the 1970s. This disturbing tale ends with the young protagonist’s realisation: “the nightmares that I had were the result of me swimming in memories of the past. The memories of people who I might not even know. I have been carrying these heavy memories all this time.” As the editors explain in their reader’s guide, these collective memories of state violence are whitewashed from history: “Our emotions and memories carry alternative histories which are not written or taught in school history books.” (This theme of state whitewashing has been explored by numerous artists and writers, including Vasan Sitthiket, Tawan Wattuya, Sutee Kunavichayanont, Sirisak Saengow, Prabda Yoon, Thongchai Winichakul, and Emma Larkin.)

If Buffaloes Dream of Being Human and My Mother’s Memory reflect the experiences of previous generations of pro-democracy protesters, The Frogs Who Desired is an allegory for the students who are currently protesting for political reform. Based on Aesop’s fable The Frogs Who Desired a King—which is itself a pertinent cautionary tale about absolute power—The Frogs Who Desired ends with the slogan “NO GODS OR ANY RULERS SHALL SAVE US, EXCEPT OURSELVES”, a paraphrase of the student protesters’ motto ‘no god, no king, only human’.

The editors point out that The Frogs Who Desired has a “purposefully shortened title”, which was presumably an ideological decision rather than a legal concern. Another book in the series, In Hunger, features a poor farmer who recalls that “a stranger with a cruel smile preached us to stay humble”. Like Buffaloes Dream of Being Human, In Hunger challenges this notion that the poor must gratefully accept their lot in life, which the editors describe as a “mechanism that keeps everyone ‘in their place’.” (Precisely the same argument is made in relation to the ‘sufficiency economy’ philosophy in Saying the Unsayable.)

Nine Folk Tales is the latest of several children’s picture books with political themes. Last year, Suwicha’s สมุดระบายสีเสรีภาพ (‘freedom colouring book’) featured a symbolic blue elephant. There have also been two sets of picture books published by Family Club and the Mirror Foundation that feature similar political allegories. This recent trend began in Hong Kong, with the Sheep Village (羊村) series, the publishers of which were jailed last year.

10 March 2023


Sazandegi Sazandegi

The newspaper Sazandegi (سازندگی) was shut down by the Iranian regime last month after it reported on the country’s economic crisis. The subheading of a 20th February front-page story about the rising price of lamb—“گوشت چگونه از سفره طبقه متوسط و طبقه کارگر حذف شد؟” (‘why is meat missing from the tables of the middle and working classes?’)—led to the newspaper’s immediate suspension. Its permission to publish was reinstated on 1st March.

Sazandegi previously attracted controversy when it was sued by the Speaker of Iran’s parliament, Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf, over a front-page editorial and cartoon published on 26th May 2021. The drawing of the Speaker, by controversial cartoonist Hadi Haydari, suggested that he was anxious about, and therefore implicitly guilty of, allegations that he had interfered in the allocation of the budget.

07 March 2023


Khana Ratsadon

A Thai man was jailed for two years today, after being convicted of lèse-majesté for distributing a calendar featuring a cartoon duck. The 2021 desk calendar, published by the Khana Ratsadon pro-democracy protest group, was titled ปฏิทินพระราชทาน (‘royal calendar’), in what the police claimed was an attempt to imitate an official royal publication. The lèse-majesté conviction also related to five of the calendar’s cartoons, illustrating the months of January, March, April, May, and October. (The images cannot be reproduced or described, as this would constitute a repetition of the lèse-majesté offence.)

The convicted man was arrested on New Year’s Eve 2020, and he remains on bail pending an appeal. His lawyer had previously argued that the calendar was a parody of state institutions, and did not caricature King Rama X personally. This defence was always unlikely to succeed, though, given that the cartoon duck is depicted with a rather unambiguous “NO. 10” medal. The July and September cartoons, in particular, feature surprisingly thinly-veiled references to Rama IX and Rama X, respectively.

This is the fourth calendar to be confiscated by the Thai authorities in recent years. Wall calendars featuring photographs of former prime ministers Thaksin and Yingluck Shinawawtra were seized in 2018 and 2016. In 2010, a wall calendar by the beer company Leo was accused of promoting alcohol in contravention of the Alcoholic Beverage Control Act.

Since the yellow duck calendar, there have been several other satirical cartoon animals in Thai popular culture. The cover of สมุดระบายสีเสรีภาพ (‘freedom colouring book’) shows an elephant painted blue, a colour with symbolic significance in Thailand. A monstrous spider that makes a split-second appearance in The Commoner’s music video รุ้ง (‘rainbow’) has a human face with a distinctive jawline.

27 February 2023


Fear Primitive

Manit Sriwanichpoom’s photography exhibition Fear (กลัว), held in Bangkok and Singapore in 2016, documented the volatile political atmosphere in Thailand prior to the 2014 coup, and the initial period following the junta’s takeover. The excellent accompanying catalogue remains a valuable record of a timely yet politically sensitive exhibition.

Discussing the title, Fear, in a short interview published in the catalogue, Manit explains that “today’s great fear is over something we can’t discuss aloud.” This has echoes of Taiki Sakpisit’s short film The Age of Anxiety (รอ ๑๐), which addressed the fear of the death of King Rama IX in the twilight of his reign. The link is reinforced by the catalogue’s cover image: a photograph of an 1868 solar eclipse predicted by King Rama IV shortly before his death.

Manit bravely included large-scale portraits of National Council of Peace and Order and National Legislative Assembly members (the coup leaders and the legislators they appointed), pixellated to obscure their identities. Though their individuality is denied, their uniforms are still visible, presenting them en masse as a faceless—and therefore inhuman—authoritarian entity. Similarly, screengrabs of technical glitches during coup leader Prayut Chan-o-cha’s first televised Return Happiness to the People (คืนความสุข ให้คนในชาติ) speech highlight the vulnerability behind the propaganda façade.

Although Manit satirised the junta’s populist propaganda, he was also critical of the government overthrown by the coup, and he endorsed the People’s Democratic Reform Committee protesters who laid the groundwork for the military takeover. The catalogue describes the legacy of former PM Yingluck Shinawatra, subject of another photo series, as something “we now long to forget.” Introducing photographs of police vehicles vandalised beyond repair by the PDRC, the catalogue even claims: “these cars were not destroyed; merely overturned and coloured... They could still be saved to run upright again.”

The most powerful work in the Fear exhibition was the short video Primitive (ป่าเถื่อน), a montage of sixty-five photographs of bloodstains on the base of Bangkok’s Democracy Monument, accompanied by plaintive cello music. These dark red smears—one of which appears on the back cover of the catalogue—are grisly reminders of an attack on PDRC protesters on 15th May 2014, when three people were killed by unknown assailants heavily armed with M79 grenade launchers and M16 automatic rifles.

23 February 2023


Rap Against Dictatorship released their latest single, Sunflower (ดอกทานตะวัน), this morning. As a ballad, it’s quite a departure for the group, though it’s just as political as their previous singles My Country Has (ประเทศกูมี), 250 Bootlickers (250 สอพลอ), Homeland (บ้านเกิดเมืองนอน), Burning Sky (ไฟไหม้ฟ้า), Budget (งบประมาณ), กอ เอ๋ย กอ กราบ (‘k is for krap’), Reform (ปฏิรูป), Ta Lu Fah (ทะลุฟ้า), and 16 ปีแล้วไอ้สัส (‘it’s been 16 years, ai sat’).

Sunflower is named after Tantawan Tuatulanon, a pro-democracy protester whose first name means ‘sunflower’ in Thai. Tantawan and another protester, Orawan Phuphong, went on hunger strike on 18th January in solidarity with lèse-majesté suspects facing pre-trial detention. They were themselves charged with lèse-majesté last year, after conducting an opinion poll asking whether royal motorcades caused inconvenience. They voluntarily revoked their own bail last month, and called for the abolition of the lèse-majesté law.

The song, performed by 3bone (who was also featured on Ta Lu Fah), refers to the hunger strike—“กับน้ำที่เทเพื่อให้ได้ดื่มกับสารอาหารที่ขาด” (‘having water to drink but no nutrition’)—and, indirectly, to royal motorcades: “รถที่ติดชนชั้นระหว่างผู้คนข้างทางรถนำขบวนที่ฝ่า” (‘traffic jams while a convoy passes by’). Similarly, The Commoner released a single dedicated to another protester, Panusaya Sithjirawattanakul, who also went on hunger strike, in 2021.

Tomorrow I Fuck with Yesterday Now!

Koraphat Cheeradit’s fascinating new short film begins with a young man stumbling around in a woodland. The aimless protagonist is filmed in a continuous take, with double-exposures constantly fading in and out. Birdsong and other bucolic, ambient sounds soon give way to a non-diegetic locomotive on the soundtrack, which gradually rises to a crescendo. Visually, this is matched by bursts of rapid-fire shots, each lasting for only a single frame, that are perceived only subliminally.

Some of these inserts are faux-naïf: white doves and heart emojis, symbolising peace and love. Other flash frames are more extreme: Koraphat juxtaposes sex and violence in split-second montages of anatomical drawings, erections, Ukrainian war casualties in Bucha, Nazi troops, and riot police firing water cannon at Thai protesters. These blink-and-you’ll-miss-them transgressions are in keeping with the film’s outré, Beam Wong-esque title: Tomorrow I Fuck with Yesterday Now! (ฉันแต่งงานกับปัจจุบัน ช่วยตัวเองด้วยเมื่อวาน และมีเพศสัมพันธ์กับวันพรุ่งนี้).

10 February 2023

“A seditious book about a series of riots...”

Six people arrested in Hong Kong on 17th January are facing sedition charges for selling a book documenting the city’s 2019–2020 pro-democracy protest movement. The untitled 300-page book went on sale on Christmas Day last year at a Lunar New Year fair at Ginza Plaza. It was distributed by the Shame on You Grocery Store (影衰mi杂货店), and forty-three copies were seized by police, who described it as “a seditious book about a series of riots”.

In 2021, the publishers of the Sheep Village (羊村) series of children’s books about the pro-democracy demonstrations were also arrested on sedition charges. (They were sentenced to nineteen months in prison last year.) The protest leaders—including Joshua Wong, a veteran of the 2014 ‘umbrella movement’—went on trial this week, charged under the Safeguarding National Security law imposed on Hong Kong by the Chinese government.

03 February 2023

Peaceful Art Protest

Peaceful Art Protest

Russian police have seized nineteen posters from an art exhibition in St Petersburg. The anti-war artworks, by Yelena Osipova, were painted in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and her Peaceful Art Protest («МИРный арт-протест») exhibition opened on 31st January. The show had been scheduled to run until 24th February, though on the day after the opening, police closed the exhibition and confiscated all of the posters on display. Criticising the invasion of Ukraine is illegal in Russia: local newspapers that did so were banned last year.

The exhibition was held at the St Petersburg office of the opposition Yabloko party. (Their name is the Russian word for ‘apple’, though it might remind non-Russians of the Nadsat word ‘yarblockos’ from the novel and film A Clockwork Orange.) This was not the first time that police have raided art exhibitions in Russia: galleries were charged with blasphemy in 2006 and 2012, and an exhibition of satirical portraits was closed down in 2013. Paintings mocking President Vladimir Putin were censored in 2009 and 2010.

02 February 2023

“Exploitation of audio of President Trump…”

The Trump Tapes The Trump Tapes

Donald Trump is suing journalist Bob Woodward and the publisher Simon and Schuster for $50 million, alleging that Woodward’s audiobook The Trump Tapes was released without prior authorisation. Woodward interviewed Trump nineteen times as research for his book Rage, and the audiobook features complete recordings of those interviews. Trump’s lawsuit, filed on 30th January, accuses Woodward of “systematic usurpation, manipulation, and exploitation of audio of President Trump”, and claims that the publication of the tapes violated Trump’s copyright.

In many of the interviews, Woodward tells Trump: “I’m turning on my tape recorder”, a reminder that these are on-the-record conversations being recorded with consent. He didn’t discuss the prospect of an audiobook with Trump, because he wasn’t required to do so. Woodward is legally entitled to release the tapes, because he—not Trump—recorded them. Just as the person who presses the camera shutter automatically assumes copyright of the resulting photograph, the person who presses ‘record’ owns the copyright of a sound recording (if the recording is made with permission).

31 January 2023

The Fall of Boris Johnson:
The Full Story

The Fall of Boris Johnson

In The Fall of Boris Johnson: The Full Story, Sebastian Payne gives a comprehensive insider’s account of the final months of Boris Johnson’s premiership, which he describes as “the most remarkable political defenestration in modern British political history.” Until recently, Payne was the Whitehall editor of the Financial Times and the host of the Payne’s Politics podcast; he interviewed Johnson for his first book, Broken Heartlands.

Payne concludes that there were “three Ps that brought down the prime minister — Paterson, partygate and Pincher”. He sees Johnson’s downfall as an inevitable result of the former PM’s belief that the rules don’t apply to him: “it was always going to come to a premature and sticky end... Johnson resists the idea that he has to bother with the consequences for his actions that normal people have to contend with.” (The ‘three Ps’ theory was first mentioned last August, on the BBC podcast Boris.)

After Conservative MP Owen Paterson was accused of lobbying, Johnson authorised a scheme to rewrite the disciplinary process, a blatant “Tory ruse to save one of their own” that united both government and opposition MPs against it. The ‘partygate’ and Chris Pincher scandals were more personally damaging to Johnson, as in both cases he was, in Alan Clark’s famous phrase, “economical with the actualité.” He falsely claimed in parliament that no parties had taken place at Downing Street during the coronavirus lockdown, and he falsely denied any prior knowledge of MP Chris Pincher’s reputation for sexual harassment.

The heart of the book is an epic forty-page account of Johnson’s last two days in office. This detailed coverage of ‘the bunker’ expands on a similar report by Tim Shipman in The Sunday Times (from 10th July 2021). Payne and Shipman both quote Johnson’s arch response after Michael Gove asked if he would resign: “No, Mikey, mate, I’m afraid you are.” Payne also recounts Johnson telling Gove: “they’re going to have to prise me out of here.” Gove and Johnson’s relationship was one of the most fascinating in modern British politics, and Johnson is, as Payne puts it, “the most compelling political campaigner of his generation”.

Red Poetry

Red Poetry

Supamok Silarak’s documentary Red Poetry (ความกวีสีแดง) will have its premiere next month. The film documents the activities of student performance artists Vitthaya Klangnil and Yotsunthon Ruttapradit, who formed the group Artn’t. Vitthaya is shown carving “112” into his chest, in protest at the lèse-majesté (article 112) charges they faced after they exhibited a modified version of the Thai flag.

A shorter version of Supamok’s film, Red Poetry: Verse 1 (เราไป ไหน ได้), was shown last year at Wildtype 2022. The full-length version will have an open-air screening at Suan Anya in Chiang Mai on 8th February. (The Power of Doc, a programme of political documentaries, was shown at the same venue last year.)

30 January 2023

The Modi Question

India: The Modi Question
India: The Modi Question

Screenings of a new BBC documentary that includes serious allegations against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have been prevented at several Indian universities, and students have been arrested at one campus. The programme reveals that Rob Young, the UK’s High Commissioner to India in 2002, wrote a confidential report concluding that “Narendra Modi is directly responsible” for the deaths of more than 1,000 people at a mass riot in Gujarat earlier that year.

India: The Modi Question, directed by Richard Cookson and Sadhana Subramaniam, was broadcast in the UK on BBC2 in two parts, on 17th and 24th January. It quotes from Young’s report, which alleged that Modi met senior police officers and “ordered them not to intervene in the rioting.” Students at Jamia Millia Islamia university in New Delhi were detained by police to prevent an outdoor screening of the documentary on 25th January.

The situation recalls that of another BBC documentary, India’s Daughter, which was also censored in India. In that case, however, the Indian government banned the programme from being broadcast on television, whereas India: The Modi Question was never scheduled for transmission in India. Modi has been PM since 2014, and was Chief Minister of Gujarat at the time of the riot. A cartoonist was arrested for caricaturing him in 2011, during his time as Chief Minister.

27 January 2023

Future Fest 2023

Future Fest

Future Fest, the annual arts festival organised by Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit’s Progressive Movement Foundation, will take place next month at Sermsuk Warehouse in Bangkok. A weekend of film screenings includes four recent short films with political themes: Bangkok Dystopia (บางกอกดิสโทเปีย) and Pirab (พิราบ) on 11th February, followed on the next day by Nostalgia and Two Little Soldiers (สาวสะเมิน).

Patipol Teekayuwat’s Bangkok Dystopia was previously shown at Wildtype 2018 and at the 21st Short Film and Video Festival. Prasit Promnumpol’s Pirab was shown at the Thai Film Archive in Salaya in 2017. Weerapat Sakolvaree’s Nostalgia was shown last year at the 26th Thai Short Film and Video Festival and at Wildtype 2022. Pen-ek Ratanaruang’s Two Little Soldiers was shown at the Bangkok Art Biennale in 2020, and last year at Gallery Seescape in Chiang Mai.

13 January 2023

Jacinda Ardern:
I Know This to Be True
— On Kindness, Empathy and Strength

Jacinda Ardern: I Know This to Be True

Geoff Blackwell interviewed New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on 8th November 2019 as part of his I Know This to Be True project for the Nelson Mandela Foundation, a series of interviews published in 2020 and intended to “inspire a new generation of leaders.” Video extracts from those interviews were then repurposed for Live to Lead, a Netflix series directed by Blackwell, which was released on New Year’s Eve 2022.

In his (short) Ardern interview book, Blackwell asks about her personal values, and she explains that she is “really driven by empathy... that’s probably the quality we need the most.” Similarly, in another 2019 interview, she told author Supriya Vani: “the world needs empathetic leadership now, perhaps more than ever.” (Vani’s Ardern biography is subtitled Leading with Empathy, and Blackwell’s subtitle has a similar theme: On Kindness, Empathy and Strength.)

Blackwell’s and Vani’s interviews are both rather soft and apolitical, focussing on Ardern as an inspirational leader. But Ardern does make a surprisingly candid admission in answer to Blackwell’s question about trusting her instincts: “All I could be was myself. And that’s all I’ve ever tried to be. And if that means I’m successful on behalf of New Zealand, that’s great, and if it means that I’m not, then I’ll still sleep at night.”

11 January 2023

Jacinda Ardern:
Leading with Empathy

Jacinda Ardern: Leading with Empathy

Jacinda Ardern became New Zealand’s Prime Minister in 2017 on a wave of ‘Jacindamania’, and her relentless positivity boosted her reputation on the world stage. (She has been a guest on The Late Show, and Spitting Image caricatured her quite convincingly as Mary Poppins.) She passed gun-control laws with incredible speed, and was equally successful in minimising the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. In recent months, rising inflation and a looming recession have sharply dented her domestic popularity, though this has not affected her international image.

She has consistently refused to cooperate with her biographers, though Jacinda Ardern: Leading with Empathy was promoted in 2021 as “[t]he first biography to be based on interviews with Ardern”. At a press conference on 21st July 2021, Ardern made clear that she was misled by the authors, who had not told her they were writing a biography: “certainly the claim that it was an exclusive interview for the purpose of writing a book of that nature is not true”. Co-author Supriya Vani interviewed Ardern in 2019, on the understanding that the book was about female leaders in general. Co-author Carl A. Harte claimed that coronavirus restrictions precluded interviews with other leaders, though Ardern was interviewed via Skype, which the pandemic would not have prevented.

More plausibly, the pandemic prevented the authors from visiting New Zealand while researching the book, though surprisingly this did not affect the amount of ‘colour’ and atmospheric detail they included. Ardern’s childhood home, Murupara, for example, is described as “a place that feels as if it is drifting, somehow behind in time... The town’s beauty is itself beguiling, but the land here has its dark secrets.” These lengthy descriptions, and others, are all examples of armchair tourism, and further padding is provided by extraneous career summaries of several former New Zealand politicians.

Vani wrote an online article for Writer’s Digest on 9th June 2021 titled How to Write a Biography of a World Leader. Her first tip was: “make sure you can resonate with the qualities of the leader to ensure you’re writing a positive biography.” Unfortunately, she followed her own advice, and her Ardern book borders on the hagiographic. (It often refers to Ardern by her first name, emphasises her “kindness” and “well-rounded humanity”, and even compares her to Churchill.) But on its own terms, as an inspirational account of empathetic leadership, the book is well written and researched. Perhaps Ardern’s relentless positivity rubbed off on Vani; if so, it was more appropriate to her first book, Battling Injustice.