A few years ago I visited a temple near my home and a monk there gave me a little book called “A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives.” In it, the monk wrote about Boonmee, who could recall his multiple lives in the cities of the northeast. In 2008, I wrote a screenplay inspired by the reincarnation of Boonmee, and started to travel in the region in search of his surviving offspring and relatives. I met his two sons who provided accounts of their father.
Among several villages we visited there was one called Nabua. This sleepy village in the province of Nakhon Panom was one of the places the Thai army occupied from the 60s to the early 80s in order to curb the communist insurgents. There was no link to Boonmee here except that the village is also full of repressed memories. I decided to work there, investigating its history and documenting its landscape.
In the 60s the soldiers erected a base in Nabua to administer the villagers’ daily activities. The locals were psychologically and physically abused on the grounds of withholding information. Women were raped. Some were murdered in their homes. Consequently, the villagers, mostly farmers, fled into the jungle. Most of them didn’t understand the word Communism though they were accused of being communists.
In the morning of August 7, 1965, Nabua earned its reputation nationwide when the first gun battle between the farmer communists and the totalitarian government broke out in the rice field. As a result, Nabua was heavily occupied and controlled by the military. The torture intensified. Fear proliferated. More people escaped into the jungle. The night sky was illuminated with military flares. The village was left with mostly women and children. Ironically, Nabua is situated in Renu Nakhon district, where there is an ancient legend about a ‘widow ghost’ who abducts any man who enters her empire. She takes them to join her other husbands in an invisible land. Thus in the legend, Renu Nakhon is devoid of men. The district’s nickname is ‘widow town’.
The army’s presence and abuses continued in the village for two decades. After the temperature of the US and Soviet Union’s cold war had fallen, the government employed a peaceful method of reconciliation with the “deflected”. Cash and land were offered in exchange for weapons. The Communist Party of Thailand withered away and became history. Until now, the government has down played the violence that took place in various villages around the country. The public forgets. The dead are forgotten. The young generation doesn’t recognise the existence of Nabua.
The story of Nabua undeniably has echoes of the current political turmoil in Thailand. Institutions involved in those events of the past, along with new ones, are the key players in the ongoing chaos. Just as in the past, they manipulate the public psyche instilling it with faith and fear.
The PRIMITIVE project is about re-imagining this little terrain of Thailand called Nabua , a place where memories and ideologies are extinct. PRIMITIVE is a portrait of the teenage male descendants of the farmer communists, freed from the widow ghost’s empire.
In late 2008, I spent two months there following and documenting the teens’ activities. The initial idea of the artworks has since branched out and mutated into various forms. It is the manifestation of someone who has created various fictional scenarios in order to implant a memory into a place. First we built a spaceship. I always dreamed of making a movie with a spaceship. When could there be a better time to do so than now in Thailand? And somehow Nabua is a perfect place for this vehicle to land and to introduce the idea of a journey. The spaceship’s form was sketched out by one of the teens and its metal skeletons were welded together by their elders, their fathers. Soon some of the teens used the spaceship as a place to get drunk at night. They decorated the interior of the ship with little colored lights. While it has become their second bedroom, the elders want to use it to store rice. I use it as a movie prop.
Then there are two music videos. One is the result of bringing a pop singer friend to Nabua. In the video, the teens celebrate the act of running and throwing things - in tune with the political upheaval and events nationwide. The other music video I made for a song composed by one of the teens. In one evening he sang to me a not-yet-entitled tune about Nabua. He strummed on his guitar and sang “grab your gun and fight”.
The various videos I made at Nabua, like my feature films, are impressions of light and memory. There are natural illuminations from the sun and from fire. The lights seep through the doors and windows and burn the rice fields. There are artificial ones like fluorescent tubes and LED lights like dots of recollections. And there are simulated bolts of lightning that destroy the peaceful landscape and unearth the spirits. As in the book A Man Who Can Recall His Past Lives, PRIMITIVE is about reincarnation and transformation. It’s a celebration of destructive force in nature and in us that burns in order to be reborn and mutate.