Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul is kind, affable, calm — and extremely busy. He’s here in Locarno as the president of the international competition jury; on Saturday, he and his fellow jurors have the arduous and challenging task of choosing the Festival’s Golden Leopard. During a brief one-on-one interview, I wondered how the screening process was going so far.
“All the jury members are very friendly and laid back,” he told me in a quiet voice. “We don’t have big arguments, we’re like a family.” He smiled.
I suggested that seeing two to three films a day could be a little overwhelming for an introspective artist and director. “I was worried about that,” he replied, “since I’m currently writing my new film, a process during which I usually never watch anything. However in Locarno there’s such a diversity. The films all have their own lives.”
That new project is a story about people afflicted by a sleeping sickness (“They sleep all day and I want to explore how their mind works during that specific time, how light can influence their dreams and memory,” Weerasethakul revealed several days earlier during a public talk at the festival). “I’ve always been interested in the human mind’s activities,” he added. “One day a monk asked me what I did as a job. I said I made movies, and the monk replied this was pointless since everything is in our mind. I agree: our mind is a projector.”
As a continuation — or perhaps reincarnation is more appropriate in this case — of his previous work, this new feature will embrace questions of time and memory, and offer Weerasethakul another opportunity to remember and re-experience his past. I asked him how he perceived the present. His response: “There isn’t really any present. Everything you’re doing right now is gone the second after. I want to capture that process when I’m thinking, and also when I’m shooting a film. I write less in order for things to evolve organically when we shoot. The script is there to be torn apart.”
The end result — the film — represent excerpts from Weerasethakul’s personal and very surreal diary, each shot a new page, unfolding memories of his parents (2006’s “Syndromes and a Century”) or dreams of the future (2010’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”).
You see similar traits in his recent short films, including “Ashes,” which premiered here at the festival, and “Mekong Hotel,” the 61-minute feature he presented at Locarno after its premiere at Cannes. “All my films exist in the same universe,” Weerasethakul said. “And I think my filmmaking is getting closer and closer to how I live and to the people I’m associated with. The entire creative process is becoming more candid and more relaxed, in a way.”
Candid? “Well, I’m getting less analytical about the way I work and about the flow of time. I concentrate less on structuring my writing and more on living, traveling, and speaking with the people I love.” Weerasethakul cherishes the freedom to shoot what he wants. “I feel like the filmmakers of the ’60s or ’70s who could just walk out their front door and start filming with their Super 8 or Bolex.”
His first introduction to that world came, he said, during his education at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “There I discovered scratch films such as “Free Radicals” by Len Lye, the works of Bruce Baillie, and the surrealist movement.” As a teenager, Weerasethakul watched every movie he could get his hands on, from big Hollywood productions to popular Thai cinema. He claimed his first cinematic “epiphany” came while watching “E.T.” in 1982. “From then on,” he remembered during his public talk at Locarno, “I wanted to be part of this world.”
In Chicago he studied the works of directors like Tsai Ming-liang, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, Bela Tarr, and Jacques Rivette, all of whom have influenced his own work. His other major inspiration: hospitals, where his parents both worked as doctors. “As a child,” he recalled, “I used to spend some time there. People wait, they have different syndromes and sicknesses, they also walk slower. All this created some sort of small scale cinema.” Those distant childhood memories have also spurred another recurring motif in his films: ghosts. “I believed in them and remember them as a fact. But growing up they became fiction, which fits perfectly well with cinema. I like to think the notion of truth shifts in time.”
And with that, our time was up. Weerasethakul, creator of dreams, memories, and visits to other dimensions, had to catch his next jury screening.
Marc Menichini is a freelance film journalist and regular arts contributor on World Radio Switzerland, an English speaking public broadcaster based in Geneva, Switzerland. This piece is part of Indiewire’s Critics Academy at the Locarno Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.