Sunday, October 28, 2012

FOREIGN WORKERS (2012, Vorakorn Ruetaivanichkul, documentary, 26min, A+10)

FOREIGN WORKERS  (2012, Vorakorn Ruetaivanichkul, documentary, 26min, A+10)


You can watch the film without English subtitles here:

This film makes me think about the following things:

1. The TV series KLANGMUENG, which this film belongs to, is great. ThaiPBS channel has broadcast more than ten documentaries in this TV series. But so far I have had time to watch only six films in this TV series: LIKHOMMAIPANGLONG (2012, Nontawat Numbenchapol, A+), DAMNING THE DAM (2012, Patchara Eiamtrakul + Siriporn Kongma + Pairach Khumwan, A+), SALENG (2012, Wasunan Hutawach + Ukrit Pornsumpansook + Chulayarnnon Siriphol, A+), I WILL GIVE YOU WHAT YOU DON'T ASK FOR (2012, Meathus Sirinawin + Wachara Kanha, A+25), ROTI MAN (2012, Napasorn Limchaiyawat + Kittipat Knoknark, A+15), and this one.

I can divide these six films that I watched into two main groups: Group One is the group of films which focus on a group of people--LIKHOMMAIPANGLONG, DAMNING THE DAM, SALENG, I WILL GIVE YOU WHAT YOU DON'T ASK FOR. Group Two is the group of films which focus on the individuals--ROTI MAN, FOREIGN WORKERS.

I think I prefer Group Two a little bit to Group One, but I must emphasize that I don't say that Group Two is better than Group One. I think both groups are good in their own ways. The first group broadens my knowledge. The second group affects my feelings and emotions very strongly.

Apart from my own personal taste, "time" is also an important factor here. Each film in this TV series is about 30 minutes long. So when a film in this TV series focuses on a group of people, instead of individuals, it doesn't allow the audience to develop any emotional connections with the people portrayed. If the film in this TV series is about 90-120 minutes long, like MODERN LIFE (2008, Raymond Depardon, A+30), it would be much easier for the film to both portray a group of people and affect the emotions of the audience strongly.

What I want to say is that I like ROTI MAN and FOREIGN WORKERS very much, because these two films focus on the individuals, and affect my emotions more strongly than some other films. But I know that "affecting the emotions" may not be the aim, or the most important aim, of some filmmakers or this TV series. I can say that ROTI MAN and FOREIGN WORKERS fit my personal taste, but the other four films are good in their own ways, too.

I also want to say that "focusing on the individuals" doesn't work every time for me. STORIES OF JANITOR ผ้าขี้ริ้ว (2007, Nitchapoom Chaianun, 86min, documentary, B+), which focuses on only one janitor, doesn't affect my feelings that much. On the contrary, I like I WILL GIVE YOU WHAT YOU DON'T ASK FOR the most among these six films that I have watched in the TV series, though the film presents us dozens of people. The intense emotion that I feel while watching I WILL GIVE YOU WHAT YOU DON'T ASK FOR doesn't come from the emotional attachments that I have towards the people portrayed, but comes from the cacophony of voices of dozens of people in the film.

In conclusion, there are many ways to make a good documentary. I like FOREIGN WORKERS very much because it focuses on the individuals. I like I WILL GIVE YOU WHAT YOU DON'T ASK FOR very much because it focuses on dozens of people. There is no fixed formula on how to make a great documentary.

2. Though both ROTI MAN and FOREIGN WORKERS focus on the individuals, there are a few differences between these two films. FOREIGN WORKERS makes me feel more intimate with the subjects of the film than ROTI MAN. And I like this feeling of intimacy very much. But the reason why I like ROTI MAN a little bit more than FOREIGN WORKERS is because the life of the subject of ROTI MAN is very harsh compared to the life of the subject of FOREIGN WORKERS.

3. Though both ROTI MAN and FOREIGN WORKERS focus on the individuals, both films show us very well some problems affecting our society. ROTI MAN presents us how some foreigners suffer a lot under our flawed law. FOREIGN WORKERS presents us the ugly truths that some Thai people think people in Myanmar nowadays have to be responsible for the war which happened more than 200 years ago. It is very sad to know that some Thai people don't even realize that each person in this world cannot choose which country to be born into. Why are some Thai people extremely stupid like that? Is it the result of the indoctrination of patriotism in Thai schools, Thai society, Thai media, and Thai mainstream films?
4. It is very interesting to see that the subject of FOREIGN WORKERS seem to live a much happier life than the subjects of most Thai films dealing with workers from Myanmar. FOREIGN WORKERS doesn't present us the stereotyped worker who is a poor victim, because many films have already done that. FOREIGN WORKERS shows us the kind of happy workers who are not represented that much in most social problem films. By presenting a happy individual, FOREIGN WORKERS helps fill what is lacking in other social problem films.

5.The word "happy" that I used above is relative. I mean the worker in FOREIGN WORKERS is happier than the foreign workers in such films as OVERSEAS (2012, Wichanon Somumjarn + Anocha Suwichakornpong, A+15), COLORS OF OUR HEARTS (2009, Supamok Silarak, A+30), and ADMIT (2007, Nattapon Timmuang, documentary, 19min, A+15). But I guess most middle-class viewers still don't want to trade places with him.

I like it very much that the film shows us that the worker doesn't sleep on a bed, but sleeps on the floor near the bed of his girlfriend. The film indirectly makes me aware of the living condition of the worker. Yes, he lives a happy life now, but only to a certain degree.

6.I also want to emphasize that the happy status of the worker in this film is only "in the present tense", because his life in the past was full of difficulties, and his future is a little bit uncertain. There are many interesting things about his life in the past, such as

6.1 The sadness when he had to say goodbye to his mother, unsure whether he would have a chance to come back and see his mother's face again or not

6.2 His first year in Thailand, when he was sold and worked like a slave, until he fled from this slavery.

6.3 He earned only 60 baht (2 US dollars) a month 25 years ago.

6.4 The description of his village in Myanmar, which was full of spies. You can trust no one in the village. Everybody is ready to report your activities to the authority, and you will be arrested. This state of paranoia reminds me of such films as THE LIVES OF OTHERS (2006, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck) and the recent news in Thailand about an older brother who got his little brother arrested under the lese-majesty law.

7. The worker in this film is unsure how long he will be employed as a servant. I guess he is not sure what lies in the future for him when his old employers pass away. He doesn't say this in front of the camera. I just guess it by myself. How can he make a living when that time comes? Will he have a bright future if he chooses to return to Myanmar?

It is interesting to see that the worker in this film and the saleng people in SALENG are unsure about the future, especially their financial status in the future. I understand this feeling of uncertainty too well, because I always worry about my own financial status in the future, too. It's the curse of poor people like us. We work as hard as we can, but we still don't have enough money to guarantee our future. What we can do best is ignoring our future, and trying to survive for today first.

8.Though the worker in this film is relatively happy, he admits that if he didn't have a wife, he would feel very lonely. He lives with his employers and his wife now, instead of living in the community of migrant workers like those Myanmar workers in Thai factories. He seems to relish the time when he and his wife can meet other people from Myanmar in wedding ceremonies.

This kind of loneliness is very interesting for me, because I have never experienced it by myself, since I have never lived abroad. Because my experience and the worker's experience in this aspect are very different, this leads to our different attitudes towards other things in life. The worker in this film seems to be bored to hear the noises of frogs and bullfrogs around the quiet house. I guess he prefers to hear the voices of other human beings in a close-knit migrant community. However, as for me, I would prefer to live in a quiet house where we can hear the noises of frogs and bullfrogs after the rain, instead of living in an apartment building with neighbors who make disturbing noises which destroy my peaceful sleep. The worker in this film has a quiet place to live, but he yearns for voices of friends and neighbors. On the contrary, I can always reach my friends via Facebook, and I yearn to have a quiet place to live.

9.Though the worker in this film is relatively happy compared to other migrant workers in other Thai films, we are indirectly aware that there are many other workers from Myanmar who are not as lucky as him. In this film, we are aware that the worker in this film can live a relatively happy life now because:

9.1 He has an identity card or a passport or something like that. He has a card which lets him live legally in Thailand. We can surmise from the film that if he didn't have that card, he would not have appeared in front of the camera. His visibility in this documentary indirectly makes us wonder about the invisibility of many workers who don't have the card.

9.2 He can speak Thai fluently, while his wife cannot speak Thai as fluently as him.

9.3 He has kind employers.

10.I like what happens near the end of this documentary very much. The interview in this film ends at night, when the worker puts some powder from Myanmar on his face and sees the interviewer off. This kind of things makes this documentary very different from other documentaries in KLANGMUENG TV series, because it makes me feel as if we just had a nice evening chat with a new friend, instead of watching documentaries about people who are very different from us.

What I try to say is that both approach are good in their own ways. A documentary with a detached or objective viewpoint like SALENG, OUR HOME HUAI HIN DAM (2011, Pisut Srimhok, 54min), and LA DANSE (2009, Frederick Wiseman) are good. But a documentary with a more intimate viewpoint like FOREIGN WORKERS can make me feel very great, too. Both approach broaden my knowledge, but the intimate one sometimes affects my feelings more than the detached one.

11. My most favorite moment in the film is the "Nadech Kugimiya" moment. There is a kind of "strange but lovely" rapport among the female interviewee, the interviewer, and me in that moment. This is not the kind of moment I expect to find in social problem documentaries or in documentaries in general.

I'm not sure whether what I feel for this moment is exactly appropriate or not. I mean if the interviewee says that she likes some superstars in Myanmar whom I have never heard of before, that would have broadened my knowledge. But when the interviewer can guess correctly that she likes Nadech, this moment is irresistibly and unexplainably touching for me. The interviewer, the interviewee, and me suddenly connect to one another.

12. FOREIGN WORKERS lets me glimpse into the lives of people who are both poorer and much richer than me. I come from a poor family and have lived most of my life without a servant or a nanny. "A servant" is something far from my own personal life.

While most social problem documentaries make us understand the lives of poor people, FOREIGN WORKERS indirectly lets me have a glimpse of the lives of people who are much richer than me, too. I mean most middle-class viewers may not feel like me in this case, because these middle-class viewers are used to the lives with servants, with a house and a big garden to tend to. But I'm not used to the lives like that. So it is a little bit touching for me to see that the employer in this film may have health problems, because she has to take a lot of medicine or something like that. FOREIGN WORKERS indirectly humanizes both the rich and the poor in my eyes.

13. This documentary is an important step in Vorakorn Ruetaivanichkul's career as a filmmaker in my point of view. I have read somewhere or heard from some film critics that there are a few filmmakers who become famous from films about their personal lives, such as Jonathan Caouette who became famous from TARNATION (2003), but that doesn't guarantee that these filmmakers will be successful or not when they make films about other people outside their personal lives.

Vorakorn Ruetaivanichkul becomes famous from MOTHER (A+30), which is about his own mother. He also made a documentary called THE DIRECTOR OF SOUTHPOLE (2012, 18min, A+15), which captures the drunken moment of his friends. However, these two great films don't guarantee that Vorakorn will be successful when he makes films about people far from his own life. FOREIGN WORKERS guarantees that.

A similar case can be made about Vichart Somkaew, too. Vichart became famous from ONE TRUE THING เรื่องจริง (2007, documentary, 80min), which is about his coming out as a gay person. And he proves that he can make good films about other people with 8.8.88 (2012, documentary, 25min), which is about migrant workers from Myanmar.

Vorakorn Ruetaivanichkul's Vimeo channel:

In conclusion, I like FOREIGN WORKERS very much, because this film focuses on an interesting individual whose life can represent a group of "relatively fortunate" migrant workers in Thailand, and whose life can still show us some interesting problems in Thai society. I also like the intimate feeling in this film very much. However, I want to emphasize that documentaries which use other approaches, such as a detached, objective approach, or choosing to focus on a group of people, are good in their own ways, too.

APPENDIX: Favorite films which show good relationships between servants and employers

(in alphabetical order)

1.BABETTE'S FEAST (1987, Gabriel Axel, Denmark)

2.THE BILLIONAIRE วัยรุ่นพันล้าน (2011, Songyos Sugmakanan)

3.DISTINCTION คล้าย (2011, Tulapop Saenjaroen, 23min)

4.FOREIGN WORKERS (2012, Vorakorn Ruetaivanichkul)

5.GEORGE AND FANCHETTE (2010, Jean-Daniel Verhaeghe, France)

6.GOLDEN SAND HOUSE (2005, Chulayarnnon Siriphol, 21min)

7.LIVE-IN MAID (2004, Jorge Gaggero, Argentina)

8.MISS DROT (2010, Christian Faure, France)

9.A SIMPLE LIFE (2011, Ann Hui, Hong Kong)

10.SPANGLISH (2004, James L. Brooks)

11.SUMMER HOURS (2008, Olivier Assayas, France)