Thursday, 5 January 2017

End Times with Subtitles

Pigeon crushed by a car on my street. New Year omen?

Bangkok Love Letter
End Times with Subtitles

Tuesday 3 January 2017, Bangkok

Dear Foreign Friend,

Was your Christmas merry? Sorry I sent no card & even missed my self-imposed December deadline. I was finishing a film & then my Right Hand Woman, who posts these blogs for me, went to her mum’s off-grid organic farm for the holidays.

By now you may have heard how stoners up & down the country are furtively lamenting the elevation of General Paiboon Koomchaya, fearless & sane champion of legislation to decriminalise ganja, from Justice Minister to Privy Councillor, just as new drug laws are being discussed. Obviously royal advisers cannot campaign to liberalise drug laws, and no one else is likely to have the guts and the clout to push this through. But the tide of history (& commerce) are on our side, so you never know.

Budding organic Siamese weed

In both the mainstream & social media, year-end displays of hatred for 2016 & apocalyptic fears for 2017 seem inescapable. Assorted oracles see more drastic changes; all numerologists & tarot-readers would agree that 17 is the number of The Lightning-Struck Tower, the card that portrays the shattering of false ideas and idols. Those who read omens, meaning all Thai people, wonder what 3 crocodile attacks, two during so-routine-they’re-boring tourist shows on crocodile farms & one on a French hiker in Khaoyai national park who stepped past a ‘Beware Crocodiles’ sign to take a daring selfie (“Big Mountain Croc bites French Lady’s Leg”- Daily News), might portend.

To my bedside Dream Dictionary, the crocodile is treachery. But here in Siam he is a symbol of our primeval soul, as embodied by the myth of Kraitong the crocodile shaman & Chalawan the crocodile prince presiding over the resplendent palace beneath the river. Kraitong’s superhero wardrobe with its gold armlets has sadly become a parody of gay costume, but he was able to breathe under water with no artificial aid other than his shakti, diving into the mud brown water to wrestle with his shadow. Though I’ve never seen one & have been too lazy to go looking, I’ve read of potent shrines to the Crocodile God along the upper reaches of the Chao Phraya, and they were not considered places of evil but of respect.

2016 newsclippings

Among the clippings I collected from 2016 newspapers, there are many pictures of deformed microcephaly babies. Then out of the box came a single item from AP about “Solar Kids” in Pakistan: 2 children who are perfectly normal during the day but go completely limp at nightfall. According to Javed Akram, professor of medicine of the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, “Once the sun goes down, they lapse into a vegetative state, unable to move or walk.” Some horror writer is surely going to be inspired. We might soon see a monster movie starring our own small-headed children. How apt that mosquitoes, which easily represent bad thoughts & evil intent, should be the Mother’s instrument of choice for dragging us back to the stone age.
A born-again Christian I know believes these are End Times, as manifested by the great rupture between Servants of the Lord and Slaves of Satan. These days it’s not so easy to laugh at his biblical fears, especially when we see ‘Toddlers & Tiaras’, a reality show of tiny tot beauty queens, being hyped on TV. There’s no question that a chasm has cracked open between the aforementioned servants & slaves, and now we find ourselves standing on our respective side of the precipice, gazing in awe into the bottomless abyss & never at each other except to shout abuse or watch in horror. My view of it is probably not unlike yours, ie. a black hole, except mine would have English subtitles: white for dialogue, yellow for written words & pink for singing. That’s how it looks after 5 days spent subtitling a film. You try it and see.
Subtitling is strange work: it requires a very high level of skill, care & understanding, but the work itself is extremely tedious, not unlike a factory assembly line. Yes, people farm it out, which results in horrible subtitles that merely add to the world’s store of confusion, misunderstanding & disharmony. Good subtitles can render great service to humanity. If it’s done well, you wouldn’t even remember it, let alone be aware of the work involved.
I seriously considered not subtitling this last film, before my ridiculous decision was voted down by the gang & my own conscience. When an English-speaking film is done, it’s done. But we’re not done. Not until we have English subtitles, which ruin our picture as well as being a tremendous slog. For “foreign language” filmmakers, subtitles can be symbolic of imperial oppression and the unmovable fact of our own powerlessness.

The film in question, Bangkok Joyride 2: Shutdown Bangkok, has far fewer subtitles than Part 1. There are long stretches with no subtitles at all, just thousands of whistles & screams. Still, it’s a complicated business, with the screen full of ant-like activity & protest signs, the soundtrack full of threats, curses, marching songs & the occasional breathless TV reporter. I had to make the terrible decision to have a black border around the screen on which to put the damned subtitles, colour-coded as above for clarity, meaning we had to shrink our image to make room for the said black frame. This gives the viewer the choice not to look at the subtitles, and people who need subtitles would see them clearly. Such decisions remind me how small & powerless my country is, and who’s the boss. There is no arguing with that. I’m writing to you in English, after all. If I want you to understand us & stop hurting us, I have to tell you our stories in your language.

“Ignorant hungry ghosts.”

Empathetic & conscientious translators are magical people. Theirs is literally a labour of love. If you do it right, there will be less discord & more clarity, even if the words you’re translating mean “Get out!”, “Evil cops!” or “Ignorant hungry ghosts!” (“Phee Prate mai rub suan boon”). If you truly convey the rage behind such words, you can accurately convey the sense of outrage & injustice that causes such rage. This is not hate speech, quite the reverse. By conveying feelings honestly, we begin an honest dialogue & start building a bridge across the chasm.

The epidemic handwringing over “fake news” & how to tell what’s fake (“double-check if the reputable mainstream media also run the story blah blah”) ignores the chilling fact that journalism is seriously broken, that decades of pervasive manipulation of half-truths in the reputable mainstream media have led us to this pass; that its pseudo-liberal tyranny of political correctness is responsible for provoking & spawning this present gleeful celebration of hate. 

Greeting cards featuring the late King, among Christmas angels.

Newsclipping shamans may view the plague of small-headed babies as graphic manifestation of human decline. I have the eerie feeling that infected mosquitoes didn’t begin this head-shrinking process; it’s merely the outward projection of our headlong determination to dumb down the masses & distort all meaningful exchange and experience. What the I Ching calls “the abuse of human freedom”—the abuse of free enterprise and democracy.

Happy 2017! May we live in interesting times!!

With Love from Bangkok,
Ing Kanjanavanit

A pioneer of environmental investigative reporting, Ing Kanjanavanit is a filmmaker, painter & bilingual writer, best known in Thai for the cult classic travelogue/handbook for environmental activism, ‘Khang Lhang Postcard’ (‘Behind the Postcard’) under the nom de guerre Lharn Seri Thai (136)—‘Free Thai Descendent/Force 136’, to evoke the Free Thai Movement against fascist forces during World War 2, which fought for the Allies then after the war was betrayed by the Allies. Sadly, she no longer attends Free Thai merit-making rites, not since Thaksin’s redshirts appropriated the name & equated Thaksin with Free Thai leader Pridi Banomyong, which is a travesty & a sacrilege.