Directors, Features, Filmmakers, Interviews, Thailand

Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit interview: “I treated it as their diary, so I wanted to show respect”

One of the most versatile authors of Thailand cinema discusses his latest film BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry

Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit has made six films in the last six years, starting from his debut 36 – low-fi film essay about memory and loss, all shot in carefully composed close-ups. Since 36 he kept jumping between film genres, but each frame would bear the instantly recognizable mark of being his films. For a person who watched all of his works on account of them screening at Five Flavours Film Festival, I was looking forward to meeting Nawapol at International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) 2019. He came to Rotterdam to present his documentary film focusing on teenage members of idol group BNK48, which is part of pan-Asian pop culture phenomenon based on formula introduced by Japanese band AKB48. I had a chance to chat with Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit about the project, film industry and audience in Thailand, BNK48 band members and growing-up under extreme conditions.

Maja: Your previous projects are very varied when it comes to film form, but each time in your films the form is a vital part of a narrative. 36 and Die Tomorrow are essays while Heart Attack is a fiction genre film, this time you completed a documentary film. Before BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry I have seen only one documentary production from Thailand – The Railway Sleepers (2016, dir. Sompot Chidgasornpongse) – which is totally different from your latest project. I was wondering what is the situation of documentary film productions in Thailand? Are they in theatrical distribution?

Nawapol: I think there is still a small group of documentary filmmakers, even though now situation is better than in the past, because we have film distribution company, Documentary Club, which focuses on various types of documentary films from all over the world, presenting it to the audience in Thailand. For local documentary filmmakers opportunities are still limited, it is very hard to distribute independent fiction film in Thailand, not to mention documentary, there seems to be small interests in this type of films.

Maja: Do you see any similarities between music and film industry in Thailand? BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry depicts mainstream music industry, you have experience doing more mainstream cinema with Heart Attack. Do you see some points in common?

Nawapol: There are similarities. When I talked to the BNK48 members and stayed with them for half a year or so, I think the life of the band member and filmmaker in this situation are quite alike. When I was young I had to make short films and send it to the festivals, sometimes I got selected, sometimes rejected, the only thing left to was to keep trying and submit next films. We have to wait for someone to pick our title to the festival or distribute our film to reach the audience. I think this kind of situation is quite similar with that of BNK48 members – they do everything to be selected to perform the next single. So I understand their feeling, even through we come from different contexts and cultural industry sectors. Even now I make feature film, I submit it to the festival and the selection is still curated by somebody I don’t know and I just have to wait for the outcome. Or even when I talk to cinema owners in Thailand, I just have to convince them to screen my film, so I think this feeling is quite similar with BNK48 band members’ experience.

Maja: But after you make first and second film, maybe you will be like Cherprang – the leader in BNK48 – she got chosen each time.

Nawapol: I think I have been through different stages depending on the situation, sometimes I am like Cherprang, who is the top one, sometimes I am Piam, who is the last one, sometimes I’m in the middle like Pupe.\

Maja: But when you’re the last you have more connection to the audience, because they come up to you and relate more. When you are the top one, there is some distance between filmmaker and the viewer.

Nawapol: Filmmakers are ordinary people, so we understand Piam a lot, being ignored, being often rejected, we try very hard to do something. On the other hand, I wanted to portray a life of a top member also, because I think it is very interesting. Most people would think the top one doesn’t have any problems, because she has achieved everything, but actually, they feel lonely at times. This selection game is often not about ability, but popularity which is a phenomenon you can’t really control. Sometimes you get the attention from the audience without knowing the reason.

Maja: Sometimes it’s just about the atmosphere or a certain impression the person naturally gives off. Even though person’s ability is not the best out of the group, one just gets chosen.

Nawapol: Actually the selection process in BNK48 recently changed into sort of a general election. In BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry there is still one committee which selects the members for the new single, now the company lets the audience to vote for the members. But the audience has to pay – when you buy CD you get the ticket to vote. From the BNK48 members’ perspective, they feel it is more democratic and fair, it’s like: OK, now it’s not about the committee at all, it’s about the audience. But anyway, Cherprang is still number one, like in the past.

Maja: In BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry I really liked Cherprang, because during the interviews her insights about the bands’ life, company, music industry and the idol phenomenon were very smart and to the point. She was looking through the whole scheme.

Nawapol: Actually she knows the game. It’s not her fault, she joined the band and wanted to enjoy the time there just as any other member.

Maja: I was wondering about the box office results. You promoted your previous film, Die Tomorrow, solely through social media and it proved effective. I guess when it comes to BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry the band members’ social media accounts helped the promotion campaign a lot. Comparing these two films, how are the box office results?

Nawapol: BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry made around 15 mln baht – it triples Die Tomorrow, which got 5 mln baht. Still promotion budget was very small anyway. First I thought with BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry there will be a lot of people, who will help me to promote the film, but actually I’m still the one doing most of the promotion campaign again. This time we had a lot of outdoor media, billboards, but I think it is still not enough to push the film to the mass audience. We need more budget for the online promotion and outdoor media.

Maja: Though I suppose most BNK48 fans came to see the film.

Nawapol: Yes, we always felt that there’s a lot of people, who likes the band, so the audience will be bigger comparing to other films that don’t have the cross-promotion potential. The problem is I tried to make this documentary for the general audience, but it is still very hard to bring the people to see such a film, because they always think it is only a niche, film produced for certain type of audience. Even if we tried to convince people that BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry is for everyone, not only for the band’s fans or art-house cinephiles, because in the film we explain the context and band’s development from the start.

Maja: Plus, the narrative structure is very classical, plot develops seemingly natural and the turning points all come just in the right moments, like in classic Hollywood movies. The storytelling is very well-crafted, so when I watched BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry I found it very approachable, even though before the screening I didn’t know the band nor the context.

Nawapol: I tried to make it as easy as possible, because I know the content of the documentary is quite complicated: there is a lot of characters, a lot of inner band rules. The feedback from the general audience in Thailand was positive. The strongest critique came from the actual fans of the band, because they felt the film was too simple – BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry tells the story they already know. Additionally, it kind of clashes with fans’ imagination – they will post comments on the internet saying: “I suppose there is a darker aspect to the band and some members might not be satisfied with the situation, but the director does not put it in the film”. During the interviews with the girls, we talked about almost everything and they did not signal that there is anything wrong with the situation in the group or their life. The fans assume the members have some problems, that BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry should be darker, there should be some conflict or a harsh critique.

Maja: Plus, the band members image shown in the film might clash a bit with their personas online that the fans are attached to. So the expectations are not met.

Nawapol: I tried to direct the film using the interviews as main material and reference, because when I talk to them I feel that they are very open to talk, you feel honesty in the conversation. I already did interviews with so many people, so I can more or less sense if someone is not so honest. But with BNK48 – they are still kids, teenagers, they don’t block themselves and I think they just trusted me and felt free to talk everything out.

Maja: And maybe they were really happy that finally they can say something themselves, personally, not filtered through their image online.

Nawapol: Yes yes, because at the time I got involved in the project it was very high time for them, a lot of media were coming to interview them almost everyday. They talked a lot and answered the journalists’ questions, but maybe not really saying what was currently on their minds. So I tried to tell them: “You can say anything, don’t worry, because I will take care of the footage”. So he band members felt better and just said everything out loud. I think sometimes interviews were like therapy sessions, they took around three to four hours. After one hour or so the girls would relax and often said something I would have never expected but that’s good. When they said that certain fragments were too personal and asked me if I could skip it, of course I skipped it, because I think it is about trust. I do want to make this film interesting, but without hurting the members of the band. It is their life on the film, their life that will carry on long after the film has ended.

Maja with filmmaker Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit

Maja: It is very cool that BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry totally avoids this “preying on controversy” attitude. It is very respectful towards the girls, treating them as an equal partner in completing the film.

Nawapol: I believe it is the best way, because I think the girls often experienced the situation when a journalist wanted something from them, pushed them very hard to say something controversial. They don’t trust the media anymore, so I just wanted to make them feel better with this film. I treat BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry as their diary, so I wanted to make it with respect. It’s their life not mine, my part was just to come to the band, observe the situation, tell the story according to my style but the content is up to the interviewees.

Maja: So BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry is sort of a gift, like the films friends make for friends for their birthday.

Nawapol: I think even in this way we can find an interesting topic. I don’t think that every documentary has to be about a violent conflict, very hard topic. We can find something interesting in the daily life.

Maja: Or in the way people change over time, because you’ve been with them for several months.

Nawapol: The theme I’m interested in is just not some hardcore topic, it’s just about the life inside the band. I think they are teenagers, who experience special conditions in life, they are exposed to more and more extreme and intense circumstances every year, their life goes very fast. Each day they encounter multiple situations that might hurt them, they have to make difficult decisions all the time and deal with strong emotions, when they get ignored, rejected, especially the lowers ranks in BNK48. I think it is a special topic for me, because if you are a regular person you encounter that sort of situations once or twice a year, but for the BNK48 members they experience them everyday.

Maja: It is like a condensed reality!

Nawapol: Yeah, yeah, I was saying to my friends, that these teenagers had taken a fast-growth pill, just take this pill and you will grow up fast (laugh).

Maja: Yeah, like Alice in Wonderland (laugh). Speaking about grown-ups, did you interview any of the band members’ parents? The girls mentioned their family at the beginning of the film to explain their background and motivation behind entering the band, but afterwards, the parents are not present in the narrative.

Nawapol: I have not met the parents, I met only Cherprang’s mother, because she was always at the events or came together with her daughter. As for the other members’ family, I haven’t met them. Maybe because it’s not my main focus in the documentary, I just wanted to present a story centred on teenagers’ narrative. The members apply to the BNK48 themselves, it’s their choice, and if they are underage they only need the parents’ approval upon signing the studio contracts. Most of them convinced the parents already, there’s not much problem. And as far as I know, most parents also love that their daughters joined the band and they support their decision, not all of them of course. But there is no time in the film to explain this part, so I just skipped it. I had to limit the number of plots to make the documentary more consistent.

Maja: It is more fluent like that, with such a broad topic adding limitless plotlines would be a dead end. I was curious how was working with BNK48 Office as a production company, did they have an influence on the final cut of the film?

Nawapol: When they called me to talk about this project I went to meet them and I said that I don’t want to make this film as a promotional video, because it is a long process to make a documentary film, very time-consuming. So firstly I had to make it clear with BNK48 Office that we are on the same page with BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry. They were okay with my condition, they did not want it to be a promotional video. BNK48 Office also has experience working as a film distribution company so they have some knowledge about what makes a good film. After I started the project I still haven’t trusted them, but when we came to editing the first draft of the film, they just left me to do everything I wanted, they gave me all the freedom. So I can still say that BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry is my film also, because they let me tell the story the way I wanted.

Maja: Definitely visually BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry looks like your film. So what’s your next project? As far as social media feed says, you seem super busy.

Nawapol: This year I go back to work with the studio again, the one I completed Heart Attack with, so I return to make fiction film. I think it is about time, because last year I made experimental and documentary film, so it will be good to go back to genre cinema. It still will be small scale production, because the studio wants to try a new model, somewhere in between big budget and indie. Heart Attack in Thailand was considered a big production, starring famous actors, this time they said I can make a smaller film. I will produce it myself. I want to try this model, because in Thailand we have only small independent films and regular big studio productions, there is nothing in between. I think this film will be in this position. If it works it will be great, actually making this kind of film suits me most. When I make a big budget film there is a lot of pressure, because studio spent a lot of money on production and promotion. Sometimes I am not that confident about my films.

Maja: It’s good, you won’t end up as the graphic designer in Heart Attack. So what’s the story about?

Nawapol: Right now I’m in the process of drafting the script. I can say it will be a drama in full scale. Usually when I want to make a drama film for the film studio, they always say to add more romantic elements to the film, because Thai audience likes to watch romance more than drama. But this time it will be drama-drama.

BNK48: Girls Don’t Cry screened as part of 48th International Film Festival Rotterdam.

About the author

Maja KorbeckaMaja Korbecka Maja Korbecka
Edward Yang’s Confucian Confusion and Lou Ye’s Suzhou River seem to exert a mysterious influence on her life. Sinophone cinema lover, currently works as Five Flavours Film Festival film programmer, writer and Chinese translator.
Read all posts by Maja Korbecka

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