The Ashes of a Medium: Anocha Suwichakornpong on the Death and Resurrection of Film
By Kai Perrignon
Anocha Suwichakornpong’s By the Time it Gets Dark follows a fictional director trying to make a film about an infamous massacre of student protesters in Thailand in the 1970s, though the narrative eventually splinters into a more freeform discussion of the medium itself. I sat down with Anocha prior to the MIFF premiere to chat about her new film and the future of cinema.
Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length. It also contains small spoilers for “By the Time it Gets Dark”.
Kai Perrignon: The English title of By the Time it Gets Dark is named after a Sandy Martin song, which Yo La Tango covered, and the Thai title is the name of a suburb. Can you walk me through the title choices?
Anocha Suwichakornpong: I’m not really into the idea of having titles that’re very on the nose. Or too directly linked to the film. The English title By the Time it Gets Dark came from a song which I was listening to a lot when I was developing the screenplay and the treatment. Initially I was going to use it as a working title, but it stuck. Even though it’s not directly linked, it creates a sense of the passage of time, and I thought it was quite apt that it was a cover.
KP: Right, because so much of your film is about simulation and recreation.
AS: And appropriation.
KP: I read that the Thai title [Dao Khanong] means ‘Wild Star’?
AS: Yes. It’s a neighbourhood in Bangkok, and there’s nothing wild about it. It’s not a very exciting place at all. But the thing is, if you drive in Bangkok on the expressway, there will be so many signs pointing to Dao Khanong. It seems like all the road signs point there. It’s not your destination. It’s somewhere over there, but you don’t know where it is.
KP: That moment – where the character of Peter is driving and sees the sign for Dao Khanong but doesn’t go there – feels representative of your storytelling in this film; you keep circling common ideas without quite settling on something concrete.
A: I wanted the Peter character to be the bridge between reality and fiction, because that’s what actors do, all the time – go between their daily lives and being a performer. When he dies, that bridge is broken.
I didn’t want the film to have a clear delineation between reality and fiction. I wanted to make the boundary porous. And I think that as an actor, when you’re performing, there’s always some truth in what you’re doing.
I think that fictional films can actually uncover very real truth, even though sometimes we don’t deal with facts.
Initially, I wanted to make a documentary about the massacre, but to be honest I’m not familiar with making documentaries. And I think that fictional films can actually uncover very real truth, even though sometimes we don’t deal with facts.
My intention was to show the process of filmmaking and how [that process] is a manipulation of source material. It’s my hope that by showing this, you realise that, while of course there are lies, there’s also truth. It’s [about] what you want to include, what you want to exclude.
KP: Do you worry at all that [your film] can be interpreted as being about the end of cinema? Because there are moments within [your film] that feel portentous, like an elegy for the form.
AS: I think that even if there’s death, I don’t see it as the end. There’s always a continuation of life in another way or form. Maybe my picture might imply the end of cinema … but I think it’s like mushrooms. If something dies, something else will be born out of it. There’s nothing finite about it.
KP: As cinema changes in distribution and creation, do you see that affecting the stories being told?
AS: Yes, but I don’t think it’s entirely for the worst. I think platforms like Netflix are transforming the landscape. But I think human beings and cinema will adapt. We’re not like the dinosaurs. Cinema is not going to die out. It might change, but I don’t think [celluloid] will ever be obsolete. There’s always someone who will champion film and campaign for it. So I think it will continue but become rarer. In a way I’m quite ambivalent about this. I love film stock, but I don’t want it to be a part of the medium that is too precious, something that no one but the crème de la crème can use.
KP: Your film seems to embrace the digital aesthetic, especially at the end when it collapses in a sort of pixelated breakdown. What drove you to that moment? Was it your ambivalence about film itself?
AS: I thought about the glitches as…a false memory. If we go back to the beginning of the film – the scene where the students are made to lie down and the photographer takes photos – there’s the policeman with the cigarette and the gun. That’s a replication of a very famous image taken during the massacre. These are images that the people in Thailand are very familiar with. Even people who are not so familiar with the massacre would know these images; they’re conditioned in memory, and it’s always there in the back of the story.
But what if you misremember something? A digital image is made up of pixels, so the breaking down of the image is my idea of how you deconstruct your memory.
By the Time it Gets Dark screens on 15 and 18 August.
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