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Paying a visit to the doc

A round-up of some of the documentaries soon available for screening

Film critic and historian Peter Von Bagh in Tapio Piraiinen’s film Peter Von Bagh (Finland, 2016).

Documentary films have taken Bangkok by storm. Once neglected, the genre today enjoys the limelight.

Multiplex screenings are often packed, while independent festivals and events showing documentaries have popped up like mushrooms in the past year. From the Bangkok Arts and Culture Centre (BACC) and hip galleries to the Foreign Correspondents' Club, it seems as though every cultural institution in town must have its own docs programme.

On Saturday, the Salaya International Documentary Film Festival will return for its seventh edition -- a week of documentary screenings held at the BACC and the Thai Film Archive in Salaya, Nakhon Pathom.

Japanese-American Zen monk Henry Mittwer in Zen & Bones (Japan, 2016), by Takayuki Nakamura.

A pioneer, the Thai Film Archive -- organiser of the festival -- has been bringing independent documentaries to Thailand before they were cool. Initially, those who made the journey out to Salaya were diehard cinephiles and art lovers. But a couple of years ago, they were joined by new faces with a budding interest in documentaries.

The creation in 2014 of the Documentary Club, an outfit that screens documentaries in cinemas more accustomed to hosting blockbuster films, has evidently helped popularise the form.

"Now that Thai audiences have acquired a bit of a taste for documentaries, we want to push things a notch further," says Chalida Uabumrungjit, programmer of the Salaya documentary festival.

The films are definitely edgier, she adds, different from those screened at multiplexes.

Helsinki, Forever (Finland, 2008), directed by Peter Von Bagh.

This year, we look forward to a selection of Southeast Asian documentaries, as well as movies about people who love movies. Four films, chosen for their unique viewpoints on people with disabilities, will also be screened.

"Most Thais have a strong bias against documentaries," Chalida argues, with many people viewing them as uniform and, well, plain boring.

Bit by bit, audiences have come to understand that these films have their place in cinemas, too -- not just on educational TV.

However, she finds the movies' success often depends on their central theme. Documentaries about music stars Amy Winehouse (Amy) or the band Oasis (Supersonic) gathered many fans. Then, what about the rest? "With the Salaya Documentary Festival, we want to show people how diverse documentaries can be."

Where more and more fiction films are based on real stories, documentary filmmakers have mastered novel narration techniques.

"They get really creative, deconstruct stories, make use of various viewpoints to create tension," Chalida says. "It's exciting."

Then sometimes, the story itself unfolds unexpectedly -- including to the director, who must then channel these unpredicted elements. Real life is so dramatic that often scenes from documentaries could never be matched. "Even if you directed or acted out these episodes, you could never match their real-life recording."

An avid cinephile and founder of Bioscope magazine, dedicated to movies, Thida Plitpholkarnpim witnessed the increasing number of documentaries to hit screens abroad.

In Thailand, the Thai Film Archive was already screening non-fiction creations once a year, but she wanted to introduce audiences to new docs by showing them on a regular basis.

In 2014, the Documentary Club was born -- and its growth has been phenomenal.

"It's not like every screening is a success," Thida says. "But we've had many good surprises."

From one screening per day, they've increased their showtimes and held independent events in other venues as well, such as the BACC. The audience followed them there, too.

Many films raise questions that are relevant to society -- attracting people curious about these issues, as well as active members of civil-society organisations, she adds.

"Today, documentary films are more cinematic than in the past, which makes them more appealing to a wider audience."

When people go to the movies, they look forward to being entertained. Therefore, it's important that documentary films shown on the silver screen provide just as much drama and excitement as competing movies.

Documentaries also offer unique perspectives or outlooks into themes and events happening worldwide.

"With the internet, news travels fast. You'll learn about anything that happens within a few minutes, but a documentary film can bring you there," Thida says.

This was the case with the Documentary Club's most popular movie so far -- The New Rijksmuseum -- about the Dutch museum's renovation. People looked at the museum from previously unseen angles.

Similarly, Cartel Land, which examines the drug trade along the US border with Mexico, fulfils a corresponding role, Thida argues. "It's more than investigative reporting. You see the landscapes, portraits of the people involved..."

And just as with fiction films, viewing documentaries in cinemas rather than at home provides a plus. Not only are sights and sounds heightened, but the experience is a collective one, where viewers' emotions add to the on-screen drama.


Highlights of the 7th Salaya International Documentary Film Festival

Fake (Japan, 2016) by Tatsuya Mori follows disgraced "deaf" musician and composer Mamoru Samuragochi — once hailed as "Japan's Beethoven" — after news broke out that his works were written by another. And that he could hear perfectly well, too.

  • Tomorrow (1pm) at the Thai Film Archive
  • Wednesday (7pm) at BACC

In Glittering Hands (Korea, 2015), director Lee-kil Bo-ra films the life of her family. She and her brother were born to deaf parents although both have no disability of their own. Usually, such films would involve interpreters to translate the sign language but the director's unique position allows for an intimate look into their lives.

  • Monday (1pm) at the Thai Film Archive
  • Wednesday (5pm) at BACC

Helsinki, Forever (Finland, 2008) is a tribute to the Finnish capital by Finnish director, film critic and historian Peter Von Bagh. The documentary uses footage from both well-known and forgotten Finnish films, displaying Von Bagh's cinephilia and astute editing.

  • Thursday (5pm) at BACC

Zen & Bones (Japan, 2016) is a portrait of an American-Japanese Zen monk, an unconventional 93-year-old man with a love of movies.

  • Thursday (6.30pm) at BACC

Peter Von Bagh (Finland, 2016) is a documentary by Tapio Piirainen on the film historian and head of the Finnish Film Archive (and director of Helsinki, Forever), who passed away in 2014.

  • Saturday (3pm) at the Thai Film Archive

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