Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Looking for the 'Thai touch'


Looking for the 'Thai touch'


At the tender age of 25, French-born Samira Zaibat is a correspondent for the prestigious Semaine de la Critique a Cannes (SIC), Cannes Film Festival's International Critic's Week. She is also the youngest member of the committee responsible for selecting films for the festival.

Regarding her age in an industry where many are a lot older and have years of experience, she acknowledged she is unfazed in such an environment. "People always ask me the question about my age, and I'm used to it being a curiosity," she said wryly.

Zaibat received a master's degree in Conception and Implementation of Projects from the Sorbonne in 2005. Over the past two years she has concentrated on worldwide media, and that experience enabled her to become involved with the Cannes Film Festival, and helped her gain her present position as one of the people responsible for choosing films by new directors to take part in the annual event.

Zaibat made the point that it is just survival instinct to mature quickly in her chosen career, otherwise people may not respect her opinions due to her youth. It is necessary for her to be on par with her colleagues and to understand their mentality, she added.

The festival committee comprises French film critics who are familiar with the international industry, and many work for French publications such as Film Francais and Telerama.

She was recently in Thailand to seek out new directors and films to screen at the festival, and she was keen to find films that could showcase Thai culture to an international audience. It was her first time here and Zaibat said that she was eager to understand the culture and to decipher how the Thai mentality is expressed in film.

During her stay she visited the French Embassy and Alliance Francaise, as well as speaking with many people in the entertainment industry in her hunt for new directors. Zaibat said that she wants to return in the near future and follow up on her search for independent Thai directors.

"We are looking for the 'Thai touch' in films, but of course the films have to talk to us as well," she explained. Zaibat and her committee travel around the world looking for new independent films. She concentrates on Asia, Australia, South America and Africa, and is the SIC correspondent in each country.

"We want to see the Thai way of thinking and how it is expressed in Thai people's interactions with the rest of the world," she explained when asked to clarify her idea of what exactly the "Thai touch" was that she hoped to find.

She normally travels to Korea, India and China, but with the rising market for films in Thailand she said that now is an opportune moment for international audiences to be introduced to Thai films.

Zaibat explained further that each country's identity is reflected differently on-screen, and this expression is wholly unconscious for each culture, and for each director. National identity is easily recognisable in a country's collection of films, she acknowledged, and a good quality film is able to capture this without falling prey to cultural stereotypes.

"In the past there were only a few Thai films at the festival, because it's difficult to find them, which is a shame," she said. "I'm sure that there is a new wave of Thai directors, using new images and new ways to create films. Frankly you can talk about frogs or women's issues, I don't care, because you must be an artist first and foremost."

SIC was created in the '60s to promote up and coming directors, allowing them the chance to compete with experienced directors and not feel intimidated. Many internationally renowned directors were given their first introduction to a global audience by being screened at the Cannes Film Festival.

Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai is one of the notable Asian directors who was discovered by SIC, and has now established himself in the industry as a prolific director of art house films, all due to the recognition gained from his film Chun gwong cha sit (Happy Together), that was screened at the festival.

Returning to Thailand's presence at the festival, independent Thai director Pen-Ek Ratanaraung is one of few Thais who has taken part in this elite event. His film Monrak Transistor (Transistor Love Story) was shown at the 2002 festival, where it opened the Directors' Fortnight event.

Zaibat was very specific in what she looks for in an independent film. "No Hollywood or Bollywood films for us. Wang Kar Wai is not what we are looking for any more. 'Happy Together' [Chun gwong cha sit] and 'In the Mood for Love' [Fa yeung nin wa] was what we were looking for in the past. We recently awarded him a Lifetime Achievement award," she said of the 51-year-old director.

When asked about how films are selected and approved by her committee, Zaibat laughed and confessed that it is very difficult to remain objective in her job, because it is human nature to base opinions on first impressions.

Your first impression can help you decide if a film is noteworthy or not, because the details presented at the beginning of each story reflect the goals of the director. "Therefore," Zaibat said, "it's the start of a film that is important, rather than the middle or even the end, contrary to popular thinking.

"The first 15 minutes are very important when we [the committee] are watching a film. You have to understand that we are watching a lot of films and we don't have the time to watch the whole of a film," she explained.

Broaching the subject of what makes a good film, she explained that it must be artistic and reflect the identity and culture of the country it comes from. But many directors colour their films with too much music and emotion as a means of capturing the audience's attention, and too much of anything in a film can destroy the plot, she said.

"After 15 minutes you can tell if a film is good or bad. I try to be objective, but it's very difficult. The last film I saw had too much music in it, which isn't good. Sometimes directors use music to fill awkward moments in their films before returning to the dialogue. Too much emotion is not good, too," she explained.

Regarding the romance of her job, and being intimately involved behind-the-scenes of the festival, Zaibat acknowledges that her career is a profession like anything else. SIC receives roughly 1,000 films each year; however, only around 20 features, short films and documentaries are selected for screening.

"I'm in a room from 8am to 9pm, watching films non-stop. That's my job," she said with a laugh. "It's not fair for me to chose each film by myself, so there are five other people who decide with me, and then the committee selects the final films."

It is evident that Zaibat's youth has not hindered her career, and in her situation it can be an advantage, and she brings a fresh perspective to a festival renowned for its influence on the entertainment industry. She knows the future remains unwritten, but she is happy to continue working as film critic, and continue with her passion for watching stories unfold on the silver screen.

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