New York’s New Museum is exhibiting internationally acclaimed, Thai filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s multi-platform video installation Primitive — an ambitious work that raises the links between class struggle and memory through a pronouncedly reflexive cinematic vocabulary that reinstates early cinema and classical film theory’s interrogations around the moving image as constituting a representation of ‘reality.’ This is a crucial intervention in the medium of moving image at a time when boundaries between fiction and faction, commercial and home movie are increasingly understood as having been dissolved. While in the Western hemisphere as in the neo-liberal mediascapes of postcolonial societies, such as in South and Southeast Asia, this dissolution of boundaries has translated into celebratory discourses claiming the democratization of moving image media and technology; Weerasethakul’s Primitive problematises dominant and normative visual cultures transported under the aegis of ‘globalisation.’ It presents a site-specific vocabulary (site understood both geographically and historically) through which we are emphatically alerted to the naivety in claims of digital media as democratic. Primitive makes critical observations and raises incisive questions about the scope and extent of working class struggles that do not necessarily translate into desired revolutions. How do people live after their voices and relationships to their environments have been brutally repressed? What legends and practices do they conjure to make meaning out of their existence? And how can digital media enter such contexts preserving the integrity of the voices and experiences repressed by the incessant, onward march of History?
Primitive is set in Thailand’s farming village, Nabua that in the 1960-70s was the seat of clashes between the Thai military and communist-sympathizing farmers. The tensions peaked so high they altered the demographic profile of the region. Though Weerasethakul enters this community a generation after the clashes here have subsided, Primitive resonates with recent confrontations between the Thai military and Bangkok’s working classes, many of who hail from rural communities such as Nabua. Primitive was conceived during the research for Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall Past Lives (2010) that won the prestigious 2010 Palme d’or Prize at Cannes. In Primitive Weerasethakul recruits and follows a group of young Nabua men, mostly teenagers, to explore and share how they experience their landscape and the social and political history that has shaped it. Primitive includes eight works — each dwelling on aspects of life and activities performed by the work’s characters. On one screen Weerasethakul closely follows the process of building a spaceship that will allow its travelers to navigate ‘past’ and ‘future’ — two temporal categories that heavily impregnate the Nabua community’s present. The spaceship is an anchoring theme that links Primitive’s thinly tied videos together. An Evening Shoot sees some young militia practice shooting and killing. In Nabua Song we hear an inspiring folk song calling for liberation and justice. Primitive’s images are sensuous as a thoughtful camera dwells on the details of weather, colour and embodied experience, evoking a lush landscape and people’s relationship with it. At the same time Weerasethakul’s images make for demanding viewing. We are consistently and consciously distanced from what we see. This is not merely on account of cultural difference but because of the very cinematic vocabulary that Weerasethakul deploys. In some works editing results in unconventional shot durations that make it uneasy to sustain attention thereby resisting scopophillic pleasure towards this site that easily lends itself to an orientalist visual imaginary. In some images elements such as smoke, fire, lightening and its sounds push us into the realm of a disorienting fantastical. Many images are shot in twilight or the dark hours of night — thereby straining viewers’ identification with the profilmic. In I Am Still Breathing, the camera is riotous as it follows the young men run and board a lorry on which they sing and dance. Shaky and close-up Weerasethakul finely executes this piece to share in the collective energy of the film’s subjects, containing the handheld camera from slipping into commonplace, anti-mainstream conventions.
Observing the young men through a range of activities — some foreign, others common, we are positioned to appreciate Nabua and its people on their own terms. This is more than an ethnographic prerogative for the emic or insider view. Many images are accompanied by conversations or gestures that reference the site’s chequered political history. These references are always oblique and suggestive. On many instances we are witness to long durations of actions such as lightening, music, sleep, eating, games. These long durations are as punctuated with spontaneity as they are laden with idleness. Cumulatively they allow us to appreciate how memory permeates the young Nabua men’s sense of masculinity. As viewers we are constructed to both witness actions we see, and to follow those indirect, shared sentiments — anticipation, anxiety, loss, absence, idleness, energy — that quietly yet heavily linger in the air. As we navigate between what we literally see and the obliquely referenced our viewing contract is pushed out of a comfortable realm of looking into a position where we are compelled to ask of the images we see, whether they are real or imaginary; fiction or faction; or both.
Weerasethakul’s cinematic vocabulary is clearly reflexive. Exaggerated durations, explicit cutting, distanced tracking shots juxtaposed with handheld camera — these are some of the common techniques we have seen in a range of world cinema contexts that surface in Primitive. But Primitive’s reflexivity exceeds, both ontologically and philosophically, the reflexive impulse as understood in classical and political modernist film theory and discourse. In Phantoms of Nabua we follow the group of boys playing football in the night. The ball is on fire. In the background is a screen depicting the very scene we are seeing, subtly resonant with Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera (1929). At one instance in the game, the ball is kicked towards the screen and the screen catches fire. Eventually, it fully burns and the image of what we were seeing on the screen disappears. This moment edges a sensation of violence upon the viewer. We are pushed from the realm of seeing the represented representation, back to the primary representation. Is this a choreographed accident? Is Weerasethakul gesturing the death of cinema, positioning it as coincidental with the contradictions of working class struggles? Not literally because the light of the back projector continues — peering directly and sharply at the viewer’s eyes. Moving shadows, the shadows of the Nabua men who we see on screen — remain.
Cinema is the dance of shadows. As Primitive resituates the viewer into this most elementary feature of the medium, we can understand that the work’s title — Primitive, is an acute rewriting of colonial imperatives; a rewriting that disassembles ‘global’ mass mediated visual cultures that often support an orientalist imaginary. It is as if in Weerasethakul the deconstruction of cinema collapses into and cannot be performed without the deconstruction of dominant, colonially-inflected visual cultures. These are not two separate projects — one is the relief imprint of the other. Primitive does not grieve over or valorize the working class disposition. Nabua, its people and their histories are not objectified, ordered or presented in any didactic or determinist terms of reference. Many postcolonial and minoritarian cinema cultures suffer and fail by regurgitating the very codes of representation that they set out to critique. Primitive is a marked contrast, a unique formal approach free from any celebratory or determined notions of local politics and visual aesthetics. It concludes claiming that a people-centered cinema is as responsive to working class consciousness as it is active in deconstructing its own means and mechanisms of production. This is tightly in line with Vertov’s practice, but in Weerasethakul the euphoria surrounding post-revolution Moscow that characterized Vertov has been fully replaced by the irreconcilable contradictions of postcoloniality. As one leaves the installation, one cannot but be reminded of La Sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon whose focus on workers has appealed generations of Marxist film critics. Primitive continues the promise of that cinematic instance from 1895 and neither art history nor film theory can afford to overlook this work.