Four things I didn’t learn from Apichatpong Weerasethakul in the Mexican jungle

Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Seth Gabrielsson. (Photo: (Photo: Alicia Corpas/All rights reserved Playlab Films).

In August of this year, I was one of 50 emerging filmmakers who ventured into the jungles of Yucatan, Mexico as a part PLAYLAB’s Creators Lab, an 11-day directors’ intensive led by the iconoclastic Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. We were there to make a film from inception to rough cut and have one of the greatest living filmmakers guide it to fruition. We didn’t really know where we were going, who we would meet or what to expect. The itinerary was kept vague, We were told we’d get all the information we needed upon arrival and to prepare nothing, no ideas or stories, just whatever camera gear we could manage and essentials to protect us from the sweltering heat and bloodthirsty mosquitos.

As filmmakers, we are used to going into unfamiliar terrain. Film has taken me from the top of Mount Sinai to the vast underground sewerage networks of my city, Sydney. It’s not really a big deal, this is part of the job. But always, always you have an idea. The script, the shot list and the schedule are your lifeline. Without it, you’re scuba diving with a tank full of lead.

So we were nervous, naked in Mexico without our ideas, scripts or shot lists, but luckily we had a master to guide us, someone who has made eight feature and 50 short films, who’s won the Palme d’Or, Un Certain Regard and the Jury Prize twice at Cannes. A filmmaker who bends the rules of cinema with the seeming ease and nonchalance of someone telling you what they ate for breakfast. He’s put the credits in the middle of a film, he’s put a tiger up a tree, he’s brought back people from the dead and he’s made multiple films with multiple timelines in multiple time periods. We were going to be fine…

Day one ‘Api’ (as he let us call him) sat us down and explained the theme for this year’s lab: ‘How not to make a film’. A riddle? A mantra? It was delivered to us as more of a question, ‘How do you not make a film?’. Maybe even more baffling was his statement, ‘Maybe we don’t need to make a film at all.’

Confusion rippled slowly around the room. ‘Making a film’ is all we really knew how to do, and now one of our heroes was asking us how not to make one? Or… not to make one?

Maybe he wasn’t interested in us thinking of him as a teacher, as someone to sit at the feet of and diligently notate his epiphanous wisdoms, but as someone to point us in the direction of interesting questions; of what might be possible with a camera and to abandon whatever preconceived notions we had about cinema and start anew. Or maybe he just wanted to forget the film thing and hang out with us for a week.

So in the spirit of ‘how not to make a film’, here are four things I didn’t learn from Apichatpong Weerasethakul in the jungle:

1.  Put banana trees in your films

As a group of international filmmakers, we were rightly trepidatious about telling stories on foreign land. There is an inherent self-consciousness in attempting to tell stories with local people, given our undeniable position of privilege as people who could afford to leave our home countries. We discussed this at length one night after dinner but were bogged down by the heat and our days toiling. The following morning after meditation, Api brought up the issue again, of course, not head-on (that wasn’t his style), but through a curious anecdote. He was fresh off the world tour of his incredible film Memoriastarring Tilda Swinton, his first English-language film shot outside of Thailand in Medellin, Colombia. He told us that in all his previous films, he had made sure there were banana trees in at least one of the frames, as they reminded him of the town he grew up in, Khon Kaen. So when it came to making his film in Colombia, he went out of his way to find a banana tree to put in the frame.

We chuckled. I was reminded of Hitchcock putting himself in the background of his films. But it struck me later that maybe what he was really saying was that when you are in unfamiliar territory, put something familiar in the frame. That the camera could be a tool of personalisation, both a frame for an audience and an extension of the maker’s eye. These lifelines, whether it be a banana tree or a jar of Vegemite, can imbue the film with the sense of the familiar, and if a filmmaker can feel connected personally to the image being created, then maybe that feeling can flow towards an audience.

    2.    A confident director is a dead director

    When we finally did manage to come up with strong enough ideas in those first few days, we had individual meetings with Api to discuss them. We were feeling inspired by our location scouting, and the clouds of confusion were beginning to open up. I told him of my ideas, the things I was thinking about and the direction of my film. As I spoke, he drew in a small notebook; my landscapes, spaces and characters scribbled down in the familiar hand of an architect. He thought for a while before speaking: “Get rid of the characters, you don’t need them.” 

    I tried to imagine my film without any people in it, and asked what kind of emotions could be presented in such a film. He responded by asking what emotions I currently felt. I told him joy, inspired nervousness, and now, confusion.

    Many if not all of us came out of our meeting with our confidence challenged, if not completely dismantled. Like a sort of verbal jiu-jitsu, Api took our ideas and bent them into unfamiliar shapes. It seemed as if he was suspicious of any attachment to an idea, and I recall many long, shattered debriefs with other filmmakers who now felt more lost than ever. There was a slightly charming chaos to it, and with a TV crew it would have made for a hit reality show.

    So I started filming my locations minus characters, unsure exactly to what I was doing. After a while, a few local kids wandered into my frame and started digging a hole in their basketball court. This became the first scene in my film and eventually dictated its entire narrative. In retiring one idea, a new one was allowed to enter. Life began to unspool in front of me and I happened to be there. I found a stride again, confident not necessarily in myself as a creator of ideas, but as someone there to notate and link them, a confidence in the probability of life happening and the camera as a meaningful tool to frame it. He must have known.

    3. “Look at her butt”

    One night at dinner Api took a seat next to me. It’s funny how someone you’ve idolised since a teenager can become so familiar in a matter of days. We spoke a little about books we had in common, and I managed to thank him for our meeting earlier and its impact on my day of shooting. He accepted it, nodding his head, while the staff presented us with our meal.

    When one of the staff members was walking back to the food cart, Api whispered to me,

    “Look at her butt!”

    I didn’t know what to do – was he testing me? He pointed again toward the staff member as she dealt with the plates on the cart. I had to look now. It took me a moment to realise what Api was pointing at, not her behind, but what was in the pocket of her jeans – a little circular halo of light pulsating through the pocket from her mobile.

    “She is like a robot. You can turn her off and on with a button.”

    I laughed, slightly relieved.

    I’m sure this wasn’t some riddle or wisdom about the nature of cinema he was subtly pointing me toward; it was a joke, a little observation, as he was a genuinely funny guy. But still, it’s hard for me not to take most things he said and imbue them with a sort of meaning. Through the eyes of a fan, a person’s body of work can seem to be always floating around them. Scenes you remember swirl into conversation or characters they created perch quietly on their shoulder.

    So, even if I may be overreaching here a little, the “look at her butt” incident has a simple message: look closely at the world around you. A simple thing like a pulsing halo from an iPhone through the back pocket of a pair of jeans can turn someone into a robot if you let it. Maybe in the future it will be the only distinguishing difference between us.

    Which leads me to the fourth thing I did or didn’t learn from Apichatpong in the jungle.

    4. “Art is a pointing tool, to remind us of why we don’t need art”

    For me this was probably the most concrete and epiphanous thing he had said. It came from a realisation he had in an art gallery when he turned his attention away from the art on the wall to how people were interacting with it. He recalled this like he was watching people dancing; unconscious of the wonderfully childlike way they were being pulled around a space by such a simple thing as art, like there were little magnets inside of them and someone was moving them from beyond the walls.

    I found this idea extremely beautiful, that art can point us in the direction of not necessarily understanding life, but seeing it as strange and funny and novel enough that it becomes just as interesting as the art itself. It was an idea I could actually hold onto, a motivation for myself to make films that could do this double function: to connect with in an unconscious way, and to actually direct attention away from the screen and towards how strange and unceasing life beyond the frame can be. Is that why it’s called directing?

    On that first day when Api asked us “Why do we need to make a film?”, he talked of a strange feeling he had that one day he wouldn’t need to make films anymore, and that life would be enough. In such a world, a person wouldn’t need reminders to ‘look at her butt’, they’d just see someone walking by and mistake them for a robot.

    Personally, I don’t long for such a world, I need film to remind me of these things both as a maker and viewer. Also I need a damn career. But that night at a party where we drank mezcal in a pool and someone had just spotted an alligator close by, where one of the filmmakers pointed their purple LED lights into the trees of the jungle above us and we danced to Latin music, movies were, I admit, the last thing on my mind.

    Seth Gabrielsson is a director and composer based in Sydney. The filmmaker would like to thank Estephania Bonnett and PlayLab FILMS for their invitation to the Creators Lab.