Hollywood East

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 December, 2007, 12:00am

The Bangkok International Film Festival is caught up in a drama almost as fascinating as the political changes that have swept through the nation in recent months.

Earlier this month, the FBI arrested American couple Gerald and Patricia Green, who have been key executives of the BIFF since 2003, for allegedly paying a bribe of US$1.7 million to the former head of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) for the rights to manage the festival.

International film festivals have always attracted their fair share of intrigue and politics, but it usually involves tempestuous stars, programmers with inflated egos and movies that test censors and audiences with explicit sex and questionable cinematic taste. Things rarely reach the point where criminal charges are laid, with the exception of the odd drug bust or underage canoodling.

Of course, everyone is assumed innocent until proven guilty, so we're not suggesting all the accused are as crooked as they appear at the moment, but if they are, it's a big blow to the credibility of the country's film culture.

Just as up-and-coming filmmakers Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, Nonzee Nimibutr and Apichatpong Weerasethakul are making waves on the world circuit, their capital's attempt to establish itself as a hub of film appreciation is now more compromised than it would have been had it decided to present a Steven Seagal retrospective.

If nothing else, it may serve as a cautionary tale to other festivals and governments.

Entering the festival game far later than most other Asian cities, Bangkok first held the event in 1998, when it was simply called the Bangkok Film Festival. The word 'international' was added to the name in 2002, when it was run by Thai company the Nation Media Group, whose modest efforts were hardly noticed. Then in 2002, the TAT entered the picture as a co-presenter and financial backer.

After that year, which proved acrimonious behind the scenes, the Nation Group split and started another cinematic showcase, the World Film Festival of Bangkok. That event has focused more on independent and emerging filmmakers since it was launched in 2003.

In contrast, the TAT hired American firm Festival Management, operated by the Greens, to run the BIFF. The Greens tried to make the BIFF big and glitzy, bringing in Hollywood celebrities - last year Jeremy Irons and director Joel Schumacher.

However, nobody I have spoken to thinks highly of the festival's programming. To quote the film blog, Kaiju Shakedown: 'It was an excuse for well-connected industry folks to get flown to Bangkok, eat great food, do some shopping and go out with other people on the film festival circuit - all on the Thai government's tab.'

One noted criticism was that, despite all the first and business class tickets, the BIFF didn't even bother to subtitle foreign films to attract Thai audiences.

That all ended this year. After the military coup ousted former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra in September last year, Thai anti-graft agencies started looking into all sorts of areas for evidence of corruption involving him and his cronies.

Shortly after, the governor in charge of the TAT resigned her post and the deal with Festival Management was cancelled. The BIFF's budget was also slashed by more than US$4 million but, curiously, it seemed to receive more positive reviews.

Incidentally, the previous head of the TAT is now denying everything and says this is an internal issue with the American company, even though she has been accused of receiving a bribe.

So, what is the lesson here? Firstly, it might be a good idea for Thais to be put in charge of their country's cultural platforms. But mostly it's another reminder that art and culture should not be left in the hands of politicians and bureaucrats who might know about the superficial glamour and glitz, but wouldn't know the first thing about serious cinema.

In a way, it's perhaps not too different from when Hong Kong's government decided to entrust the American Chamber of Commerce, an enterprise with virtually no experience in presenting live events, with HK$100 million for Harbourfest.

Accountability is not always the first priority of government officials when seduced by the entertainment industry. We're not suggesting any Hong Kong officials involved were corrupt, but perhaps the idea of being photographed with Mick, Keith or Prince might have coloured their

outlook at the time.