Cutting, banning, blurring, putting vaseline on strategic body parts-- these practices by a few men with power to make judgments for the rest of the country and to promote empty morality and decency must end, especially in a time when the new constitution is being hyped as a newfound paragon of freedom and democratic advancement.
Film censorship is a primitive manifestation of authoritarian exercise which not only does a great disservice to the improvement of our cultural environment, but also makes Thailand a laughing stock in the eyes of foreign communities, which have long adopted the more rational, though still not perfect, system of film rating. The gist of the embarrassment lies in the fact that the Thai legislation used to govern film censorship in 2007 remains the one written in 1930, two years before this country underwent its historic shift to a constitutional monarchy and before the concept of democracy was formally inducted in this land. Article 4 of the Film Act 1930 stipulates that no screenings should be permitted for films that "may be detrimental to the state of peace, order and moral decency''. Such open wording has left an enormous gap for negative interpretations for 77 years, and the successive government agencies in charge of supervising film screenings have always cited this article in deciding what the audience can or cannot see. But it is getting increasingly difficult for the Censorship Board -- chaired by the police and including rotating representatives of cultural and academic bodies -- to justify their seemingly arbitrary decisions. The recent uproar over the acclaimed arthouse film Saeng Satawat (or Syndromes and a Century) exposes the inefficiency, if not complete bankruptcy, of the existing censorship regime. The censors are not happy with four scenes in the film -- a monk strumming a guitar; two monks playing with a radio-controlled flying object; a group of doctors drinking whisky; and a doctor kissing his girlfriend and a subsequent shot of his trousers in the area of his crotch.
For those who have seen Saeng Satawat, these images carry no defamatory ill-will to doctors and monks and are much less detrimental to "decency'' than the vulgar images and crude expletives dispensed gleefully in other Thai films that passed the censors, not to mention a shot of a woman dyeing her pubic hair in the Dutch movie Black Book, or the bloody decapitation in 300. By making this comparison, we are not saying that the dyeing of pubic hair or the gruesome beheading should have been scissored out. But it is imperative that the government open its eyes and get in touch with reality as reflected by an art form such as film, and to modernise the system that ensures both fairness and the right of artists to express their vision.
The censorship board has lost the moral authority from its many demonstrations of bias and mediocrity that it can no longer rely on the magic mantra that what it is doing is protecting the young from bad influences and safeguarding the glory of Thai culture. Such claims sound more and more ludicrous since what we see on television every day is much more shocking than any scene in Saeng Satawat, and since a number of Thai films thriving on rudeness can open without objection on 300 screens.
In an ideal world, nothing should be cut or banned and people should be encouraged to make their own judgment on the representations of virtue and vice as projected by any medium. In a less ideal world, a mode of semi-voluntary censorship like the film rating system should be applied. Film rating, which classifies audience access to screenings according to their age, allows a greater degree of artistic freedom and at the same time is a mechanism for preventing children from being exposed to sensitive material. True, we can imagine a long list of headaches that will arrive with the rating system -- the multiplex operators are likely to oppose it, for a start -- but it has proved workable in many countries; it is a system more in tune with the democratic spirit this country has long been paying lip service to. The current, unreasonable censorship practice must be abolished at once.