Doc film explores Thailand’s AIDS crisis
In Thailand, it is very important to "never lose your face," according to German documentarians Michaela Liechtenstein and Alexander Heuken. The unwritten Thai rule is to smile, never lose your temper or show what’s behind your smile, they say.
Telling the story of AIDS in Thailand, therefore, was a delicate task. "Behind the smiling and polite facades of the Thai faces, a lot of things happen," Heuken observed while covering the subject in his latest film with Liechtenstein. "Our perception [of their] whole system and construction of reputation and stigmas is so complex that it was very hard for us to see through."
Heuken and Liechtenstein’s documentary, "Do you remember Me," featured in the Slamdance Film Festival lineup, follows an HIV-positive, and AIDS-infected family to a place where many ill Thais go to escape societal pressures and stigmas: a Buddhist Temple at Wat Prabat Nampu, considered to be the largest AIDS hospice in Thailand.
The beginning of the film introduces Amnuy in a tearful reunion with her daughter, Nong Plai, a toddler who is living with other sick children in an orphanage. The film then moves backward in time to the entire family alone at home. Amnuy visits the small market she and her husband, Prasert, operated before Prasert learned he was infected. Shelves are empty, and the surfaces are gray with dust. It seems to have been abandoned long ago. Amnuy admits the store has received no business since word spread that she, Prasert, and Nong Plai were infected. Though Amnuy and her youngest daughter, Nong Plai have no obvious symptoms, Prasert, gaunt and riddled with lesions, will not go to a hospital, according to Amnuy. There is no mention of the word AIDs or HIV at the beginning of the filmand the faces are unidentified. The audience is asked to consider the situation without knowing anything other than the fact that this family has lost their source of income and their friends. "The names are not of importance," Liechtenstein explains. "In the beginning you just see a family who has terrible problems and you don’t know why or you are not sure about it. In that way, AIDS is not of importance. It could be any other disease or reason that makes you different and "dangerous" to other people. "The viewer just sees the effect this unknown reason has: total isolation. It is not the disease itself that changed their life total, it’s the reaction of the people…I think that also in our [Western] countries reputation plays a big role When people are afraid they tend to discriminate against others." Adds Heuken, "the way in which Amnuy and her family are stigmatized and isolated is not AIDs-specific. A few hundred years ago, when the plague killed thousands of people in Europe, it was probably the same, soon it could be the Bird Flu That problem has always been and will always be modern to know that they have a "disease" is enough." Toward the end of the film, it is revealed that the father became infected with the virus because of an affair he had with a prostitute. The couple has two other children who, unlike their daughter, are healthy — one son and a daughter by the name of Guy. Guy is the oldest and appears to resent her family’s illness the most. Other children at school refuse to interact with her, though she herself is not infected with HIV. When the family decides to go to the temple, they enter without Guy. Nong Plai soon enters the orphanage nearby for HIV positive children, and those children who have AIDS. The hospice features several types of living areas. There is a place for Amnuy and her family, and a place for those who are near death. The privately funded temple also has an AIDS museum a place where those who have died from AIDS display their corpses alongside photographs of their former, healthier selves. The abbot who founded the hospice says he believes it is important for healthy Thais to witness AIDS in this manner. Thais need to be scared into understanding the seriousness of the epidemic, according to the abbot. "The Thai culture can be so different from ours that it gets really difficult to understand," Liechtenstein says. "I’m quite sure that a hospice like [Wat Prabat Nampu] could never ever be possible in a Western country. Can you imagine a place like that in the U.S. where school classes or military classes are guided through while people are dying, lying around half or totally naked? In Europe, this would be a scandal. For us, arriving there, it was a total shock."
Amnuy chooses, in the end, not to stay at the temple, surrounded by those with more advanced aids. Instead, to make enough money to provide for her children, she moves to Bangkok to work as a housekeeper for a family who does not know she is infected.
Ultimately, Heuken says he hopes the audience will appreciate the moral ambiguity that the family confronts in the film.
"In good Hollywood movies you have the good guys and the bad guys. It is black or white and quite easy In our film, it is not like that. It is not black or white, it is all gray," he explains. "The crucial point is that this is all because of the virus. It makes the people in the film make decisions they wouldn’t normally make. Amnuy has to leave her children behind, but we understand why."
"Do You Remember Me?" will show its North American premiere Saturday, Jan. 21, at 5 p.m. in The Living Room Theater at the Treasure Mountain Inn, 255 Main Street. For more information, visit http://www.slamdance.com.
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