BANGKOK Thailand has racked up more clichés about prostitution than most countries. But in her film "Karaoke Girl", director Visra Vichit-Vadakan goes beyond the typically one-dimensional depictions of the women and lets the social message speak for itself.
Born in the United States and raised in Thailand, she uses a part-reality, part-fiction style with a story based on the life of Sa Sittijun, who moved to Bangkok at age 15 and ended up working as a singer and an escort in a karaoke bar.
"Karaoke Girl", Vichit-Vadakan's first feature film, won the Emerging International Filmmaker award at Britain's Open City Docs Fest in June, garnering praise for how its dream sequences and dramatized scenes are woven seamlessly with interviews with Sa and her family.
The film has also won plaudits for its fresh, insightful look at Thailand's reputation as a playground of the flesh and the lives of women from the country's impoverished northeast who sell their bodies in the big city.
Estimates vary wildly as government data is outdated and many prostitutes go unrecorded. But there is no doubt that Thailand remains a source, transit point and destination for tens of thousands of trafficked women, men and children who end up in the sex industry. Unlike Sa, many feel unable to leave.
Vichit-Vadakan spoke to Reuters about why she was drawn to Sa's story and what it means to be an Asian filmmaker.
Q: As someone who grew up in Bangkok you were aware of the city's red light districts. What stuck with you after filming?
A: I had a very general awareness of the night bar scene growing up but it was merely surface impressions of the women that I would see walking around and stories from my male friends who had participated in the sex industry. Sa invited me into her world and now we are like sisters. So, rather than having a new impression of women in the sex industry, I have a friend who has gone through the process of deciding to go into sex work and is now moving out of it to start a new life.
Q: What made Sa stand out from other bar girls you had talked to prior to filming?
A: We interviewed a lot of girls and many I spoke to seemed disinterested. Sa was easygoing and more trusting. It took me a while to convince her to do the film but eventually she said yes. I also think that she and I just connected.
Q: With "Karaoke Girl" you made the transition from short films to feature films. What were the challenges there?
A: The biggest challenge for me is staying calm and thinking creatively about how you will take an audience through a longer narrative.
Q: How do you feel about the bar girl profession?
A: If a woman feels empowered in her work, that is a great thing and I am supportive of any work that gives her that confidence and strength. Most of the women I interviewed for this film did not feel empowered by their work.
Q: Tell us about the docudrama approach. What were the benefits and what were the challenges?
A: Going into this, I didn't have a plan on what this would be but I was drawn to having a person whose real experience and history were entwined in the fiction. Sa gave me strands of narrative which I took and wove into this film.
This aspect of the film - which I relate to being the "docudrama" approach - is the most important for me. It is the relationship that I have with Sa in real life and Sa on the screen that has made this project special for me.
Q: A song was composed for Sa during filming. Can you tell us about it?
A: In our interviews, Sa said that if she were to dream she would be a singer. I took this cue from her and decided to write her a song that she would perform in the film. The song was composed by a well-known Thai country music composer. When he sang the song to Sa on the telephone, she started crying. She attributes her decision to stop her work to this song.
Q: What are the constraints of being an Asian filmmaker?
A: I don't feel constrained by being Asian. I do feel constrained working in a country like Thailand where there is no freedom of expression. To be optimistic, constraint for an artist can be helpful in the creative process.
Q: What is your next project?
A: I can't say. I'm in the process of writing now and honing my thoughts but it will be another Thai-based feature script.
(Editing by John O'Callaghan)