Ιnterview with Sompot Chidgasompongse: Railway Sleepers is the celebration of little moments

We speak with Sompot Chidgasompongse about Railway Sleepers, trains, Thailand, his collaboration with Weerasethakul and many other topics

Born in Bangkok, Thailand, in 1980. He studied Architecture in Bangkok, and Film/Video at the California Institute of the Arts. Since then, he has worked several times as an assistant director to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and has made 14 short films. He took part in the Berlinale Talents in 2014 as a director and editor. "Railway Sleepers" is his first feature-length film.

On the occasion of the film screening at Bertha DocHouse on Sunday, 27 August at 18:20, as part of On The Line, (25th - 28th August) a new season focusing on films which traverse the railways of the world, we speak with him about the film, trains, Thailand, his collaboration with Weerasethakul and many other topics.

You started your career with a critically acclaimed play, "You're Gorgeous, Dear,". Can you tell us a bit about that, and the path that led you to the film industry?

It was a play I co-wrote with my close friend, Panu Trivej, when we were still in college. I was studying Architecture for my bachelor degree back then. We both never had any formal art education but we both love play, movie, literature, dance, or basically any kind of art in general. In Thailand, there’s an annual national competition for stage plays called ‘Sod Sai’ award, for university students. We submitted our script and we won. Then they gave us some money to produce an actual play out of the script, and we won the best play again. But we didn’t direct the play ourselves. We asked our friends who had more experiences in directing plays to do it. I knew that I wanted to be a filmmaker more than an architect. So after graduation, I began working as in intern for Apichatpong Weerasethakul. He was the one opening doors to the film industry for me.


Why did you decide to shoot a documentary about trains? Do you love riding trains? What is the situation with the railway system in the country at the moment? 

I’ve always loved trains, but I wouldn’t say that I had many personal connections with it. The idea began when I was studying at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) for my MFA. I took a train to cross the city and I witnessed a conversation between a Mexican boy and his father. The kid would point out of the window and the father would answer the kid’s questions. I felt like I understood the conversation even though I didn’t know any Spanish. It reminded me when I traveled with my parents when I was young, and I wanted to capture that kind of moment in a film, but in Thailand.

The railway system in Thailand has been in a slow progress of development. The department doesn’t make much money. Now the speed train is in development, despite many arguments and criticism regarding the way the decisions were made.

It took you eight years to shoot this documentary. Why so long? How much footage did you gather in these years, and how much time did you spend editing it? 

It took me about 8 years to shoot and edit. The film is the celebration of little moments. These snippets of life can be put together in so many ways. So it took me a long time to try to find the right structure, and also how to string everything together in a way that seems natural, but still be able to convey bigger messages. Also, it took me a long time to get funding for the post-production.


How hard was it to come up with the footage presented in the film? 

It required a lot of patience. Everyday you go on the trains, hoping to get some interesting footage. Since the film doesn’t follow anyone in particular, you have to encounter new faces everyday. And you have to spend a lot time with the passengers, so they can feel comfortable in front of the camera. And you wait a long time for interesting little moments to come out from life. Those moments you just have to wait, sometime for a very long time.

The documentary uses the train to show a number of aspects of Thai society. Was that one of your initial purposes? There is a woman selling books to the passengers according to their year of birth. Can you explain this? 

The initial idea was only to record little kids traveling with parents and see what kind of questions they would ask. But once I got on the trains, I realized that there were so many other interesting things going on. And when you look deeper, all these things can portray the spirit of the country as a whole. Just by shooting on the train, you can reveal so much about our society. The women selling the fortune books, for example, many of us Thai believe in this kind of things. It’s very common for us.

The passengers include Buddhist monks and veiled, Muslim women, highlighting the multicultural aspect of both the train and the Thai society. Can you tell us bit about this co-existence of religions and cultures? 

Over 90% of Thai are Buddhists. Then there’re Christians and Muslims. The majority of Muslim people live in the south of Thailand. So when the train goes to the South, suddenly the whole train seems to be all Muslim. It’s really beautiful in the south, but unfortunately, not many people from other parts of the country go visit the area. There are many religious and political conflicts going on there. For the past 10 years or so, they’ve been many bombings. That’s why you see soldiers with gun patrolling everywhere in the south, even on the trains.


Tell us a bit about the British you talk to at the end of the film. the dialogues seemed kind of surrealistic.

It’s getting late at night, and you start to talk about your past, about your life. But then the morning comes, and you’re not sure if you were dreaming or not. The British character was constructed from real historical figures who have worked on Thai trains since the very beginning. They were all dead by now, so I needed to re-create the character. The dialogues were also based on actual academic studies, historical research, oral-histories, diaries of many people. I wanted to create a dreamlike feeling where you cannot be sure what is real and what is not. History is also like that.

You have collaborated with Apichatpong Weerasethakul a number of times, and he is also the producer of Railway Sleepers. Tell us a bit about your years with him, and your partnership in this film.

I worked with him as an intern beginning with his ‘The Adventure of Iron Pussy’. Then I begun working as his assistant director in films like ‘Tropical Malady’, ‘Syndromes and a Century’, ‘Cemetery of Splendour’. I still work with him today. He’s been both my boss, my mentor, and my brother. And yes, he’s also the producer of ‘Railway Sleepers’ as well. He’s been very hand-off on this film artistically. He would give me comments when I showed him the rough cuts, but he always said that this is my film, not his film. He wants me to make the film I want to make.

What is the situation with the Thai film industry at the moment?

We have more independent films made by younger generations. But the industry as a whole is still lacking diversities in terms of contents and artistic explorations. Most films produced here are comedies and horrors, since they seem to be the only genres that make money. But of course, not all of them are successful. Only a handful of films each year make money. It’s hard to find bigger audiences for films that deviate themselves from the norm. So the same things are made over and over again. But I guess this happens everywhere in the world. Filmmakers in Thailand have to fight to get films made on our own without much supports.

Which are your favorite filmmakers/movies?

This is a tough question because there’re so many filmmakers and movies that I love. To name some, I would say these directors and their films.  Apichatpong Weerasethakul (of course), Abbas Kiarostami, James Benning, Yasujirō Ozu, Satyajit Ray, Edward Yang, Isao Takahata, Tsai Ming-liang, Robert Beavers, Raymond Depardon, Pedro Costa, and many others.

What are your plans for the future?

I hope to keep making more documentaries, what they are about is still to be determined. Also, I’m trying to explore fiction form more. I love fiction films, and I’ve made many hybrid shorts, but I’ve never made a total fiction. I’m practicing my writing skill now.

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Asian Film Vault: Ιnterview with Sompot Chidgasompongse: Railway Sleepers is the celebration of little moments
Ιnterview with Sompot Chidgasompongse: Railway Sleepers is the celebration of little moments
We speak with Sompot Chidgasompongse about Railway Sleepers, trains, Thailand, his collaboration with Weerasethakul and many other topics
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