An Interview with Nontawat Numbenchapol on 'Soil Without Land'

Bare feet resting on dry sandy ground, coarse against the skin, while the sun shines down upon their weathered faces. The young men all gathered around a small old wooden table too small to accommodate their party of seven or eight. Conversations between them take place sporadically as they snack on sunflower seeds, littering the ground with abandoned shells.

This space, shared by a brood of chickens clucking and pecking away at the ground, may not have much but there is a comfortable sense of freedom. Ease translates into their every gesture and decision-making: riding off on their own motorcycles whenever they want, letting the wind caress their being.

This scene left a big impression on me while watching Soil Without Land, a film directed by Thai cinematographer and documentary film maker Nontawat Numbenchapol.

After all, this romanticised notion of freedom is almost immediately juxtaposed by joining the military. The sense of ease is now a privilege experienced by the men in small and controlled moments: shower and meal times. However, this new life of restrictions and enforced discipline may earn them political freedom in the long run - now the question is, will that day come and are these present sacrifices worth it?

The film follows Jai Sang Lod's transition from regular citizen to uniformed soldier. He is a young man whose family is a part of the Shan - Burma's largest ethnic minority group that is displaced from the nation at large. With no identification or passport while living on disputed land, he joins the Shan State Army together with many others like him to learn about manhood and patriotism under military terms. 

An exploration of freedom on a personal and state capacity, as well as how political agendas affect the people on the ground, Soil Without Land shares with its audience the trainings done with the Shan State Army camp while revealing Sang Lod's thoughts from before and after this compulsory rite of passage for a Shan man his age. 

Confronting and a glimpse into uncharted territory for persons such as myself, this documentary got me thinking about how little I know of the world beyond the Foreign Affairs section on the national newspaper. What exactly goes on beyond the reported news, and how much of what I know is curated by a higher authority who dictates what is to be seen or not? And if the media does not report on these happenings, is it as good as them not happening since they may never make it into our collective known history? 

With all these questions, Nontawat Numbenchapol spares some of his time to share his thoughts with SINdie about this particular film. 

How did the title of Soil Without Land come about? 

At first, the working title of this story is NO BOYS LAND. Personally, I like this name. Because the meaning is interpreted in a variety of ways from NO MAN'S LAND or that the boy has no space for himself. But with these various interpretations, some meanings may cause misinterpretation. On some issues, such as the word BOYS, might make people think of CHILD SOLDIERS. 

While finalizing the film, I feel that the land surface and the main color of the film is only soil and dust. The dust and soil that is seen here is not classified as belonging to any country. When I try to play with words, I think the language is quite pretty. So the English title of the film is a direct translation from the Thai title. In the Thai language, if you take out "without" in SOIL WITHOUT LAND, you get "Soil Land" (ดินแดน in Thai) which means territory or country. When this soil is without land and the creature called human that lives on that soil, how does the determining of territories of this world affect them when they are in an area without territory? 

Share with us how you got acquainted with Jai Sang Lod, and how the film was born. 

In 2016, I started this film project during the time that Thailand, a place where I was born and grew up in, is entering into a military dictatorship. Opinions, criticisms and democratic demands at that time were in critical conditions. People have to live without voice and hide from the state. These things pushed me to want to create works that speak about the state of Thailand at that time. But by speaking directly on the military dictatorship government is difficult to do and I may be incarcerated and deprived of their rights and freedoms. So I traveled to the Thai-Burma border highlands in the north of Thailand which I know is an area governed by the Shan State Army to oppose the Burmese military dictatorship. Because I wanted to reflect and understand the administrative structure in a small area ruled by soldiers along with Burmese-Thai politics during that time, it's like switching polarities across Thailand because Burma had just formed an election and obtained the Prime Minister from the election ruled by Aung San Suu Kyi. 

In the Shan State Army camp itself, It was not easy for them trust and allow me to shoot and live with them at first. 

I had to go back and forth from Bangkok to the area for more than six months and teach the people to shoot and edit the video as an exchange. The area is filled with young people growing up without cards or passports. They can't travel anywhere or leaving the area to have a legitimate life. It is also an area that the world has never been aware of or their existence. The only thing that they can do is to be a soldier to claim their freedom and existence from the Burmese government. 

I choose to follow Jai Sang Lod among these young men as his character, intelligence and manner became more prominent than others. Like a first impression in a visual way that makes it easy to shoot. So I try to ask for an interview. Which I really did not interview only Jai Sang Lod but also many others. After talking on the lives of these young soldiers on the mountains, many people tend to live similar stories. Not very different.

Considering that you actually filmed within the Shan State Army’s turf, what was the experience like? 

In my life, I had never been a soldier before. Not just the soldiers, but being in uniform is not my life. In primary and secondary education classes, I was forced to wear the same uniform and short haircuts. I used to protest that at home and school by wearing a cap all the time. Until the teacher at the school had to call my parents. 

As I grew interested in history, politics, and government, I began to feel that the military dictatorship of Thailand today has affected my life. I learned that Thailand was governed more by the military government throughout its democratic history rather than the government from elections of civil servants. 

Therefore, being able to live in a society and this military context is very exciting for me in trying to understand their ways of thinking. And makes it easier to understand the social structure and governance of Thailand, like being in a simulated small area of Thailand. 

But in the context and the condition of that life is not the same. Their lives are somewhat more limited than me. And saw the necessity of the forces that had to protect their people from ethnic wars with the Burmese army. As for the Thai military, sometimes I felt that they try to maintain the monopoly power and use the force for only the people of Thailand. 

In other aspects, there is a lot of heartfelt moments from the two Shan staff members who helped me when filming the soldiers here. They are very cute and easy to speak to. They have discipline, easy to work with, unlike the teams from Bangkok that I need to deal with differently. Most importantly, the view is very beautiful. Like having to rest all the time.

Before watching your film, I personally did not even know about the plight of the Shans. Do you think somehow they are invisible to the rest of the world? 

It's not just you. It's only after I began making this project, I realized that the number of Shan people in Thailand is very high in both legal and illegal migrants. I especially never knew about the area where these Shan migrants came from. When bringing this project to talk to foreign investors, no one knows what we're talking about. They only know about the Rohingya. And for this reason too is why I want to spread their story. I want the world to know of their existence and hope things would be better. 

What is your opinion about the idea of borders between nations and the displacement of people that comes with it? 

I think that in the future, various borders should be thinner and less. Not just about geographic boundaries but as other borders, whether it be sexuality or mutual acceptance of different ideas. The greatest benefit of the existence of borders is the people in the management of resources, both human resources including other resources to manage everything orderly. Which is necessary. But the existence of borders that cause pressure or conflict, whether it is national, religious, or whatever, which often causes a war of not accepting differences is totally obsolete. These things are the ones that have created people who have to live in things that they didn't even create. Like the characters in this movie which live in a way that they should not have to. 

How much of our environment informs our personal identity, and do you think that one can ever escape an identity? 

The environment has a great influence in creating our own identity. "You are what you eat." Countries that want to rule their people, in order to maintain power, often block the rights to freedom of expression, freedom from the media, and blocking their people from the outside world because these things are what will lead people to leave them and create their own identity and individuality which you can choose for yourself. I think these are problems for the dictatorial government because it is difficult to rule. For anyone who has read this interview at this point, from countries that have freedom, may wonder and cannot imagine how being in those restricted worlds are like. Which I hope in the future, everyone will be able to break free from the identity that the authorities puts on to them for ease ruling and to choosing their own identity and accepting the differences in the identity of others.

Singapore has a mandatory conscription for all men from the age of 18 as well. Do you think military conscription should be made compulsory? 

 Absolutely not. Thailand is like this, too. At the age of 21, everyone needs to be recruited by the military by drawing a black card, or a red card. If anyone doesn't want to risk this, at high school, he has to study military subjects for one day every week for two years. Which I felt is very tortuous to have to do something like this. I did not choose to study military at high school and fortunately I caught a black card which means I was exempt from being a soldier. 

I think that voluntary recruitment and by providing appropriate salaries is better for the army than to force the mind. If one has better abilities in other areas and must be a soldier when he needs to be, it would be a waste. And in the Thai military system, the allowance is very small, you wouldn't believe. You can't live in Bangkok or live the way you want with it. 

Do you think this conflict of over 50 years between the Shan and the Burmese military will end anytime soon? 

Everyone hopes for this when Burma had an election and Aung San Suu Kyi was made to rule. But then everything remains the same. Many council systems, soldiers are still in control. Aung San Suu Kyi couldn't do anything. Some people say that she wasn't planning on changing anything for the minorities in her country. She's more interested in other matters because she is still just a Burmese person. As an outsider, I had hoped that the increasing international pressure on these issues will help things improve. Even with the many ceasefire treaties and stuff, the fact is that those people still have the same life which is a life that cannot go forward or unable to go back. I hope that these problems will end soon. We may just not see that day coming yet.

Review and interview by Dawn Teo

The premiere had its international premiere at the international competition section of Visions du Réel in April, one of the oldest renowned documentary film festivals in the world. It will be released in cinemas in Thailand this summer. Look out for it!

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