‘Our Future Has Been Lost’ : ‘Breaking the Cycle,’ Thai Doc Charting Rise and Fall of Country’s Pro-Democracy Parties, Gets Rare Theatrical Release

Thailand has some of the most comfortable cinemas in the world, but a film release slate that rarely strays far from the mainstream – mostly Hollywood tentpoles and Thai commercial titles – leaving art-house and documentaries short shrift

Published Time: 06.06.2024 - 18:31:38 Modified Time: 06.06.2024 - 18:31:38

Thailand has some of the most comfortable cinemas in the world, but a film release slate that rarely strays far from the mainstream – mostly Hollywood tentpoles and Thai commercial titles – leaving art-house and documentaries short shrift.

So, the Thursday arrival in Thai cinemas of a documentary feature is a welcome exception to the rule. The politically-charged “Breaking the Cycle,” by Aekaphong Saransate and Thankrit Duangmaneeporn, then is aptly named.

Having had its premiere at Hot Docs in Canada, it now opens on 150 screens across Thailand, in movie houses controlled by the Major Cineplex and SF Cinemas duopoly.

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The film is pitched as “capturing the political awakening among Thais after the rise and fall of Thanathorn, a young politician who calls to end the cycle of coups d’etat in the 2019 election.”

More than that, it is a portrait of the generational, social and aspirational divide between a social media-savvy younger population and Thailand’s intensely conservative ruling class, which controls all the levers of power.

The film is also a diary of just how close the inexperienced, but highly-motivated, generation of political novices twice came close to grabbing power and using it to install a more democratic system of governance. Both times they were betrayed and over-powered by slippery allies and undermined by tactically-deployed lawfare.

The film’s central character is Thanathorn, a charismatic and wealthy young businessman who says he was frustrated by the cycle of coups d’etat – Thailand has endured 13 successful ones and 20 different constitutions in the past 100 years – and the culture of fear these induced. The country, he believes, belongs to its people, not the military, and could do better being run for the benefit of the many.

It documents Thanathorn’s establishment of the Future Forward Party only a few years after the 2014 coup and its madcap idea of contesting the 2019 general election. Rapidly gathering a personal following and finding a generational resonance with his policies – reform the constitution, send the military back to barracks – he and a group of highly diverse (mostly) first-time politicians achieve a stunning result.

But they are undermined by the Thai parliament’s upper chamber (the Senate), which is structurally stacked in favor of the military, and by a Constitutional Court which doubles down by disbarring Thanatorn from politics for 10 years. Publishing an in-flight magazine puts him in breach of regulations against being a media owner. And he was deemed to have poured too much of his own money into Future Forward. The Constitutional Court then ordered that Future Forward party officially be dissolved.

“This kind of film has never been made in Thailand. We were initially hired by the Future Forward party to make a small video for an event. But we were struck by the statistics about the coups and were impressed by a small party trying to make a big impact,” Saransate and Duangmaneeporn said on Saturday at the film’s Thai premiere in downtown Bangkok. “Thanathorn had no involvement in our fil -

m. Once we decided to make it, he introduced us to the party and told us to get on with it.”

“We saw our project as being in the mold of ‘Joshua’ a documentary about student politician Joshua Wong in Hong Kong and started making our film not knowing where it would end. Later it became a duty. We didn’t know any better,” the first-time filmmakers said.

The pair self-funded the doc for the first three of the six years it took them to make it. Later, it attracted support from Tan Ean Kiam Foundation, the Singapore International Film Festival, SEA-DOC, Purin Pictures and White Light Studio. Other credits go to Pop Pictures, DMZ Docs and Docs by the Sea. Tanawat Sombatwattana and Komtouch ‘Dew’ Napattaloong are credited as producers.

“After such a long process, letting other people – festival selectors, censors and cinema chains – make decisions about our film was hard for us, the co-directors said.

After its Hot Docs debut, “Breaking the Cycle” played last month at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Next week, it travels on to the U.K.’s Sheffield DocFest.

“The festival platforms were great, but honestly the film didn’t feel finished until we brought it home to Thailand,” the pair said on Saturday. “And the wide release in theaters will be its real finish line.”

“The dissolution of Future Forward finally gave our film an ending,” Saransate and Duangmaneeporn said without irony. However, they also gave it a second segment, or long coda, which depicts how last year, the successor party Move Forward suffered a similar fate.

Move Forward and its charismatic young leader Pita Limjaroenrat came first in a landslide at the 2023 general election, defeating and surprising the general-turned politician and author of the 2014 coup Prayut Chan-ocha.

But the new party was unable to form a government after intervention by the court, the blocking vote of the senators and the actions of its opportunist former allies.

It remains to be seen what will happen to the democracy movement in Thailand. The filmmakers suggested that some things can never be retrieved and framed the 10 years since the last coup as a lost decade.

“Young people have had to grow up with the NCPO the military government and its civilian successor. Some have died by suicide. Others have lost their youth in prison. The waste is that our future has been lost,” said Saransate and Duangmaneeporn.

After watching the film for the first time on Saturday, Thanathorn said, “I’d be happy if our party is a footnote in history, if there is a bigger change. Thailand is now in the process of appointing new senators. Has the cycle been broken? We still have to work within the 2017 constitution. But there remains some hope.”

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