Make Yourself Disappear: Acclaimed Filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul Visits Lenfest

Emily Johnson
May 23, 2023

A jungle, at night. From a vantage point far back in the trees, we are watching a woman filming a music video for a romantic pop song with a weirdly catchy samba rhythm. The rest of the frame is the black forest; only the camera and lighting equipment is visible at the edges of the beam of spotlight, which is so bright it washes out the woman’s features. She is joined by backup dancers wearing white gloves and capri pants, who move their limbs with a childlike, somnambulant grace; up up; down down. It goes on for four minutes.

This is the opening scene from Worldly Desires (2005) by celebrated filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which screened on Sunday April 30, 2023 at the Lenfest Center for the Arts as part of a slate of Weerasethakul’s shorts. Born in Bongkok and raised in Khon Kaen, Thailand, Weerasethakul has won every major prize at Cannes, most recently the 2021 Cannes Jury Prize for Memoria, starring Tilda Swinton. As part of the To Transform series of public programming at Lenfest, Weerasethakul joined Film and Media Studies Professor Richard Peña for a post-screening discussion and Q&A. 

To watch several of a filmmaker’s projects at once is to recognize the language of their cinema. You become attentive to the patterns and ideas that move them. You begin to think with total confidence, as I now do, “Oh that’s so Weerasethakul.”

Worldly Desires takes place in and around a jungle film set, or possibly two. The music video is being filmed, and also a romantic drama, a couple fleeing through the forest. The film crew is always present, adjusting equipment, fetching water, watching the romance unfold on a monitor; Weerasethakul lingers with them, watching them chatting, joking, smoking, working. 

There’s an element of silliness, of play, brought out by their presence. He cuts from the dramatic dialogue of the lovers— “We must hurry, if the sun comes up—” to the crew talking about how they should apply to be electricians; “But electricians get paid well. They only hire handsome men.” 

The presence of a visible camera, the crew as a frame for the scene; it’s a motif that recurs across several of these shorts, like The Anthem (2006), Mobile Men (2008), and Footprints (2012). We never lose the awareness that we are watching something that has been made. 

Weerasethakul described his approach to shorts as a practice of intuition and sensing. “Most of the time I spend on short films, I spend on set with other people…just to be there, and then you sense the rhythm…“It’s like building a life, you’re making a life. It needs its own heartbeat. You need to find that—what is the heartbeat to give to this thing?”

He was soft spoken, quietly funny, honest, and thoughtful. If he didn’t remember something, he said so. He would make a gentle, contemplative humming sound each time he concluded a point, closing his own quotation. 

“It’s really about not thinking.” He said he’d met many students on this trip to the U.S., and often they talked to him about their projects and pre-shoot concepts. “‘This film is not going to be like this, it’s not going to be like that’—and I said, how do you know?

“Just start. Stop thinking about style. Just be there, listen, and make yourself disappear,” he said. “Sketch, or do whatever [you need to do] to understand, to put yourself in the location…What’s the weather at the time, what’s the mood of the people you work with? Film is living, filmmaking is living.”

The beauty of being present, listening, and noticing is all over these films. Weerasethakul watches people’s simplest actions—stretching, drinking, snacking—and listens to their simple conversations. Soundscapes are incredibly detailed. He watches the trees as if they were a person speaking. 

Weerasethakul spoke about collaborating with his longtime DP Sayombhu Mukdeeprom: “He and I prefer natural light. If you put me in a studio, I’m frozen, I don’t know how to do it. The outdoors is more active, more living. It’s about talking with the sun, and how it moves…That really activates me, I enjoy working like that, just being alert all the time.”

This alertness and willingness to linger gives Weerasethakul’s films a languid, unhurried pace. Even the most energetic in rhythm are not in a rush to get anywhere, like Ghost of Asia (2005) a collaboration with filmmaker Christelle Lheureux. On a rocky coastline, children are giving directions to a man—or rather, the titular Ghost. We only hear their eager, peremptory voices, and watch the man following their commands at a ludicrously funny timelapse, “Catch a fish,” “Shoot a bird,” “Go to sleep,” “Climb a watermelon tree…And…and pick…pick flowers.” “Eat the trash,” one says excitedly. “That’s enough,” says the other. Quick cuts, a loony electronic score, and the absolute pliability of the Ghost gives the game a deadpan comedy of which the children are the directors. Their game is filmmaking itself.

On Blue (2022) is another Weerasethakul film that takes place among trees at night. A spotlight in the darkness illuminates a landscape painted on canvas hung from a frame, like theater scenery. With aching slowness, it begins to roll up, drawn by a squeaking pulley and unseen hands, revealing another landscape beneath. Rolling and unfurling, overlapping and getting tangled, these two canvases dance, without dialogue or music, without anyone but the camera to watch. The landscape shots are interspersed with a woman asleep in her bed, while jungle noises play. Are we watching her dreams?

Weerasethakul’s interest in sleep came up during the Q&A. “I think sleeping is a very private activity,” he said, “You have to be safe and comfortable to be able to sleep. That’s why when people sleep in my movies it’s like ok, you feel safe.” The audience laughed. “Also [there’s] the political reflection maybe, because in sleep, nobody can control you. Even yourself. It’s kind of resistant. It’s a freedom space.”

“Your films have an extraordinary embrace of nature,” Peña noted, “There’s a sense in which you’re really trying to capture nature, more than just what it looks like, but a feel.”

“I’m interested in the relationship of the subconscious world and nature in the presence of the camera,” Weerasethakul said. “Good art, a good film, for me is about living things. When you look at nature, you see that it’s changing—in the process of transformation all the time.

“So how do you make a film like that? That’s always a goal. Which is impossible.” Weerasethakul spoke a few times about the futility of filmmaking and artmaking, the asymptotic nature of capturing memory, or beauty, or life in art: no film will ever truly become those things. “That’s really a cause of suffering, to be attached to memory and to try to recreate something. And then it becomes something else, creating another world.” 

I noticed that ‘living’ is a word that appears so often in Weerasethakul’s reflections about his work. The phrase ‘living in the moment’ kept coming to my mind, a phrase reduced to idiom, sapped of its meaning through overuse. But in considering Weerasethakul’s films and praxis, I considered its vitality restored. He describes filmmaking as existing in the moment of creation, attuned to the conditions in which he creates: the light, the sound, the moods of the people around him. 

Weerasethakul shared that while on this trip, he visited an art museum filled with work by great artists, “But I didn’t feel anything," he said. "They [were] dead to me somehow. But then I realized the movement of people in the space, and realized [these works started] to live…because of this movement and negotiation…When I was watching [these films,] I felt the same, that these are activated by you.”

We the audience, he said—as living participants—bring life to art. “The whole beauty [is] about things looking at things…We’re just looking together at light.”