Without this man, Thailand’s cinema heritage would never have survived. And we will never learn our own cinematic history.
Dome Sukvong was born in the Thai Southern province of Phuket in a family of seven children. Coming from a humble family, Dome’s father was a civil servant and his mother was a housewife. His passion in cinema began from a very young age when he watched his first film in the kindergarten. As a child he often role-played as the village projectionist by stealing his mother’s handkerchief, painting its borders as a screen, and using a flashlight to shine though small pieces of film which he collected from the cinema projection room floor.
His dreams became a reality in his early days. During his high school years in Bangkok, he became close friends with Euthana Mookasanit, one of the prominent Thai film directors from the social realist genre. They both share dreams of becoming film directors. For them, cinema was a way to express the need for a better society rooted in equality and peace. During his university years, he pursued studies in cinema through the faculty of Communication and Arts, Chulalongkorn University. However, he was disappointed by the inability of the faculty to offer many film courses. Independent in spirit, he started a self-study from library books. He and his friends founded the first film club in Bangkok. They showed films and held discussions. After graduation, he worked as freelance writer specializing in film and film history for various magazines. A well-respected scholar, Dome had been a long time contributor to the journal magazine Silapa Wathanathum/ Art and Culture and had published in Thai and English on Thai Film History.
During the 1970s, there were no film studies for Thai films. Given this lack, Dome planned to write a book about Thai film history. Through his independent research in the 1980s, he discovered a large amount of old nitrate films from the Topical Film Unit of the Royal State Railway, which had no film archives for their old films. Understanding of how Thai films are a cultural heritage, he started a small preservation project at Bangkok Technical College. In 1983, he was invited to participate the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) congress at the Swedish Film Institute. It was his first introduction to film archiving and preservation techniques. He understood how film preservation could realize his dreams of having a film archive for Thailand. The film archive project became a way to conserve the ideas, knowledge, and imagination in Thai films and a way to develop a cultural resource for national and international research.
Interestingly, Dome had to seek Thai films in far away countries outside of Thailand. He discovered a reference in a Lumiere’s catalogue, for a film that recorded the King of Siam’s Visit to Bern in 1897. He struggled with his poor English, contacted the French Film Archives, which led him to a French dentist. For him, this was no easy task. Spending much time on foreign correspondence, he sought to acquire some of the oldest film footage pertaining to Siam/Thailand in the world.
Utilizing Thai archival letters dating back to the turn of the 19th century, Dome found that when King Rama V also visited Sweden in the same 1897 trip he wrote to the Queen about someone filming him. Dome pursued this lead tracing King Rama V’s travels to Stockholm. Dome visited the television archives but was denied entry. However, four months later after he came back to Thailand, the director of Swedish Film Institute wrote to him detailing the findings of the film. Through the negotiations with the Swedish Film institute, Dome was able to receive a print of the film. The Thai media press urged the Minister of Education to grant the set up of the National Film Archive. It was through Dome Sukvong’s hard work, with almost no reward and with limited results that the founding of the National Film Archives was won. The National Film Archives was founded in 1984.
The story did not end when the film archive is established. Struggling against various government bureaucracies and administrations that would sooner see the National Film Archives of Thailand (NFAT) project fail, the work of NFAT has been always in the difficult situation. In the beginning, they were housed in an old building, with no proper facilities for film archiving and preservation. The NFAT also began with a budget of zero and 4 temporary staff. Driven by an inextinguishable spirit, Dome and NFA staff traveled all over Thailand visiting old film directors, cameramen, stars, and crew. They acquired much of the film and film related material in the collections today.
In the early 1990s, one of Dome’s biggest success stories was the Thai Film Back Home Project. The project sought to repatriate the negative of 500 hundred Thai films which were kept in a laboratory in Hong Kong and were threatened with destruction if they were not claimed. The films came back home to Thailand and are now housed at the NFAT. Being the only person who is knowledgeable about film preservation in Thailand, Dome is also accredited with training a cohort of young staff persons on the technical aspects of film preservation.
In 1998, the national film archive was relocated to Salaya , Nakornpathom. It seemed like with limited funding and resources, NFAT had to start over once again. Only one film storage building was built on the swamp grounds and one house, which would be converted to a service unit for researchers to view the films. The location often covered with weeds from the rainy season was a step back for NFAT.
Regardless, Dome never stopped dreaming. One day while he was cutting weeds growing against the buildings, he looked at the empty space next to the film storage building, and thought about the possibilities for having a museum and a movie theatre next to the film storage building.
In 2003 the museum building was completed. Now Dome and his staff are left with the task of creating the exhibition to be housed in the first film museum delicate to Thai films. The modest museum is small, but it contains the entire history of Thai film dating back to the 1897 footage of King Rama V. The museum also houses a small theatre, in which Dome and his staff program free public and Salaya community film screenings for children and local residents.
After 20 years in struggle, Dome realized that the biggest problem of the film archive is with the state administration. Seeking autonomy, he challenges the authority of the state bureaucracy by proposing to reform the National Film Archives of Thailand to become a new kind of organization, namely a public autonomous organization.
To preserve the film reels in the proper preservation conditions would be highly costly. At present , the NFAT collection consists of 40,000 new reels from television, 1200 feature films, 5000 documentary and 20,000 videos. With the annual budget of 75,000US (including the salary and electricity), NFAT could never have developed any projects to its fullest. It would not be far fetched to say that Dome Sukvong’s spirit and the inspiration he brings to his staff is what NFAT runs on, but much more concrete support is of course needed.
Besides being a fulltime film archivist, Dome has published many books on the early Thai film history and undoubtedly, he is the only film historian who sought to make Thai films a national heritage.
He tirelessly worked more than 15 hours a day and 7 days a week for many years, with the hope to see that Thai films will be a cultural resource for later generations to watch, hope, and dream about.
A FEW WORDS WITH DOME
How long have you been involved in this ?
I just met a producer the other day and he confessed with me that the first time he saw me visiting his office, he thought I was a beggar. So he sent someone to chase me away. I told him that he wasn’t the only one. I saw myself on video lately and I realized that I was then look like a lunatic.
What about now?
It is been over 20 years. I have started the campaign for preserving films from 1981. Actually, it wasn’t very long time ago.
If don’t know you personally, if only I read from media, I would have thought your case was so surreal. What gave such a big motivation to take action?
Well, cinema was inside me from the beginning… from very young age. I think there are many people like that..being possessed by cinema. When I was young, I just wanted to be a traveling projectionist or action hero in the film. But when I came to study for a career, then I chose to study communication and arts, hopefully to study films but it didn’t work out that way. I also have experienced in the production side and then I realized that I wasn’t very happy.
Actually, before I worked in production, I was about to take serious interest in academics. When I was in the final years in the university, I issued a magazine called “Film” and then after graduation, I found another magazine called “Nang” (which also translate as film) which didn’t survive because I funded from my own pocket. However, I have already seen other aspects of film. It was not only production that matters. Film studies was rather new at that time. I started to write film textbooks in Thai since there are not any in Thai but after a while, I was fed up. Then my friend, Euthana Mookasanit had a film project so I joined as production manager but which I wasn’t very keen on money matter. At the end, that film wasn’t finished because of financial problem.
Then you came back to writing?
Yes. At the same time, I worked on a film script called “Saratee” based on true story of an American married woman who eloped with a Thai man and ended with tragic. This case was in the 60’s so I have to spend plenty of time in the library with the newspaper. I also encountered a lot of newspaper from 1900’s which contained information about film. Then I realizedthat I was wasting my time translating book when there was nothing written about Thai film history at all.
Tell me about Khunvijitmatra.
Khunvijitmatra was a great writer who wrote many books. I knew that he was also a film director in the pre-war period. I read his articles about film studio but I didn’t have a chance to interview him myself. It was my friend who interviewed him for our magazine, Film. I met him briefly when we finished the magazine and I sent a copy to him. He comments on a few mistakes in the interview so I talked to myself if I would like to write about film history, he will be the one I interview. But I didn’t have the second chance. I went on to do something else after graduation. One day, I read from the newspaper that he passed away. It was that moment when I realized I have been wasting time by hesitating. So I decided that I had to take action. I also discovered the secret of research is that if we really search for something, we definitely will find something, someday.
What did you do then?
I throw away the film textbook projects on which I spent more than two years when I learned that the living source of knowledge just passed away. I dotted down names of other film people from the newspaper and then go & find them even if I didn’t know where they were. I went everywhere people lead me to.
Who was the first one you met?
I started with Nangsao Suwan (Suvarna of Siam, 1923) which for a long time we believed that this is the first Thai film. It was an American film played by Thai actors. So I started to track down the actor. I met Luangprojkamkoson who was the villian in the film. He was actor on TV drama then. He led me to many pioneers of the early period such as Wasuwat Brothers, Chalam Buapleansi , and a few actors..
I think you are so fortunate to meet all the pioneers of Thai film history which no one in my generation would never have that opportunity.
I think so too.
What happened to you after the establishment of the National Film Archive?
At first I planned to be a researcher. Just came to the archive as a user. I didn’t expect that I had to work in the film archive.
And now it became an endless task.
Yes. Just to have a film archive is not enough. We still have to justify with our superior the important of keeping all the films which people generally think many of them are only craps. Now I realize that I might not have plenty of time left. My final struggle for the film archive now is to get the better administration. My solution is that the film archive should be autonomous.
Have you seen any films lately? What do think about Thai film ?
I haven’t seen that many anymore. I’ve seen some on cableTV but I just unsubscribed so I don’t get to see many.
Although we tried to convince people how important the film is, what do you feel about the quality of the films which I personally think that most of them are quite bad, what about you?
I used to think that too, but now I realized that there should be good films and bad films. Now I focus on the audience. I wish the audiences are smart enough to know what good films are. We cannot expect from the filmmakers.
Because money has too much influence on filmmaking. Filmmakers have no freedom. Before, we used to blame censorship but now censorship can be bought. Directors also can be bought. They need money to make films. Most of the films have lost their ideology. Ideology becomes ridiculous. People say that they are only in the fairy tale.
But people said that film is a kind of commercial art…
It is alright. I didn’t expect all films to be art films. I respect commercial films even pornograpy. That is the other extreme. Anyway, there should be some films to enlighten the wisdom of the audience. Cinema should give us wisdom.