OZY: The Filmmaker Documenting Life at the Margins

February 22, 2018

By Dene-Hern Chen

Nontawat Numbenchapol (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

Nontawat Numbenchapol (Credit: Dene-Hern Chen)

Five years ago, Nontawat Numbenchapol struck up an acquaintance with a boy living in Bangkok while working on a PBS documentary about Shan people, an ethnic minority group from Myanmar. The boy told the documentarian that he hoped to become a photographer and filmmaker, and the two connected on Facebook to chat about cameras.

By 2016, Numbenchapol noticed that the now young man’s online photos had changed.

“He was no longer in Bangkok. He went back to live in the buffer zone with the military and he had [photos of himself with] guns,” the 35-year-old filmmaker tells OZY. “I realized then, ‘Oh, this is my next film.’”

The “buffer zone” refers to Thailand’s northwestern border shared with Myanmar, a country whose military has long warred with its ethnic minorities. Decades before the current Rohingya humanitarian crisis, the Shan, Karen, Kachin, Mon, Chin and even the ethnically Burman majority fled their homes seeking refuge in Thailand. Some groups, like the Shan, have their own armies, and self-governing areas have emerged along the border.

Those residing on the border now have grown children, who in turn have children themselves — an entire generation coming of age without ever experiencing life outside of a military zone. Numbenchapol is set to explore this topic in his upcoming documentary, No Boys Land, shot entirely on his own because of the heightened sensitivity toward visitors entering the zone. It is tentatively set for release at the end of 2018.

It’s little wonder that Numbenchapol felt compelled to tell this story, as his first two features — Boundary and By the River — also focused on people living in the margins of society. The former, released in 2013, was initially banned by the Thai government due to its charged subject matter: the feud between Thailand’s two political factions, the Red Shirts and Yellow Shirts, and the impact of this misplaced nationalism on the villagers living along the Thai-Cambodian border.

Read more at OZY