Thai-me to Tell a Story

Covering the ecological and economic opportunities in Thailand led a film team to discover challenges in filming a nation rebranding itself.

Over 20 years ago, Thanom Phungern built a sugar palm tree plantation that led to a major resurgence of the trees' products in the economy of Phetchaburi, Thailand. When filmmakers Prachi Mehrotra, New York University (2017), and Vincent Cota, Tisch School of the Arts at New York University (2017), learned about the opportunity to uncover the story behind the sugar palm trees in Phetchaburi, they leapt at the chance to fly to Thailand and film. "The opportunity was provided by the Thailand Department of Tourism. They wanted to have the millennial generation uncover and provide a new story to what Thailand is about," said Mehrotra, "Thailand is not just beaches and food. It's culture, it's economics, it's art... people should experience more, but they don't know what more means. That's where [Vincent] and I come in."

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The back drop for their film, "Sweet Success", involved Phetchaburi's sudden uptake in economic opportunity that was equally paired with devastation: sugar palm trees are difficult to grow, take more than 20 years to yield fruit, and the tree's high quality wood is in great demand, used in a variety of household items and desserts. For cinematographer Cota, Phetchaburi's prime location was challenging in setting the tone for the film. "There's a distinction to be made between spontaneity and distraction [in filming]. The former involves actively searching for details relevant to your story and the latter relies purely on the aesthetic," detailed Cota.

The production pair interviewed Mr. Thanom Phungern on their fourth day in Thailand, and it was the hardest interaction for the pair. Mehrotra and Cota been required to come up with a list of questions beforehand, and the translators would communicate the list to Mr. Thanom. It wasn't until the evening, after the interview, that the filmmakers would sit down with the translators to understand the story that had been recounted to them earlier that day. "We couldn't understand on the spot what was being told," said Mehrotra, "we would only get a gist of the exact answer and couldn't immediately change the direction of the conversation. It's hard enough doing interviews in English, and the language barrier added to the challenge."

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When the film team moved into postproduction in Bangkok, the pair realized that each minute of footage was extremely valuable and continuously adjusted their storyboard to cater to the film footage. As Cota explained, with a competition with such a short turnaround time, the work of the editor (the writer in the documentary genre) stays extremely close to the work of the cinematographer. "On this film, we're one and the same, however we can't waste time with anything we wouldn't possibly use," according to Cota, "Our work continuously focuses on the selection and rejection of details relevant to the story at hand."

For Cota and Mehrotra, Thailand was an experience too short. "Thailand is not just an [Eat, Pray, Love] place. It's one of those places you have to force yourself to be off the grid. Making "Sweet Success" was our chance to be off the grid but we needed more time," said Mehrotra. For Cota and Mehrotra, they hope that their 7-minute film will be enough to win the Amazing Thai Film Challenge and inspire others to travel off the grid. "We used a lot of social media to tell people what we were doing, as Thailand is developing in ways mainstream media won't cover. Take a risk, fulfill a challenge, do something out of the ordinary. Thailand created it's own "Sweet Success" and everyone should want to experience it," said Cota.

Cota and Mehrotra hope to publish their film in the coming week, but follow their success and story on Facebook and Instagram.