The flamingo is inspired by John Waters. Here it makes an appearance at the side entrance of the 48-seater theater.
Culture Movies

This micro-cinema in Bangkok is run by Thailand’s “most banned filmmaker”

For Alice Skinhead, making movies hasn’t been the easiest journey—even as it has been one great discovery. “I realized that if I took a camera with me and film everything, then I can take everybody with me everywhere.”
ANCX | Apr 08 2019

A welcoming atmosphere greets anyone who steps into this Bangkok micro-cinema. With its brise soleil features, pockets of lush garden and open spaces, it evokes both nostalgia and an aura of openness—and yet Cinema Oasis was born because a door had been slammed shut on its propretor’s face.

The proprietor, now nearly 60, is a cool but fierce-looking lady named Alice Skinhead—or Ing to her friends. She made a couple of movies that were banned by the government and the Thai censors. According to the theater’s website, some seven years ago, the Thai government then headed by Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra banned Ing’s horror film, Shakespeare Must Die, a loose reworking of Macbeth. It was deemed “damaging to national pride and a threat to national security,” and was thus not screened publicly.

Ing’s investigation into how the film could see the light of day proved to be a story in itself. Ing made it into a documentary called Censor Must Die—the first movie in Thailand to be exempt from the censorship process for the reason that it filmed real events. The catch, however, is that Ing can’t release it because, according to her, the censors threatened to sue any cinema that would show the movie.   

The place's calm vibe makes it a respite from the busy streets of Bangkok, even if its within the city center.

Hence the birth of Cinema Oasis, where Ing could finally show her films, and other films by independent Asian filmmakers like her (when we visited in March, she was showing Dominic Lim’s The Write Moment, a Pinoy love story starring Jerald Napoles). “I have no place to be in this world because, you know, all the cinema in this country are owned by maybe three people and those three people are the same people who own the big studios. So there's a total monopoly, we have no chance,” says Ing who notes that while there are two other micro-cinemas in Bangkok (Bangkok Screening Room and Warehouse 30), “we are the only one on this standard: we can play DCP, we have 5.1 sound.” More than anything, however, she seems to take pride in the fact that hers is the only cinema ran “by a banned filmmaker.”

Ing A.K.A. Alice Skinhead, photographed at the roofdeck of Cinema Oasis. Photo by Deiniel Cuvin.

Other stories about filmmakers:

Watch more in iWantv or TFC.tv

 

Cinema Oasis opened in March last year. Designed by one of Bangkok’s famous architects, it is contemporary but with retro touches – the flamingo by the entrance is an ode to John Waters, the brise soleil from the 60s is given an updated twist. “They said it looks like Beirut. I think it’s because of the blocks—it’s a way of filtering the sun.” 

Ing used to be an investigative journalist whose focus is on the environment. “My editors didn't believe some of the stories I was telling them,” she recalls, about a hotel closing off a beach to locals, for example. Frustrated, she realized the value of the moving image. “I realized that if I took a camera with me and videotape everything, film everything, then I can take everybody with me everywhere. I don't have to deal with this I don’t believe you crap.”

On the set of Shakespeare Must Die.

This is how she became a filmmaker. She began with documentaries on the environment and has done films for the BBC. She has been at it since 1991 and has 10 films to her name.

She was always drawn to the controversial topics. When she made a movie in 2012, a John Waters-style satire called My Teacher Eats Biscuits, about a new age ashram where they worship a dog, the government at that time said it was “insulting to all religion, to every single one,” says Ing. It was her first film to get banned. The next one would be Shakespeare Must Die which, from Ing’s description, came out as critical of the powers that be during the period it was made and was thus deemed a “national security threat.”

Directing her actress in Shakespeare Must Die.

After showing it to the censors, Ing's group was not given an outright decision, which as per Ing’s producer was a strange occurrence. “They said [they] have to see it again and it didn't look good,” Ing recalls her producer saying. So she came up with a wild idea. She followed her producer to the censors office—camera in hand — to do their own investigation, with Ing playing a journalist, and the producer a bigshot (“I’ll have to make him look grand.”). “And before we knew it, we had a movie,” recalls the filmmaker. “It was so dramatic. Crazy! It's like Alice in Wonderland, the absurdity of the whole thing. You have to watch it like a comedy. Thai filmmakers watch it and they laugh. It's painful laughter but what else can we do.”

Retro and modern: the Cinema Oasis entrance is a mix of John Waters homage and 60s architectural style

Ing’s reputation for being a critique of her country’s ruling power hasn’t been good to her movies and it also hasn’t been kind to her theater. She mentions two letters she’s received: one called her micro-cinema illegal and told to “shut down in 15 days;” the other letter questions the nature of her company.

Filipino films are part of the Cinema Oasis programming. "Filipino Cinema is amazing, it has blown us away. All of us here when we watch—and we can understand why more people don't know about it. Your scriptwriting, acting, indies, you leave us in the dust. I say that totally sincerely. I'm saying this with sadness too 'cause why are we so far behind you."

She built the theater so she can show her movies, but also to encourage the young to do something else than ogle each other’s lives on social media. When we asked if the Thais like going to the movies, Ing says: "Thai people don't seem to, they just want to star in their own movie called Me The Narcissist, Me The Gorgeous Who Eats All These Nice Food. I also built the cinema because I want people to stop doing this all the time. That is so lonely. Sit back, look up, and dream with other people, and come out and have a discussion. We have director talks here which have really been interesting."  

But more importantly, the building of Cinema Oasis is a way of actualizing her struggle. “We had won a big victory,” she adds, sounding frustrated, referring to the fact that a brave film like Censor Must Die was made but has not been shown. “This movie is a big victory and yet we can't actualize it; there's no way to show it.”

On the way to the fourth floor.

While she seems proud that she continues to stand her ground, she also is clearly affected by her situation. At one point in the interview, she breaks into tears. 

"I also really built this cinema because I don't want other people to go through what I went through and am still going through. It's so horrible," says Ing. "I'm pretty strong, but other people are not so strong so they could kill themselves if what happened to me happened to them."    

Open spaces and pocket of greens make Cinema Oasis a comforting place to watch movies.

Cinema Oasis stands in the property of Ing’s great grandmother. At the time she bought the land, this area of Sukhumvit didn’t have much going for it, but today it is a bustling city center.

“That is why I feel if I sold this land I could be really, really rich and not worry about anything,” says Ing who has also opened the building to artist residencies and art shows. “I can just do the expected thing and go and buy a house in some paradise and forget about this country and forget about everything. But I suppose this is my last act of faith.”

Watch more in iWantv or TFC.tv