In Thai, Thailand means free land, signifying that unlike their neighbors (Burma, Laos, Singapore and Vietnam) no country has ever colonized them. These following documentaries may show that Thais have taken much from Western culture in the last 100 years, but equally they show they have only taken what benefits their own people and what is in accordance to their own traditions.
Thailand: Big Picture
Made by the US army this documentary does what you expect: it gives you a straight 29 minute introduction into the history of what is now called Thailand but in the film they refer to as Siam.
Song of Siam (1948)
What is interesting about this 10 minute documentary is not just the traditional dances and rituals, but the fact they are performing them in front of modern western style apartments and monuments. It shows that 1948 Thailand- or at least Bangkok – was already allowing western thought and architecture to seep into their culture.
Soul of a Nation (1980)
In 1978 BBC reporter John Murphy was given what few people had been given before him: access to King Bhumibol’s quarters – the last remaining king in south east Asia. What follows is a fascinating insight into Thai mentality. You may find it difficult understand why so many Thais love their king so unreservedly, but will feel nothing but respect for the king’s sincere feeling of duty towards his subjects. How does someone virtually seen by his people as a deity keep such perspective?
The Royal Court of Thailand (1998, Nick Read)
This more recent documentary of the Thai King is more about the king and his day to day duties than it is about the royal family in general. Like in the Soul of the Nation, King Bhumibol – now the longest serving monarch in the world – comes across as well-meaning, but somehow – from a western point of view at least – lacking the ability to question his own power.
Talk to Al Jazeera: Thaksin Shinawatra Interview
Human rights abuser or the savior of the Thai people? Most westerners, and enough Thais to keep him away from the country, point to such policies as his trigger happy approach towards Burmese immigrants, who may or may not have been bringing drugs into the country, as an example of his abuse of human rights. Another large proportion of Thais – Shinawatra would say the majority – point to the fact that not only did the Thai people elect him into power, but financially flourished under his rule.
Kiss My Snake (2006, Tom Tavee)
In one village in Thailand the village boxers pit their skills against King Cobras – the world’s most dangerous serpent. Yet the cobra is not, as you may expect, the equivalent of a drugged up pre-beaten bull. The boxers don’t even have an anti serum available. If the serpent bites them they either die or lose a limb.
The Unfinished Revolution (Asian News, 2010)
Thai society is currently split between two groups: the group that calls itself the yellow shirts support the monarchy, and the group that calls itself the red shirts support the exiled Thai president Thaksin Shinawatra. As this Asian News documentary shows the tension between them has spilled into violence on more than the odd occasion. In 2010 for example a series of riots lead to over 80 deaths and over 2000 injuries.
The Last Elephants in Thailand (2009, Dan Tayloe)
There is a shocking statistic in Thailand: at the turn of the 20th century the country had 100,000 elephants; today that number has shrunk to 5,000. Even more shocking is that the elephant is Thailand’s national symbol – they even say that the shape of Thailand resembles a elephant’s head. So what, as this documentary asks, is more important – the tourist industry and the money Thailand earns from it? Or the survival of a revered, much-loved beast?
If You Can Find Them
Any documentary by the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakhul.