The Search For the Rice Mother-a romantic, chaotic trip where the destination is still unknown

圖、文/丁庭羽 Marilyn Ding (泰國Local Development Institute)

The time when Mr Leo Maselli, a mysterious friend of my supervisor Khun Benjamas and his business popped up in my life could be virtually traced back to last November—when I just started my work with LDI. This gentleman is a film producer (for a long time I mistook him as a director) based in the US, who then, after two-year preparation, was about to ambitiously launch a project of film production featuring its background in several Southeast Asian countries along the Mekong River. Just when I had not clarified the genre of his film, I was thrilled with this cooperation.

It was until this June that I had a chance to contribute my so-called specialty in literature to the playwriting of his script. Before that LDI(mostly it means—me, doing it) had to establish a valid relationship with such an independent film maker as him as a base of collaboration and fund raising. Though my supervisor never worries about whether she would be listed as the co-producer of the film, Mr Maselli is desperate for all possible chances of raising fund—thus began the tedious procedure of registering in Give2Asia, “a US-based social enterprise that serves as a catalyst for philanthropic investment in Asia. Give2Asia makes international philanthropy safe, effective and impactful for corporations, foundations and individual donors.”—according to its website(http://give2asia.org/aboutus). Since this platform facilitates donors who want to reach out for their subjects of donation, there is no reason not to give it a try. Coincidently I also found my alma mater is also listed as one of its members to receive funds(http://give2asia.org/ntu#more-9718), thereafter it should not be a spam.

So the tedious procedure of application started, which lasted for more than two months. However the subject of the plot has settled in the beginning, which centers around a goddess who was used to be worshiped by the common people and rice farmers in particular, to address a pressing issue, climate change by showcasing how the impact affects the life of local peasantry in Southeast Asia, and how the belief of the goddess helps followers get through the calamity caused by changes of nature. That is the reason why the name of the goddess, Mae Posop is translated to the Rice Mother in English. The entry of the fund has established with Give2Asia at the end of February(http://give2asia.org/LDFdoc).

We took time discussing the plot last December because at the time Mr Maselli found another source of funding—“The All Roads Film Project and its Seed Film Grant Program” by National Geographic, which requires a summary of film content. At the moment I still considered the film a narrative production, featuring a plot and some non-professional actors. While proposing to National Geographic, Mr Maselli would like to honestly disclose another donor. This decision was objected by me, for fear of diminishing our opportunity to the bid. I mentioned in an email to him that “…I don’t think mentioning another fund will do anything good for the application. It’s irrelevant. Besides, IMHO, revealing another source of fund that has been granted will discourage the willingness to the second donor, don’t you think?” Actually I was wrong to say the fund is granted. We just successfully registered with Give2Asia and showed the film project and LDI in one of its countless web pages. No donation has granted to us so far. However I think I made myself clear enough with the intention of making this potential donor our sole source of fund, at least letting them think this way.

Then came the “treatment”(story plot, to my understanding) of this film, authored by My Maselli:

“It seems another world than ours. Except for the man’s quiet footfalls there is complete silence, and a dawn so new that only the faint silhouettes of a water buffalo and a crane can be defined. Their heads rise to watch Thongdee, the rice farmer, walk unobtrusively by. Seeming to appear from out of the morning’s mist, another rice farmer joins him – and then by another and another. By the tools they carry all are prepared to work in the great expanse of rice fields before them.

To the sound of a distant flute, a late night farmer’s network meeting is underway in a temple that serves as a center for education and public gatherings. They watch the projected image of a web-based program on climate change that evokes impassioned conversations about changing weather patterns and the declining yields year after year. There are expressions of upset towards the experts and the government whose efforts appear to have had no good consequences in their lives and the lives of their families. Two speakers are introduced. The first is a representative from the Khao Kwan Foundation (KKF) that promotes the theory and practices of sustainable agriculture.  He speaks of drastic changes affecting farmer’s livelihoods and to the environment in Thailand. He argues for the rebirth and realization of each farmer’s essential abilities and self-reliance. The second speaker is a young visiting scientist from Mahidol University. He attempts to further educate them to the only vaguely understood concepts such as sustainable growth and their ability to expand their capacity to cope with imminent environmental changes. The NGO’s and the scientist’s ideas are not readily accepted by most present, but Thongdee is eager to learn and asks many questions. By his degree of his inquisitive nature and desire to be involved he assumes a higher standing among the men.

Thongdee arrives home late. As he prepares for bed, his wife nurses their child and listens with pride to her husband explain that the farmer’s success requires simultaneous efforts to protect the livelihood and rights of indigenous people and poor rural communities. He reveals is intention to be part of the changes that will surely come. The next morning Thongdee dons his best clothes and is handed a bundle of food by his wife. He places his hands together, bows to his wife and then heads towards the city of Bangkok. It is a difficult two-day trip but he uses the time to speak to strangers of his intention to be an outspoken advocate for self-reliance, local wisdom, education, and activism. The responses offered are both skeptical and positive and he is encouraged by the enthusiasm he finds.

When he arrives unannounced at Mahidol University, he seeks an audience with the food scientist who spoke to his farmer’s network. Finally he locates the professor who considers Thongdee’s appearance to be a most important symbol of the change that must occur. The professor arranges Thongdee’s visits during the coming week into the countryside is see first hand the progress being made with newly developed rice strains and rice growing and harvesting techniques at experimental farms. Later, when he arrives unannounced at the NGO he is again well greeted. Thongdee is taken into the home of the foundation’s founder’s where he and his kind wife treat him as an honored person. With a full week dedicated to learning, Thongdee will be hands-on with the new technologies and adaptations taking place in the paddies.

During the time Thongdee is able to spend with KKF, the agricultural methodology he learns brings to mind many memories of how his father and elder people grew rice and dealt with farming and land in the days long past. One day he discovers a symbol of Mae Posop, which makes him suddenly realizes what he has been searching for lies within. He once thought that Mae Posop had left them behind or really didn’t even exist, though he kept praying to her when he felt desperate. Now, in a moment of epiphany he understands: Mae Posop never left him, but he must seek her to receive her blessings. Now that he has re-discovered the local wisdom, and he finds that he has more confidence to adapt the climate change and live peacefully with the nature. Days later Thongdee stands before his farmer’s network and explains in simple terms what must be done. They understand and are left hopeful and energized. They too are blessed by Mae Posop.”

It revealed to me that Mr Maselli had few ideas on how Asian people, especially those undereducated who live in rural areas show their emotions. I did not hold back my words at all when making comments and suggestions:

“I don’t understand and agree with this: They watch the projected image of a

web-based program on climate change that evokes impassioned conversations

about changing weather patterns and the declining yields year after year.”

A web-based program? Are the farmers gathering around in an internet cafe or

somewhere else with the Internet device and infrastructure, like what we do so

easily and frequently in urban cities?

Second, I prefer Thongdee not to talk to his wife at all. A two-day trip for a

peasant is a big thing. So big that he may spend a whole endless night to think

about doing it or not. The next day he waves goodbye to his wife with half-

determined, half-sorry look in the eye and the wife shows bitterness and

understanding at the same time. Sometimes silence speaks louder than words.

All of these are presented without words. They are an ordinary low-waged

couple struggling with life for a long time. They understand each other and

don’t always communicate with words. Just as it’s not possible for Thongdee

to turn into an activist overnight. He’s just trying to survive. Maybe at this

moment he’s still anxious about the trip without knowing this decision that

sacrifice two day of income is correct or not.

The last thing: “They understand and are left hopeful and energized"

Until next harvest will they realize the knowledge they gain is workable or

not. Please don’t show the optimism so obviously unless you want to risk your

sincerity. Nothing happens overnight. All we need is a touch of hope and

difference, and that gives hope to the audience and arouses a desire to know if

they are really doing better, thus creating a possibility of a further contact with

the producer.”

From the reply he wrote to my supervisor (which she forwarded to me), I can tell how surprised he was to receive such comments put so straightforwardly. However in an email that Mr Maselli sent to me, he used wordings such as “invaluable input” to describe what I wrote and thanked me for the contribution. Unfortunately, we lost the battle of a war that we did not even have chance to be engaged—before long National Geographic had announced “the All Roads Film Project and its Seed Film Grant program has ceased operation and will not resume.” About the same time Mr Maselli informed us that the project was denied by the “most notable” Rockfeller Foundation because our project did not fit the who-knows-what “prgrammatically with climate change within an urbane context:

In parallel, I kept fulfilling the red-taped requests of all kinds of documents from Give2Asia. Since it is Khun Benjamas who received requests in her email box, I always had to help by contacting Mr Maselli for assistance and/or information that I can reply to the organization. All the paper work finished in February. Then in March, for the sake of securing a new potential donor, the film had changed from a narrative film to a documentary film. At this time I still remained passionate and patient, discussing my documentary filming watching experience as reference of some technical management:

“Alright. Talking about the subtitles, my experience of watching

The Elephant Shaman is, when the voice-over is English, there’s no subtitle.

When Thai language or the slang of Surin Province is spoken, then the

English subtitles show up. My suggestion is that you can do it this way or

even add subtitles when English is spoken, just to make it more

understandable.”

“Another thing I hold a different opinion than yours is I don’t think the

farming family members is your target audience since a documentary film

serves to disclose the truth to the majority of people who live in another world

other than farmers. Yes I mean people like you and me. And maybe

you should think about those who sitting in donors’ office first. It’s out of your

good intention to show your production to farmers some day in the future.

However if it was me I may not do this too soon. According to our

previous discussion of the story plot, there is more or less drama added to it

just to reach a more appealing effect. Meanwhile we’re running a more or less

risk of deviating the plot from the truth. Nobody but, I’m afraid, the farmers

themselves, will sense this. Unless we’ll construct a new scenario for this film,

I guess my opinions can humbly serve as your reference. “

After Mr Maselli read it, he replied that “[c]oncerning the theme of our documentary film, Marlene and I are writing the script with your thoughts already on our minds. The central notion for docs is that they explore actual people and actual situations. We will remain true to that perception.” I would have to wait until this November when the long-delayed trip for him to visit Southeast Asia to find out that he did not actually do anything to write the script, and Marlene had abruptly withdrew from her cooperation with Mr Maselli.

Then to satisfy another donor called indiegogo.com (http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/the-search-for-mae-posop-the-rice-mother), with Khun Benjamas’ help and my re-writing, we produced another short description to Mr Maselli:

“This film will showcase how some of the Asian farmers along the Mae Kong

River cope with their living affected by the climate change using local wisdom

derived from their genuine respect to Mae Posop. These farmers care for Mae

Posop and she cares for them. The film reveals how people do when there is a

drought invading their land by conjuring up the spirit of Mae Posop during the

ceremony of praying for rain, and how farmers appeal to Mae Posop for their

paddy fields to generate better yield and prevent them from harmful insects.

These are what the farmers believe in and what their lives to do with Mae

Posop, the angel Mother of rice and food.”

To facilitate Mr Maselli’s fund raising career in the U.S., I also offered my help to write the first NEWS RELEASE of my life! The correspondence was taken place this June. Here is my works:

 

MAE POSOP DOCUMENTARY FILM TO REFRAME CLIMATE CHANGE RESILIENCE IN THAILAND

 

New Media to Strengthen Self-Determination of Affected Rice Farmers

 

BANGKOK, THAILAND – Benjamas Siripatra, of the Local Development Foundation (LDF), announces that the production of a documentary film on the subject of climate change threats to food security in Southeast Asia is to begin this year.  Entitled The Search For Mae Posop (Rice Mother), the film focuses on rice farmer action-responses to the growing impact of climate change on their lives. The film showcases how farmers, in their belief that rice is animated by the soul of Rice Mother, earn to use local wisdom derived from their genuine respect for her spirit. By rediscovering the spirit of Mae Posop, the film finds a pragmatic way to teach rice farmers the concepts of food security, sustainable agriculture and climate change.

Siripatra, the Deputy Secretary General of the NGO states that, “All Southeast Asians are aware of the growing problem of climate change but often consider themselves too disenfranchised and too uniformed to know what to do. Our film reveals what people can accomplish when there are increased opportunities to share practices, tools planning and implementing adaptation activities to climate change.” It is LDF’s intention to harness the power and influence of digital video distributed over Internet platforms now so easily accessible through websites, social media and Email throughout Southeast Asia. “At last, farmers will be provided the means to insure a better degree of food security for their families and farm communities.”

The Local Development Foundation and its operational body…(omitted)

After reviewing the version, Mr Maselli, though felt “well done” and “initially thought it to be exactly what is required”, he stated that “…the Press Release is not written for, nor will be read by, that audience. The Press Release is written specifically to newspaper editors and reporters as well as our targeted web-masters in the U.S. and Hong Kong for the sole purpose of demonstrating our project’s newsworthiness.

Therefore, I respectfully, suggest we return to my last draft (see attached copy) to which I have made one revision…(omitted)

To this time I started to feel that I was losing my patience and passion. If the readers for this press release intends to address are “newspaper editors and reporters as well as our targeted web-masters in the U.S. and Hong Kong for the sole purpose of demonstrating our project’s newsworthiness”, instead of the Thai citizens in other countries in general and the U.S. in particular, who I previously assumed, he SOULD HAVE EXPLAINED EARLIER! I found I had been spending a lot time on his reckless demand. My supervisor had warned me several times by saying that “don’t waste too much time on him. Once you fulfill one of his demand, then soon will come another.”

When he finally touched down Thailand, Khun Benjamas asked my colleague Ms Nuch and I to pick him up in his apartment in Asoke area to our office. My colleagues bought lunch, and we had a meeting to discuss what particular subjects, issues and content he would like to include in his film. No concrete answers. Then we quickly moved to the logistic parts. My supervisor made a huge number of phone calls to arrange people Mr Maselli would interview during his stay in Bangkok, including those in academic, industrial and research fields, as well as a farmer, of course. I wrote a meeting minutes to record all the people and their telephone numbers and made a copy to him, which he forgot to bring with himself the next day. She also helped him renting a van. After all the phone calls were made, our supervisor disappeared. Then I had to play the part as interpreter of him and my colleagues, and magically I did it. Ms Nuch showed him several flims that LDI made years before, trying to help this man come out with some concrete ideas of what he would like to shoot in his footage. The time when my supervisor showed up again was the time she said goodbye to her American friend. Ms Nuch and I brought him to MBK Shopping Mall to bought a SIM card and found out his cheap I-Phone could not be used outside the U.S. He had to buy himself another cheap cellphone to be used in Thailand. Then we brought him to Sky Train Railway and showed him how to purchase a ticket, and we found he could not exchange correct amount of coins with bank notes. After the day was done, Ms Nuch and I became exactly what it is described in “A Hard Day’s Night”.

Nov 15 marked the culmination of the sloppiness of this film producer. This day we had two ladies to visit Khao Kwan Foundation in Suphanburi Province with us. One is Ms Wun Yip, an HK-American lady who had already arrived the day before, and we would head for the airport to pick another lady, Gloria from Poland. These two ladies are real cinematographers, that is to say, directors. However, the trip proved to be disaster.

First we had a driver who did not know much about the roads in downtown Bangkok. He was temporarily sent to this task by the management of the van company. My supervisor’s interpretation is “this is Thai way.” He was fined 100 baht by the police on the way to Asoke for unfamiliarity with the road and violated the traffic rules.

Then we headed for Suvarnabhumi airport to pick up Gloria. Because of the protest, new regulations were put on the entrance and exit for the airport gates. Now only Number 4 is allowed to be used. This is the way the government to prevent the mobs from sacking the airport again, just like they did in 2008. During the one hour of waiting, I kept cursing the pointless movement of Yellow Shirts—the controversial blanket amnesty bill was withdrawn, so now what’s point of keeping on demonstration? To stir up the social order? To arouse uneasiness and discontent among the citizens? Suddenly every thought was dropped because someone found that Gloria was in Don Muang airport! Mr Maselli admitted that he received Gloria’s flight itinerary one month ago. I immediately replied “why didn’t you send it to us?” Then when I found out Gloria was flying from Kuala Lumpur by AirAsia, I could not help myself yelling “Every AirAsia flies to Don Muang!” He then showed an innocent expression that he had no idea that there are two airports in Bangkok. Though we successfully put Gloria through in Don Muang Airport, the whole schedule had to be delayed for two hours and a half.

It turned out that these two ladies are what we are looking for to cooperate with. Ms Wun, specifically speaking, was a life saver. In the van she got to the points within as short as one hour by listing some questions that she suggested Mr Maselli to ask of the interviewees. These are the questions that Ms Nuch and I has been waiting for. Then when we reached KKF at 3:30pm, most of the staff went back home since it was Friday. We had to catch whatever we had to work it out.

1

These two professional ladies started to work…

2

…with my supervisor assisting as interpreter.

3

To find a real good setting to interview a farmer…

4

We went into the woods and made the poor gentleman settle down in the farm…

5

Meanwhile the mosquitos were having their feast biting us…

Then we moved to the comfortable house to interview the CEO of KKF, Mr Dycha before the sunlight was gone.

6

Before we left…

7

Every one of us was “rewarded” with a pack of high-quality red rice given by Mr Dyecha…

I can tell from this only one day of working together that both ladies are real capable and enthusiastic persons. I wondered so much how this film producer who did not have any concrete ideas in his brain or used not to process anything in order could recruit such professional talents. To answer this, Wun told me it feels good to cooperate with those who do not set up any limit for creativity and she can always enjoy the liberty of her own management of the film. I kind of understood when I heard that. Khun Benjamas also told me Mr Maselli actually featured charming personality and could always have some intriguing stories with him while doing the fund raising campaign in the U.S. Do you know how many people he rejected to join him on this trip to Southeast Asia? I shook my head. There are a rich newly-divorced lady, a retired lawyer, a high-up in a famous enterprise, just to name a few. I sorted out the reason why with a quick thought. For these people who live in highly-civilized, intensively-capitalized, Western world, a trip to search for a traditional belief symbolized by a beautiful goddess holding a bundle of spikes of rice sounds primitive and erotic It provides a romantic escape out of their routine life with different landscape, weather, people and culture. So they definitely want to visit a place far away from home, as well as a task of film production. I was once caught up with this sentiment. It does not completely fall out of my anticipation. I am still waiting for the call.

Two days after the film-making team went to Laos by night train and kept on the journey searching for the Rice Mother. Does it end the entire tedious and absurd task for us? I don’t think so. It was a great pity that I could not go to Laos with them. However, since I am part of the project, I would really love to know if they finally find Mae Posop. For now she is waiting somewhere for us. Her secrets still have been unveiled.

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