Within the first minute of A.W.: A Portrait of Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a fiery crab emerges from a small mound of wet sand. Moments later, another crab rushes to the grainy surface, mirroring the striking hue of its counterpart.
This unexpected twin image is met with a heartfelt “wow,” uttered by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, the man behind the camera. What was an unassuming observation at the beach transforms into a surreal landscape, captured with stunning vibrancy and unbelievable timing. Therein lies the quiet wonder infused in everything Weerasethakul creates.
This wondrous opening speaks volumes about Weerasethakul’s elusive creative process, in which explanations and answers are irrelevant. The Thai director behind a string of acclaimed, experimental films such as Cemetery of Splendor and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (winner of the 2010 Cannes Palme d’Or) embraces life and all its unknowns with open arms. It’s that approach to filmmaking he shares with A.W.‘s young director Connor Jessup over the course of the film.
The tools in Weerasethakful’s pocket are a Harinezumi camera and a notebook, used to record and capture everything around him. No subject is too inconsequential—lo-fi images of clouds during magic hour, unrecognizable textures and shadows, peaceful glimpses of greenery, and supernatural portraits of everyday people effortlessly come together to create a mélange of deeply intuited observations.
In lieu of a clear narrative arc, these images and sounds become stories on their own. Life itself is the context.
The footage of Jessup becomes a central component of A.W. and creates an intimacy that brings the viewer closer to Weerasethakul’s process than any ordinary portrait. While this makes for a highly personal approach, it is also an important reminder to stop discounting the steady stream of opportunities that surround us no matter where we are or what we are doing.
Cut together with scenes from Uncle Boonmee and Cemetery of Splendor, along with extracts from many of his short film works, the approach of A.W. is also slow and melodious. Weerasethakul does not rush his creative process, which is a radical act in a world that demands perpetual novelty. The time to dream however is as critical as the time to act. Weerasethakul pushes for this balance as he admits he has to fight the urge to stay home with his partner and dogs.
While this is comforting, he warns it’s an unhealthy habit that filmmaking forces him to confront. It is perhaps this moment in the documentary that Weerasethakul seems the most relatable––the familiar tension between the universal drive to pursue and accomplish one’s dreams and the dangerously seductive whisper to forget about it all. With Weerasethakul, solitude is found in dreaming and creating.
In the final minutes of A.W., Weerasethakul faces his doubts about leaving Thailand for Colombia. While he addresses his uncertainty, he carries within him the gestures, memories, and influences of his past, and connects them with his foreign environs. Inexplicable bangs and echoes that live in the filmmaker’s head have haunted him for years in Thailand, but as he roams through Colombia, he slowly links these hallucinatory explosions to a real history, where guerilla warfare has rattled the country for decades.
“Everything is active,” he declares, and that is all we can go forth with to capture the world anew. MM
A.W.: A Portrait of Apichatpong Weerasethakul is now available on the Criterion Channel on FilmStruck as a part of their Meet The Filmmaker series. Previous Meet the Filmmaker participants include Athina Rachel Tsangari (Chevalier) and Josh and Benny Safdie (Good Time). An episode with Charles Burnett will premiere this summer.