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Documentary gives Thais rare glimpse into controversial sect

Censors unexpectedly lift ban on film about Buddhist leader and followers

Monks participate in a mass-ordination ceremony at Wat Dhammakaya temple in Pathum Thani Province, north of Bangkok. The temple is home to the controversial Dhammakaya Buddhist sect, the subject of a gripping documentary by filmmaker Nottapon Boonprakob. (Photo by Ron Gluckman)

BANGKOK -- For the last year, Bangkok residents have been preoccupied with COVID-19 pandemic precautions and pro-democracy demonstrations. Four years ago, however, they were focused on a very different controversy -- an enormous circular temple looking eerily like a gigantic golden spaceship.

As controversial as it appears otherworldly, the Wat Dhammakaya temple had been in the news for years. Then, in February 2017, police efforts to arrest Abbot Phra Dhammachayo, the temple's charismatic leader, on embezzlement charges culminated in a farcical game of hide-and-seek. A siege of the temple was marked by battles between police and followers of what the government insisted was a cult.

These tumultuous events are recalled in the gripping documentary "Ehipassiko" ("Come and See") by the talented young Thai filmmaker Nottapon "Kai" Boonprakob, 34, whose film includes intimate footage of devoted followers, comments from highly placed critics and on-the-scene action shots of this uniquely Thai controversy.

The only thing missing -- besides the elusive abbot, who has not been seen in public since the siege -- was an audience. The movie premiered at South Korea's prestigious Busan Film Festival in 2019, but had not been screened in Thailand until April, when the curtain was suddenly lifted by the national film censorship board.

Many attribute the censors' approval of the film to a government desire to appear more open in the wake of violent protests against its leaders, who assumed power in a 2014 coup military coup. Nobody was more surprised than Nottapon, who submitted his film to the board with little hope of success, hoping, at best, for permission to screen it in a single arts cinema. "I didn't really think it would get approved [for general release]," he says.

Top: Inside the golden Dhammakaya temple. Bottom: Nottapon made the documentary “Ehipassiko” ("Come and See") as his thesis project in 2017. The movie finally premiered in Thailand in April after the national film censorship board suddenly gave its approval. (Courtesy of Nottapon Boonprakob)

Formed more than 50 years ago by Buddhists who disliked the modern trappings of many temples, the Dhammakaya group initially focused on traditional Buddhist scriptures and meditation. But it later faced criticism for extravagant mass gatherings, commercialism, immense wealth and political clout.

Charges of misappropriation of funds, corruption and even gun smuggling were leveled at the temple as its profile escalated over the last 15 years, culminating in a series of spats with government officials and the powerful state religious order.

Underlying the tensions was Wat Dhammakaya's perceived alignment with followers of the former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in an earlier military coup in 2006. Thaksin is in exile along with his sister Yingluck Shinawatra, prime minister from 2011 to 2014, who was removed by Thailand's Constitutional Court after bloody street battles between "red shirt" supporters and "yellow shirt" opponents.

Top: Dhammakaya temple is known for its elaborate and colorful Buddhist celebrations. Bottom: Nottapon filming “Ehipassiko.” (Courtesy of Nottapon Boonprakob)

In the wake of these events the Dhammakaya temple was under strong government pressure when Nottapon returned to Thailand in 2016 looking for a final project to complete a master's degree program at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

Nottapon is best known for his feature film "2,215," completed in 2018, which follows the Thai singer Artiwara Kongmalai running for charity. The title refers to the number of kilometers covered by Artiwara as he ran across the country, and the film is often called Nottapon's cinematic debut.

However, "Ehipassiko," also shot in feature-film quality, was completed in late 2017. "I didn't have any major expectations for it," Nottapon says, adding that he was largely unprepared when official approval was given in April. "I only had one poster," he recalls. "I didn't even have a trailer."

Top: The Thai military sealed off Dhammakaya temple during a siege and clashed with devotees of the Buddhist sect. Bottom: Devotees camp inside the temple and pray during the dramatic siege. (Courtesy of Nottapon Boonprakob)

His initial plan was to show the film at House Samyan, a small hipster cineplex in Bangkok. But the buzz grew rapidly. Cinemas in Thailand are currently shuttered as the country battles a new wave of COVID-19. Before the closure, however, "Ehipassiko" was screening in two dozen theaters across the country. "It all happened so fast," says Nottapon. "I never expected this with my small film."

The film is an important event in Thailand because such public scrutiny of political events is rare, says Kong Rithdee, deputy director of the Thai Film Archive and one of Thailand's best-known film critics. "We don't have many films or documentary films that deal with sensitive social or political issues, so a film like "Ehipassiko" stands out because it looks squarely at one of the most controversial subjects, namely Wat Dhammakaya and Buddhism in general."

"I think the film succeeds in narrating a complicated conflict through various perspectives," he adds. "It's a solid work that addresses a specific situation but also manages to explore a wider context, such as the debate on freedom of religion, the muddled idea about state versus religion, and the meaning of Thailand as a secular state -- or faux-secular state."

As it grew, the Dhammakaya group faced criticism for extravagant mass gatherings, commercialism, immense wealth and pollical clout.(Photo by Ron Gluckman)

Critics of the film say it is biased, failing to address controversies surrounding the temple. Some, like Mano Laohavanich, a former top Dhammakaya official turned staunch opponent, consider it propaganda for the temple. "In my view, it's not balanced at all, says Mano. "It really only reflects the feelings of disciples, and doesn't talk about all the victims of fraud, who lost so much money to the Dhammakaya."

Mano, whose monastic name is Mettanando Bhikkhu, was a professor of Buddhism at Bangkok's Thammasat University who rose in rank with Dhammakaya, becoming an assistant to Abbot Phra Dhammachayo, before leaving and branding him a demigod. He is now a leading opponent of the temple, which he says "is definitely a cult." 

Mano also claims that Wat Dhammakaya pushed for the film's approval. "I know they helped arrange this," says Mano, who adds that the temple's influence extends to all levels of government including the Ministry of Culture, to which the censorship board reports. He adds that Dhammakaya leaders have purposefully remained quiet for years, but feels the recent pro-democracy protests and the pandemic have weakened the government's power to resist it.

Dhammakaya devotees sleep at the temple. (Courtesy of Nottapon Boonprakob)

Meanwhile, he adds, Thailand's Buddhist authorities are focused on the expected succession to Somdet Phra Maha Muniwong, the sangharaja (supreme patriarch), who will be 94 in June. The Buddhist leadership struggle can be even more complex than Thai politics; when the current sangharaja assumed the role in 2017, it had been vacant since 2013.

Nottapon, who denies being unduly influenced by Wat Dhammakaya, says he coordinated with officials to arrange access to the temple, and to meet a family that is followed in the film, but insists that there were no controls on filming. The documentary includes comments from critics such as Mano, as well as footage demonstrating the Dhammakaya's hard-sell fundraising to followers.

"That the censors allowed it to show is good news," says Kong. "Thai film censorship is based on an antiquated, pre-Cold War mentality, partly a fear of the new, powerful medium and partly a dictatorial impulse to control every public narrative."

The censorship intrigue has heightened interest in the documentary, which should be back in Thai cinemas when the pandemic-related closure ends. Nottapon says it will also return to the film festival circuit, likely screening at Buddhist film festivals in Singapore this summer. A streaming deal is also being negotiated.

"The attention is definitely a plus," says Nottapon, who is working on another documentary in northern Thailand. "My challenge now, is just to let go." Meanwhile, social distancing rules permitting, Thais can finally decide for themselves, to "Come and See."

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