Sorayo Prapapan’s “Arnold is a model student” premieres in Locarno

Thai filmmaker Sorayos Prapapan’s debut film, Arnold Is a Model Student, which premieres at Locarno’s Cineasti del presente section over the weekend, is a light-hearted satire examining Thailand’s recent bad student movement and the authoritarianism in the country’s schools highlights.

The film centers on the eponymous Arnold, a gold-medal student at the Mathematics Olympiad whose studies abroad have earned him the status of a model student in the eyes of his school administrators.

As an international co-production between Thailand, the Netherlands, Singapore, Germany and France, Square Eyes will hand over the international sales rights to “Arnold”.

The film’s eight-year journey was also influenced by shooting challenges related to the pandemic, but its story also developed in response to current political events in Thailand.

“The bad student movement came in 2020 and really influenced the script,” says Prapapan, “it fitted together perfectly.” The movement opposed disciplinary methods like hair control, dress code and corporal punishment including caning and released a booklet on survival of the school system. Pages of this guide inspire the chapter titles of Prapapan’s film. “What we teach in school is a kind of propaganda,” notes the filmmaker.

The protests against bad students in Thailand have created a necessary discourse affecting older generations who experienced the same treatment during their school days. Prapapan’s decision to combine the impact of the movement with his own school experiences seeks to highlight the historical scope of these issues. “It’s a bit unconventional for the Thai film industry…” says lead actor Korndanai Marc Dautzenberg of the film, “not many artists dare to address this issue.” Real news clips alternate with viral videos of student protests and corporal punishment in the film, to reinforce the need for meaningful change.

At first, Arnold is portrayed as a conventional slacker, but Prapapan reveals how his drifting through life is a result of parental and teacher bribery and institutional dysfunction. These corruptions intertwine with the plight of the Bad Student movement, which Arnold finds difficult to deal with for fear of losing his promised future. Ultimately, the less privileged students – mostly young women – are leading the school’s protest movement.

Arnold is misled by Mr. Bee (Winyu Wongsurawat), who introduces him to an exam scam that gives students access to a military academy. Dautzenberg himself was once a student at a military reserve school. “Growing up, I was upset because a lot of my friends supported the military,” adds Prapapan. “Why do we still believe that the army will eliminate corruption?”

Much of the film is a reflection on things Prapapan observed growing up. The character of Mrs. Wanee (Niramon Busapavanich) – originally presented as a comedic foil – is complemented with a self-adoring informative video based directly on real Ministry of Culture productions. “Everything was already there,” he says, “we just copied it, even the music.”

Prapapan’s recent presence in Locarno follows screenings of two of his short films in 2019 – Dossier of the Dossier and Friend with Benefits, Without Benefits – and his participation in the festival’s Filmmakers Academy a few years ago.

His previous short films have been a staple in the short film programs of film festivals around the world, and the same tone translates to ‘Arnold is a model student’, particularly in the way school is made a background character. Students practice flute, check their phones, and learn baton drills in isometric and wide-framed footage panning down corridors and common areas. These playful vignettes paint an intimate and vivid shared experience of school life.

Additional festival appearances for “Arnold….” are expected to be announced shortly. Sorayo Prapapan’s “Arnold is a model student” premieres in Locarno

Charles Jones

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