In 2005, Jordan Clark produced and directed arguably the most compelling documentary ever made about Thailand’s bar girl industry. The documentary cleverly weaves itself through the many facets of the “sex for sale” scene, while centering its focus on the archetypal victim of circumstance; a girl named Pla, whose abusive childhood in a poor family led her to work in bars from the age of thirteen.
Clark immerses himself in Pla's life, developing a close friendship that gives him access to the side of a bar girl most farang (western foreigners) refuse to acknowledge exists; the human soul.
Ambiguity surrounds whether or not 19-year-old Pla is actually sleeping with customers or simply tending the bar as she initially states. However, one thing is clear, she is trapped in the industry both financially and mentally, and it’s only a matter of time before life’s worthlessness leads her to sell her body under the speculation that it might, in some way, lead to a better existence.
Bangkok Girl is a daringly honest, transparent, gripping documentary that stares directly into the eyes of every person who has ever partaken in Thailand’s sex tourism industry, challenging their humanity and questioning their morality. And it is this unabashed approach that has, over the past 7 years, sparked both praise and criticism from both sex tourists and Thailand’s expatriate community.
Since Bangkok’s Girl release, Jordan Clark has remained silent over his critics, leaving a breeding ground for speculation regarding many aspects of the documentary, yet primarily over the mystery surrounding Pla’s disappearance. That is until now.
In his first official interview since Bangkok Girl’s release, Jordan Clark agrees to speak with The Thailand Life about the filming of Bangkok Girl and life post its release.
Hello Jordan, and welcome to The Thailand Life. Thank you for agreeing to come on and speak with us about Bangkok girl.
Thank you for the opportunity.
1. In the documentary you mentioned that you’d travelled previously in the region. When did you first visit Thailand, and how much did you know about the bar girl industry before you began filming?
The first time I travelled to S.E. Asia and Thailand was in 2000. I pretty much stuck to the backpacker tourist trail and didn't venture into the bars. I was very aware of sex being for sale – mainly from the stories and bragging of other travelers. At that time, my knowledge of the bar girl industry was limited to jokes, stories and statistics from outside sources.
2. Was the documentary something you’d arranged with CBC before going to Thailand, or did you film it independently and then offer the rights for airing?
I had no arrangement with CBC before I began. When the film was finished CBC acquired the rights to broadcast it. They did a VERY heavy story edit and cut 30 minutes out of what was a feature film at the time.
3. You met Pla by chance on Sukhumvit road. Can you tell us more about that meeting?
There is really not much more to tell than what was in the film. We just met and clicked right off the bat as friends. After hanging out a few times, we created the film together.
4. Some argue that Pla was exploited by not being remunerated for her part in the documentary, and not complicit to being part of an international documentary. Others say she was paid to fuel the sensationalism. Watching the documentary she seemed entirely happy to share her world with you, and to your credit you took a gentle, non-pushy approach. Can you confirm whether there was a contractual deal with Pla?
There was a contract with Pla which addressed the above issues. Any person being featured in a biographical sense is being exploited, just as any sense of realism to that exploitation is in control of the person themselves and the editor of the film. Pla was aware I was making a film and was an integral part in crafting the story.
5. Watching the documentary one can’t help but be intrigued by your relationship with Pla. It’s obvious you cared a great deal about her, and that you were deeply affected by the time you spent with her. Was the relationship always strictly platonic?
Yes, it was always platonic. Pla changed my life and there isn't a day that goes by where I do not think of her.
6. Many sex tourists choose to ignore your open narrative, and the fact that Pla never asked you for money, preferring instead to view you as naive in your approach, suggesting that in a sense the documentary backfired because Pla was simply “playing the role” hoping for some level of financial reward from you. What did you feel at the time, and looking back now do you still feel the same way?
The film was shot in early 2002 and I was naive – I have always freely admitted that. My 29-year-old perspective is very different from my 40-year-old perspective, but I stand by the message in the film and I stand by the way it was delivered. As long as people are talking about it and creating a dialogue, I wouldn't say that anything backfired.
7. At one point the police confiscated your equipment. Were you scared in any way and did you consider abandoning the filming?
Yes, I was very scared. In the film it appears that there was a struggle…this is simply the microphone being bumped around. I freely gave it up and freely paid the fine. The police were clear it was a onetime incident. I don't blame them at all. I had no permits and was pretty much asking for it.
8. Bangkok Girl opens with two striking statements. The first; In this tourist heaven, it isn’t the exquisite countryside that makes the headlines, but the sex trade, and the falang that come to exploit it, and the second; An estimated 800,000 women work in the nightlife industry.
Since the documentary’s release, most would agree that little has been done to protect girls like Pla, and it can be argued on many levels that the industry is increasingly encouraged as a career option for society’s marginalized women. Have you considered coming back to Thailand and making another documentary with reference and comparison to your first?
I have thought about it. I have personally met with two of my more vocal critics and discussed doing a juxtaposition of opinions. However, they usually lose interest when they learn how much work, and how little profit, independent documentary involves.
I don't oppose prostitution – it will exist as long as there is man and woman. What I oppose is economic constraints dictating the terms and the norm of prostitution. I agree that many women chose to enter this field of work, but can we ignore that it is generally the most uneducated and the most economically constrained girls who do? No matter what society you are in, prostitution exploits the most vulnerable of our girls and women. When speaking of sex tourism, I often hear that these girls would be doing the same thing but for less money if it wasn't for the bars catering to Westerners. For the a-moral type personality justification seems to negate exploitation.
I created a dialogue and, in some way, have made some men travelling to Thailand answerable for their activities – be it from a co-worker, a friend, or their family. I'm not sure another film by me would add to this.
9. Bangkok Girl was very well received, and won you much praise and attention from a variety of media sources. Yet it has since provoked a backlash of criticism, with people attacking you personally on blogs and forums. What impact has this had on your life, and why do you think certain people took such offence to what is clearly a very transparent, real life account of a girl working in a bar in Bangkok?
At first, the personal attacks bothered me, but I became somewhat immune to it over time. I have always ignored the anonymous online critic. I could only speculate on why they are so offended. I mean, I don't know them and they don't know me. We form opinions based on personal experience and knowledge, so their statements are really more a reflection of who they are than of myself or the film.
What I say to men who complain about the stigma “Bangkok Girl” presents is this; if you don't want people thinking you are going to Thailand for cheap sex and exploiting economically constrained girls, then don't go to Thailand for cheap sex and exploit economically constrained girls. The statistics indicate that up to 75% of male travelers to Thailand partake in prostitution at some level.
10. One hugely disturbing aspect of the documentary was the British teacher who featured on camera a number of times. Having lived here for 5 years I have encountered this archetypal, misogynistic westerner hundreds of times; the type who sees Thai women as nothing more than an animal that should be used as a means to sexual gratification. Do you think schools in Thailand, both private and public, should be doing more to screen the type of person they are employing to teach children?
That's a tough question. I have no knowledge of the current screening process so I couldn't answer that. I can accuse him of predatory behavior and poor judgment, but how does a school screen for that? He may be an excellent English Teacher. I don't know.
11. Perhaps the most pondered question since the documentary’s release is whether or not Pla is really dead. Many have speculated that you were told she was dead so that you couldn’t contact her anymore, and one website in particular has even gone as far as to publish a so-called statement from one of her friends claiming she is alive and well. Can you tell us exactly what happened to Pla, and about your efforts to find her after returning home, post the documentary?
I don't think anything I answer here will change people's opinion. They will believe whatever supports their behaviour. I will say that broadcast requires Errors and Omissions Insurance – in which 2 lawyers, the insurance company, and the broadcaster fact-checking department scrutinize all of the material and information.
Any mystery that has been created is by anonymous comments. The only way I could effectively answer your question is by releasing information that I promised to keep private. If I am honest, I see more value in the dialogue being created by the dozen or so anonymous ex-pat critics than I do in providing any evidence either way.
12. Why do you think it is so hard for foreign men visiting and living in Thailand, and indeed other Asian countries, to believe that girls like Pla come from abusive backgrounds, and to accept that they are victims of a vicious circle so many girls get caught up in due to a variety of social-economic reasons?
Thailand has done an incredible job of making it seem normal and fun; the constant presence of police officers for instance – if something was wrong, wouldn't they be doing something? One can't help but think “how could anything so terrible be so fun”? Most Westerners who partake in the night scene come from working class backgrounds. In their home country, most of the prostitutes (at the street/bar level) come from sexually/physically abusive backgrounds which have led to drug abuse that is sustained by selling sex. In Thailand, it is generally economic constraints so we don't see the hardened victim trying to make a buck.
The bars in Thailand put customers first… period. So the girl must create a friendly environment. What is she going to do? Sit there and complain about how much she hates these disgusting foreigners? There are lots of Thai girls who enjoy working in the bars as well – that has to be mentioned.
It becomes a matter of seeing what you want to believe. It is a matter of personal morals. Again, I don't condemn the act of prostitution, just the constraints (and exploitation thereof) that dictate the terms.
Also, the most common defense I hear from ex-pats is that prostitution among Thai's themselves is much more exploitative and rampant than sex tourism. I agree, but find it unfortunately comical that ex-pats pick and chose which parts of Thai society they will embrace.
13. For me, Pla’s disability was a hugely poignant aspect of the documentary. Her crippled hand, coupled with lack of education, meant her job options were limited even more so than her bar peers. But strangely, of all the comments I’ve seen about Bangkok Girl online, none discuss this as a contributing factor to her fate. Why do you think this is, and do you think this is indicative of western ignorance toward Thai society?
Good point. I think it would simply go against whatever argument they were trying to make.
14. The fact that the documentary has commanded such huge attention is testament to your skills as a producer/director. Unlike any other documentary on Thailand’s sex industry, Bangkok Girl brilliantly captures the face of a human soul behind the industry. I personally believe that’s why so many foreigners struggle to accept and appropriate its authenticity – because it evokes such emotion and essentially forces us to look in the mirror. Was this entirely intentional, and did you have any idea of the impact you were creating at the time?
I think it is more a testament to the intrigue of Pla – without her I would have no film. That said, I wanted to make a film that focused on one girl and gave a voice to the issue. I am not claiming to be the moral superior, or expert, I just wanted to tell a story and create a dialogue, which I did. I am not sure if I have had any impact on the situation, but I do think there is now a face that some people can think of when they hear about these things. I consider it a stepping stone for discussion, positive or negative.
15. When a documentary maker creates such an impact as you did with Bangkok Girl, one expects more work to follow in fairly quick succession. Have you continued to work in film since?
I spent the last 6 years studying Philippine folklore and recently released “The Aswang Phenomenon” for free online. It is a feature length anthropological/ sociological study of a Philippine ghoul geared towards the educational market. Aside from that I do corporate film.
I'd rather just tell the stories I want to tell as opposed to telling the stories others think I should tell. I was offered the director's position on several documentaries dealing with prostitution, but I really feel that I have said what I wanted to say about it – it certainly isn't all that needs to be said, but I am satisfied with my contribution to the dialogue.
Once again Jordan, thank you for your time, and thank you for the compelling, insightful Bangkok Girl documentary. I wish you all the best for the future.
If you haven't seen Bangkok Girl you can watch it here.