Bangkok based cinematographer Phuttiphon Aroonpheng’s first feature length film Manta Ray quietly draws attention to the plight of the persecuted Rohingya minority. Considered stateless in Myanmar, the Rohingya people lack any form of protection by the government.
This systemic discrimination has led to their migration for many decades (with only the occasional peak exodus), however heightened tensions and attacks on the Rohingya people over the past five years has resulted in them leaving at a staggering rate since 2017, drawing international attention to the issue. The Rohingya people leaving Myanmar seek refuge in neighbouring countries; in the case of Thailand they must arrive by boat. The movie starts with the statement “For the Rohingyas”.
The film is set near a coastal village of Thailand and starts bleakly as the opening scene depicts a gravesite; shortly after one of the men involved in the gravesite, a Fisherman named Eternity (played by Wallop Rungkumjad) finds a man nearing death in the forest. Played by Aphisit Hama and soon to be named Thongchai by the Fisherman, he is nursed back to health in a most kindhearted way.
As a form of symbolism Thongchcai is mute and the additional challenge in communication forces both to convey meaning through perception, forging a strong bond between the pair. The little to no dialogue throughout the entire movie reflects the need for patience and acceptance of a people who have so much to say yet so little power to say it.
The film is abstract in its message and it would be hard to understand without prior knowledge of the issues faced by a group that strive to obtain any form of legal identity or citizenship. For example, the unusual plot of the Fisherman teaching Thongchai all aspects of his life only to then disappear without a trace whereupon Thongchai effectively becomes the fisherman and thus obtains an identity, would not be apparent to the non-informed; in fact many of the deeper meanings are hard to connect with and you must ascribe meanings to all the visuals, in particular the multi coloured fairy lights.
Manta Ray premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2018 where it took out the Orizzonti Prize for Best Film. Director Phuttiphon Aroonpheng was also one of two directors who tied in the Special Jury Prize for Best Director at the 2018 Cairo International Film Festival.