Drawing on faith

by Parinyaporn Pajee, The Nation, July 1, 2007

The producer of the first animation about the life of Lord Buddha searches for funds to finish it

Bangkok, Thailand -- It started as a business project and has evolved into a labour of love. That's how businesswomen Wallapa Phimthong describes the locally produced animation "The Life of Buddha", the project she started more than three years ago and aims to bring to cinemas to coincide with His Majesty the King's birthday in December.

It has so far cost her Bt80 million (US$ 2.3 mil) and caused conflict with her family. She's sold her cars and land, and also emptied her savings accounts to make the film that she says aims to foster Buddhism.

"The animation will nourish religious beliefs and encourage the young generation toward an interest in Buddhism. The profits won't come in monetary terms, but as interest from the public," she explains.

Attired in a neat silk dress, Wallapa looks more like a timid lecturer than a successful businesswoman turned filmmaker. The holder of a doctorate degree in business administration from an Indian university, she's at the helm of five different companies offering services from cleaning to construction.

She became involved in the world of animation through her company Media Standard, when they landed a training contract for a government organisation, who she declines to name due to ongoing legal problems. The project aimed to provide skills for those wanting to use animation as an educational medium.

Wallapa was pleased by the state agency's enthusiastic response to her proposal and its offer to help her find financial backing for "The Life of Buddha".

Her family and friends cautioned her to wait but she refused, pouring her own money into the project.

The funds never came through.

Wallapa shrugged off the disappointment, anticipating she could produce the film for Bt50 million (US$ 1.4 mil).

"It's was a sum I could afford," she says.

Then, the training project failed and she found herself being sued. The case is still being heard in the courts.

But delays as well as the decision to upgrade the film's quality has upped the cost to Bt100 million.

After selling the last of her properties, Wallapa turned to her siblings for loans and met opposition. One family member says she is causing problems for her two children.

"On one occasion, my sister asked me how much I needed to wind up the project. She was willing to give me money if I moved to the US to live with her.

"But I believe I am making merit as a Buddhist by finishing the film," she says.

The animation tells the story of the Buddha from his childhood as a prince through to his eventual enlightenment and reaching Nirvana, and shows the Buddha leading disciples to happiness though the practice of dharma.

There are also scenes of miracles from the Tripitaka as well as the story of the Buddha's meeting with Angulimala.

"Every well-known tale from that era has been included in the story," says Wallapa, a devout Buddhist.

The animation is in typical Walt Disney style - many of the team are former members of Thai Wong, a company that worked with the media giant for decades.

The project first caught the public's attention last September when Wallapa appeared on popular TV show "Jor Jai". Emcee Thankhun Jitissara subsequently posted the story of her struggle on popular community website pantip.com.

Thankhun has since joined the team as coordinator. In addition to seeking sponsorship and financial support, he often donates his professional fees and is trying to get a Bt2-million bank loan to support the project.

"The project has benefits for everyone. What I'm doing is trivial comparing to the sacrifices Wallapa has made," he says.

He proposed the project to his boss, Panya Nirankul, president of the Workpoint Entertainment for whom he comperes TV game show "Atchariya Kham Khuen" ("The One-Night Genius").

However, the company has only just entered the movie business and is not yet ready to take on the "Life of Buddha".

The public response, though, has been good, with many people offering their help and rock band Soton pitching in by writing the musical score.

The project should be completed in August, although another Bt20 million is still required for the final colouring of the animation frames and other details.

Wallapa and Thankhun have turned their attention to local companies and are seeking sponsorship.

Wallapa claims a businessman offered to buy the rights to the project for Bt200 million but she turned him down.

"My ultimate goal, after the film has been screened in theatres, is to distribute free copies to schools nationwide. If I sell the project to the firm, that won't be possible," she says.

For more information or to offer support, visit www.thelifeofbuddha.net or e-mail Thankhun at eee004@hotmail.com.