For four decades, Father Joe has been a beacon of hope for some of Bangkok's poorest children. Now two filmmakers are hoping to document his inspiring life
By Annemarie EvansAn Irish-American priest talks to the camera as he sits at a table in the slums of Klong Toey, Bangkok, Thailand. It's September 2009. Father Joseph Maier describes how a hospital contacted him asking if he could look after a little girl who was blind and had Aids. She had been run over - by her parents.
"This is where you really wonder about the world," the then 69-year-old priest says. "You can understand warlords and pimps and addicts doing these horrible things. But the parents? Oh, boy! [They] used and abused this child and then tried to kill her. I'm not sure if the devil would compete on this level."
It's one of several disturbing scenes in a 15-minute film, which its two Australian filmmakers want to turn into a 90-minute documentary, called Father Joe and the Bangkok Slaughterhouse. The central character is Father Joe, a charismatic Redemptorist priest from the United States, who has been living in the Klong Toey slum since 1973. Shortly after he moved in, he set up the Human Development Foundation and its Mercy Centre, which now employs 330 people and runs 22 kindergartens, as well as a hospice, four orphanages and several other establishments, across Bangkok. "The Slaughterhouse" is a particularly poor area, set around the Klong Toey abattoir, where pigs are killed at night.
The film cuts between Father Joe talking to the camera and him taking the filmmakers around the Slaughterhouse. There are uplifting moments, such as a scene featuring little girls laughing at one of the kindergartens run by the Mercy Centre.
The Australian-based filmmakers, James Lingwood, 60, and Mark Norfolk, 56, have known each other for more than a decade and collaborated on documentaries, features and trailers. Both worked in Hong Kong for many years and together they have formed production company Palmwood Pictures.
Lingwood, who is the director and cameraman of the short film, was in Bangkok in April 2007 and had gone to a hotel to meet potential backers for a feature project he was working on.
"There was a presentation in the hotel's boardroom. A group of people were talking about a golf day, where they were going to raise money for a place called the Mercy Centre," Lingwood says. "Then a guy walks in, he had no collar and he told a story about the centre. I looked around the room and there were people with tears rolling down their cheeks. And I thought, 'Wow, who is that man?' So I talked to a producer friend of mine who was there and I said a golf day is over in one day, how about some commercials?
"So Mark and I came to Bangkok and shot four commercials with kids [from the Mercy Centre]. At that time we were just getting to know Father Joe. We walked through the slum for a couple of hours and it became apparent that there was another huge story here. Everybody has seen films about child abuse and violence and poverty but the difference here was Father Joe himself. He describes himself as an ordinary person, but he is a man who has done extraordinary things."
Lingwood describes how Father Joe was initially suspicious of the idea: "You have to build a relationship and trust and respect over a period of time," Lingwood says.
The commercials showed the children doing a mural on a wall in their school playground. Some of the children were HIV positive, others were orphans. "And they're painting these beautiful vignettes of life. I think from that moment on, Mark and I were committed to making the bigger film, to show what is going on in Klong Toey. To highlight what Father Joe and the group of people he has inspired are doing."
Norfolk, who co-produced and edited the short film, says: "When James and I were doing the commercials, we would see life through the eyes of Father Joe and at the end of each day we would be shell-shocked. There was a whole range of emotions in just one day. One moment you would be uplifted, the next totally depressed. That trip to Bangkok changed our lives forever. You can't walk away from something like that and not be affected. It's a story that really does need to be told, because it will do a world of good. People can see what we experienced and how it changed us."
For Father Joe, however, while he appreciates that Lingwood and Norfolk's intentions are admirable, there is a certain risk attached to being accompanied around the slum, an area where he has spent decades building trust.
"I've lived here all these years," says Father Joe. "If I bring people in or take them around, it cuts down my credibility with my neighbours. They ask, `What's he doing now?' So we have to be extremely polite, considerate and courteous. I was very happy to do it because these are good men with a good cause. We asked everyone's permission to take pictures. And some said no, others yes."
The promotional film has been shown to television stations across North America and Europe, as well as distributors, in an effort to get financing for the longer feature. The filmmakers are working in partnership with Minds Eye Entertainment, one of the largest film production and distribution houses in Canada.
An earlier Lingwood-Norfolk collaboration was a one-hour documentary called From the Dragon's Mouth. It included interviews with several prominent local people over the 10 years following the handover of Hong Kong and was screened on BBC World. Norfolk also produced the trailer for Jet Li's martial arts film Fearless, the Taiwanese thriller Silk and Tsui Hark's Seven Swords. Lingwood worked on award-winning three-part documentary The Voyage of the Great Southern Ark, based on Australian photographer Reg Morrison's book.
"There are quite a few challenges," says Lingwood, to creating the feature documentary and getting it marketed. "These days, because the money has become scarcer, it's harder to get a broadcast pre-sale. A lot of broadcasters are now waiting until a film is finished, so they pay a lot less."
Lingwood and Norfolk are trying to raise the US$550,000 they need to shoot the rest of the 90 minutes. They are also considering looking at Father Joe's childhood, which would require filming in the US.
"One of the things we're trying to do is actually get involved and [add our own] comments, so we give our own perspective," Norfolk says. "People see these stories all the time, but we're trying to do it differently."
Filming in Klong Toey comes with more than a few nasty surprises. Once a fire burned down 40 houses in the slum. Fortunately, no one died. Days later, Lingwood talked to the firefighters and, with the help of a fire engine, shot scenes of the devastation.
Considering the sensitivity of filming in the slum, Lingwood says, a two-man team is an advantage.
"You do a little portion every day without panicking about the end result," Lingwood says. "Normally, you'd have three or four more people as a crew. But this time, just having the two of us works better, because what we're actually feeling is the intimate world of the Klong Toey slums. With two people and a small camera, you can go about your business in an unobtrusive way."
The short film, which includes animation, shows heart-wrenching vignettes, in Thai with subtitles, such as one of a mother and her two sons, all of whom have Aids; and another featuring young women in go-go bars and on the streets of Bangkok.
The full-length documentary is being shot through Father Joe's eyes.
"As filmmakers you have the power to tell this amazing story," Lingwood says. "And you can't just walk away from it, you are committed. It'll create an awareness that will make people sit up."
One of the key issues the film addresses is that of child sex abuse and, in the short, Father Joe is seen vilifying paedophiles. The animation was produced by a company in the Philippines and shows small girls with frightened eyes selling garlands to drivers, before being shoved into a car, where a predatory spider awaits them.
"Women are just as bad as men," Father Joe says. "I don't think any parent wants to do it. They are desperate for food, so they turn a blind eye. But children have to know they are safe. Parents have an absolute obligation to look after their children.
"There should be a law where the children are provided with money for education. Otherwise, they'll get a couple of years of education and then where are they? They will not be left with many options - maybe cleaning or the sex industry. As well as imprisoning the paedophile, these children should be given a better future, one in which they do not live in fear all the time."
In the short film, Father Joe describes his first visit to Klong Toey as feeling like a cowboy walking into Dodge City. But "to be a cowboy in the Slaughterhouse, you better learn to say you're sorry, you better learn to bow your head and not show off. You ain't seen `big and tough' until you come here to the Slaughterhouse. I learned that real quick."
The Mercy Centre now has Thailand's Princess Srirasmi as a patron and also helps sea-gypsy children in the south. Father Joe and the centre's co-founder, Sister Maria Chantavarodom, who was born in Macau and raised in Thailand, have seen at least one generation of children from the slum kindergartens grow up. The schools' alumni now include adults with good jobs who are able to pay for a full education for their own children.
Film star Jackie Chan has visited the Bangkok operation three times, says Father Joe, describing how the actor and the children did acrobatics together.
"Father Joe is such an amazing communicator," Lingwood says. "The way he uses words, you can almost visualise them. He just has something fascinating to say, about all sorts of things, not just about what he does, but about the world we live in. That is the point of difference, Father Joe himself. Whether the camera is on or off, he's the same."
Death is ever present in the slums. Father Joe took Lingwood and Norfolk to film children queueing up for Aids medication, patients in the hospice and bodies in coffins.
"The ethics of filming people who are in the process of dying is something I'd not [given much thought to] before," Lingwood says. "To go into a hospital ward and [film] someone who is dying of Aids, or tuberculosis or glue poisoning, it feels wrong. What do you do? Do you get a close-up of his face, do you film his legs? It was very emotional."
With the 90-minute film, both Lingwood and Norfolk hope to show more of Father Joe's humour.
"He has a great sense of humour," says Norfolk, highlighting a photograph of Father Joe clowning through an empty wooden window frame. "He puts up with adults, but he loves being with the children, hearing their laughter and chatter. When he passes a group, he'll do high fives with them."
Describing how he came to move from the US to Bangkok in 1967, Father Joe varies the story but always says it was because other priests wanted him as far away as possible.
He told one interviewer: "I was ordained as a Redemptorist priest in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, but I was assigned as a young priest to Thailand. Basically they wanted to get rid of me. I think it was because I liked Crosby, Still and Nash and I thought that Woodstock was a great happening."
He tells Post Magazine: "They wanted to get rid of me. I think it was because I was against the [Vietnam] war and listened to the Grateful Dead."
Father Joe has both fans and critics within the Catholic Church. His mission is to work and live within the Klong Toey community, not to proselytise, which hasn't always made him popular.
"On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays I do Mass. But I probably spend more time in Buddhist temples and mosques than I do in a church," he says. "Well, perhaps more in the temple than mosques. During the week, there might be a funeral and I'll be there doing my beads next to a monk. We have Buddhists, Christians and Muslims here living harmoniously, and I think that's something to show the rest of the world."
"He just looked at us," says Norfolk of Father Joe, "And said: `Make sure you tell the truth.' I think that's what drives him as well, the truth. When we are here, he makes sure we see everything. He does have rough edges, though, he's had to. There's no way you can be a soft-spoken priest where he is, you have to have an attitude. He's probably rubbed up people the wrong way, but there's many people who love him to death."
Father Joe's key motivation is the desire to ensure every child in the slum gets an education. The Mercy Centre helps thousands of children with education and provides nutritious meals. And there are a lot of mouths to feed.
"Ah, well, they're only little fellas," he grins.
At the end of the short film, Father Joe laughs as a 39-year-old man with Down's syndrome, who lives at the centre, helps him put on his cassock. He says: "I'm just a rather ordinary man ... I'm full of warts and wrinkles ... But you know something? We're not exactly winning this war, but we're certainly not losing it."