Multitasking is what Bjorn Turmann does best. The Bangkok-based, Vancouver native and former Microsoft employee is a writer, university lecturer, and independent filmmaker whose works have been screened in Thailand and Australia.

He’s also a frequent guest speaker at international seminars and tradeshows on topics ranging from independent filmmaking to retail marketing. Bjorn What was the catalyst in bringing his creative projects to fruition? “I knew I wanted to pursue my filmmaking and writing, but it really hit home when I was almost captured on the Cambodian border by the Khmer Rouge back in 1996. This was at a time when the Khmer Rouge was kidnapping foreigners. I was only saved when the off-duty Thai border policeman I was with started firing at them. He had a bigger gun and scared the rouge soldiers away. After that, I really wanted to start using my adventures as a catalyst for creativity.

“If I put my mind to something I want to go out and do it, and I have always loved filmmaking. So far, I have made four films, a documentary and three shorts, all of them shot in Thailand. They are all art films, and you can’t make money on art films, but they’ve allowed me to gain experience working with actors. I literally do everything. I shoot and write the script, produce the film, direct it, and then I work with the editor. It’s a hands-on approach. One day, I would like to write, produce and direct a feature film. I have already written a couple of features, but I haven’t been able to get them made yet. I like making dramatic films that make you think, films that make you reflect about your own life and your own experiences.”

Bjorn cites Tom Cruise in Magnolia, Jack Lemmon in Glengarry Glen Ross (the desperation in the character), Sean Penn (in 21 Grams), Emily Watson (Breaking the Waves) and Ralph Fiennes (Quiz Show) as actors and roles he admires. He’s a big fan of Atom Egoyan, especially The Sweet Hereafter and loves Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal.

Bjorn also imparts his love for film to others as he is a regular guest lecturer at the Chulalongkorn University film department. He talks to third- and fourth-year students about independent filmmaking.

Benevolent Bodysnatchers, Bjorn’s first film, debuted at the Bangkok Film Festival in 2002. It examines the services of Thailand’s first volunteer corpse collection team, Poh Teck Tung. This thirty minute short documentary traces the group’s origins in turn-of-the-century Bangkok, as well as their fascinating worship of Tai Hong Bhiku, a Buddhist monk who lived in China during the Song Dynasty more than 1000 years ago. Accident and crime scenes convey the dramatic rescue work performed by Poh Teck Tung today – a service which is absolutely crucial considering that no government-sponsored ambulance or rescue services exist in Thailand.

The film introduces tragedies as well controversies that the group faces everyday – including the problems of “theft” from dead bodies. Relying completely on public donations, the benevolence of Poh Teck Tung ensures that more than 1500 unclaimed corpses receive proper Buddhist burials each year in sacred grounds owned by the foundation. An estimated 250,000 unclaimed bodies have received burial rights by Poh Teck Tung since the group’s inception in 1906. Anyone who has faced the loss of a loved one – or who has witnessed a tragic accident of any kind – will appreciate the dedication and perseverance of being a rescue worker.

Why did he make this film? “Thai culture has always fascinated me and I knew I’d learn a lot about myself, because I would be exposed to something I really feared – death. I also had very little understanding of Buddhist philosophy to death and I wanted to investigate that.”

Bjorn then made Tracks, a 23-minute film, which he shot in Klong Toey. It follows a young woman’s journey from her low-income neighbourhood alongside the train tracks. Encouraged by her father, the girl decides to leave the familiarity of her home and venture by train to another district of the city. Tracks combines stylistic interpretations of documentary and drama to demonstrate some of the daily realities of Bangkok’s most under-privileged residents. It has an original soundtrack composed by Thai and Canadian musicians. "I made Tracks because of my interest in exploring the lives of people who live along the train tracks in Klong Toey," Bjorn says. "I used to drive past that area almost everyday and each time I did, the script for the film was developed in my head. It took a while but when I finally decided to handle it as a 'docu-drama' the story made sense. It was an incredible experience getting to know the people who reside there."

In July 2003, he made Postcards from Pattaya, a 19-minute dramatic piece which explores the painful journey of a man who decides to escape to the beach resort of Pattaya, Thailand after a failed relationship. His internal misery appears to destroy his vision of paradise almost immediately upon arrival, and thus begins a powerful period of loneliness and isolation, which is highlighted by frequent visits from a woman who challenges the unresolved conflicts he is hoping to run from.

Postcards from Pattaya is a film which touches upon many important themes leaving it very much open to interpretation and analysis by the viewer. With little use of dialogue, the film relies heavily on imagery, sound and music to tell a story, which is certain to resonate with anyone who has ever had difficulty coming to terms with painful issues in their life. The film debuted to strong reviews at the Melbourne Underground Film Festival (MUFF) in 2004.

"Anyone who goes to Pattaya can definitely see a place that is very unique to Asia. I asked myself, 'Why do people go there?' It's a very general question, but one which helped me write the script. It was shot at the far end of Jomtien Beach in an area that became a bit of a ghost town after the '97 economic crisis. It really was the perfect location. We became good friends with two squatter families who kind of control things there. Other than them, it was completely quiet. The families' insights on the area helped to prepare the main actor, David Phillips, for some of the key scenes. It was an amazing shoot."

Bjorn’s latest short film, Gai Yaang (Thai for “barbecued chicken”), a five-minute short, was accepted into the Melbourne Underground Film Festival (MUFF) 2005. In the film a man flashes back to a murder he may have committed after buying some barbecued chicken from a street vendor. The film was shot in Phuket, Thailand on November 26th, one month before the tsunami hit. "I wanted to tell a complex story in five minutes - a very difficult thing to do I discovered. I'm a lover of street chicken but it really was those huge cleavers the vendors use that inspired the story. Gai Yaang showed at the MUFF Festival in July this year and the response was excellent."

Bjorn’s first novel, Good Daughter, was published by Equinox in September of 2005. Equinox describes it thus: “The book is a tale of cross-cultural intrigue and personal discovery. Set in Thailand, it follows the journeys of six characters: two intelligent, imaginative Thai bargirls, a paranoid, well-paid American expatriate and his cynical, corrupting Australian mentor, a young American university graduate and an Isaan villager whose reoccurring presence borders on the mythical. Combining entertaining and dramatic narrative with poignant psychological themes, the novel challenges the reader to look beneath the surface in order to try to understand what influence the characters behaviour. At the conclusion of the story we are shown that, by releasing ourselves from that which binds us, we are able to attain greater hope, and ultimately, freedom.”

His latest book, The Karaoke World of Cortous Haire, which Bjorn self-published, is an old-fashioned adventure tale, set in Singapore, Bangkok and Vientiane. Comic, tragic, outrageous and heart-warming all at the same time, Bjorn says, "It's a very different book from Good Daughter," he says. "It combines a lot of diverse elements and much of it takes place in one of my favourite places in the region, Vientiane. It was fun writing it."

Protagonist, Cortous Haire lands in Singapore in 1997 and finds employment as a karaoke video marketing executive with a local firm. When his boss suggests that they need to “find a star and make her big in Laos”, Cortous’s story becomes a series of experiences and obsessions, mysteries and calamities that eventually lead him to deeper inquiries about life and how to live it. (check out the five minute travelogue: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vCeUBZQKkfg)

Comparing writing a novel with filmmaking, Bjorn says: “Writing a novel and making a film are so different. With this book coming out, I feel more exposed. Writing a book is a singular, lonely exercise – you and your word processor. But as a filmmaker, when I sit down with actors during the production of the film, their feedback and opinion on the characters ultimately helps shape the way the characters are presented as they bring them to life with their acting ability. So there’s a lot more collaboration involved.”

One thing Bjorn Turmann will never lead is a boring life. He has gone from being an evangelist for Microsoft to being an evangelist for his own projects. He’s had a fascinating life and with his inquisitive nature he’s bound to come up with more books and films that will question the world we live in and the role we play in it.

UPDATE

Bjorn Turmann: Canadian Author and Speaker, launches two new books
 
Asia-based Canadian author and public speaking coach, Bjorn Turmann recently celebrated the launch of his two new books. Bjorn is among the few authors to have released a work of fiction (his third) and a book of non-fiction on the same day.  “I guess you could say I am pretty obsessed with the written and spoken word,” said Turmann, when asked about his work as both a writer and a speaking coach. “I find a lot of similarities between crafting stories and helping my corporate clients with their communications problems. Stories need memorable characters and a unique plot in order to be compelling.  Likewise, a strong speech or presentation needs a good story and a unique strategy in order to be compelling.  I spend my time developing both.”

Turmann describes his new books as “journeys.”  “My public speaking clients come from so many different industries and cultures. People with experiences so different from my own. I find a lot of their stories very intriguing. Some of what they tell me ends up in my fiction.”

Arriving to Asia from his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia, in 1993, Turmann immediately immersed himself in the Asia adventure.  “Anyone who has left home knows that this can be both frightening and inspiring.  Making my way to Asia definitely inspired me to explore. There are endless stories to tell when you live here.  My work is a reflection of that.”

His new novel, The Last Tobacco Shop in the World, is set on the island of Jarangwa in the Andaman Sea in the year 2040 (see synopsis below).  “Although it’s set in the future, it’s definitely not science fiction,” says Turmann. “The island has one hotel on it – a hotel that looks more like 1940 than 2040. It’s a tiny island with characters who all contribute to the mystery of the place.  It’s definitely “Orwellian”, perhaps even utopia-like. I am trying to adapt the book to a film and the story’s pacing has already made readers comment on its potential for the screen. Now I just have to find an island to stand in for my fictitious Jarangwa!”

Speaking Energy: Public Speaking for Humans…Finally! is the first in a series of public speaking books that Turmann has planned for the next couple of years.  “I am actually trying to change the phrase ‘public speaking’ to a much more 21st century phrase, ‘human speaking’. Public speaking is outdated. Human speaking is never outdated.” (See synopsis of the book below). The book has received some strong reviews. Professor Grant McCracken of MIT said that it’s “Vivid, human, interesting, well and clearly written...will make each of us a better communicator and the corporation a happier, more efficient place.” The famed National Speakers Bureau in the United States praised the book for its ability to “teach us all to lead.”

“Communications is at the heart of everything we do in life. I want to inspire people to think about not only public speaking in a different way, but our daily communications with everyone we come in to contact with as well – be it home, office, family, friends, etc.  I’m not interested in ‘how we speak’, I’m interested in ‘why we speak.’ Those are two very different approaches. My coaching never involves “rules.”  Finding human connection is not an exact science. I never approach it as such. It’s free flow and all of us have the potential to be a memorable speaker.”

In Thailand, Turmann’s books are available at selected Asia Books outlets as well as on-line and on Kindle.

Speaking Energy: Public Speaking for Humans…Finally!

Bjorn Turmann has spent almost two decades trying to understand this mystery called public speaking. A former Microsoft executive based in Asia, Turmann overcame his speaking fear by dismantling the rules that made public speaking so stressful for him—and for the majority of other humans on the planet. The result is an inspiring, engaging book that shows how all of us, regardless of language, culture or education, can become powerful speakers and leaders. 

Speaking Energy: Public Speaking for HumansFinally! is a book for the 21st century communicator, for individuals or companies whose success has been held back by outdated, ineffective ways of communicating. Using case studies from his coaching and workshops with clients from over thirty countries, Bjorn Turmann offers a unique global perspective on a challenging human practice. With fascinating insights and practical teaching, Speaking Energy will motivate you to go on your own public speaking journey. 

The Last Tobacco Shop in the World

It’s the year 2040 and Anton Brick finds isolation on Rabbit Island more appealing than his job as a syrup monkey chasing fringe supplies of oil in Iraq. With the world under pressure from plagues and controlling government forces, Anton encounters a tobacco lawyer pitching a job on Jarangwa, a tiny slice of post-tsunami apocalyptica in the Andaman Sea. Putting further distance between himself and the challenge of his troubled relationships, Anton lands on autonomous Jarangwa inspired by the promise of a large salary, only to discover an enigmatic island governed by complex personalities and frightening personal ambitions.

As told through the engaging, often comical impressions of Anton’s unique first-person narrative, The Last Tobacco Shop in the World is off-beat future fiction that interprets several of today’s most relevant modern issues with Orwellian-like zeal, producing a highly imaginative, entertaining story that is both richly poignant and darkly intense.

Contact Info

Tel: 081-938-0608 (Thailand number)

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