Strug­gling against a short­age of funds, the spec­tre of state cen­sor­ship and the dif­fi­culty of reach­ing an au­di­ence in a coun­try with only three work­ing cin­e­mas, lo­cal di­rec­tors are tak­ing the fight for a Lao film in­dus­try all the way to the Os­cars

Southeast Asia Globe - - Contents - by cristyn lloyd

Hemmed in by cen­sor­ship and fi­nan­cial re­straints, Laos’ young film­mak­ers are still forg­ing a dar­ing new movie in­dus­try

Mat­tie Do does not hold back. In her films, the women drink, they wear lin­gerie, they steal, they mur­der. In the fi­nal mo­ments of Dear­est Sis­ter, Do's 2016 hor­ror, pro­tag­o­nist Nok and her blind cousin Ana are held cap­tive by Ana's for­mer ser­vants. In a fever­ish con­fronta­tion, Ana charges to­wards her cousin, knife in hand. The screen goes black. For Do, Lao­tian girls are not “in­no­cent, mys­tic lo­tus blos­soms sub­servient to men... We burned that myth up.”

Shot with an eerie del­i­cacy that for­goes tra­di­tional jump-scares, Dear­est Sis­ter is less con­cerned with blood and guts than with telling an au­then­tic story of so­cial class that is caus­ing a stir in con­ser­va­tive Laos.

“It high­lighted Laos in prob­a­bly one of the most raw and truth­ful ways that any­one has ever seen on screen,” says Do, by all ac­counts the first and only fe­male film di­rec­tor in the coun­try.

Re­fus­ing to fall back on out­dated tropes of Asian cin­ema – de­pic­tions of the elite up­per class or de­mean­ing poverty porn, ac­cord­ing to Do – the film shocked au­di­ences. “It shows a lot of our hi­er­ar­chy, the way our so­ci­ety is built around ma­te­ri­al­ism… and it showed the way rich peo­ple in Laos treat peo­ple from lower eco­nomic classes and our ob­ses­sion with try­ing to climb up to that up­per ech­e­lon… so we can fur­ther the cy­cle of treat­ing lower class peo­ple like slaves. It's a pretty harsh film ac­tu­ally,” Do says.

The $250,000 pro­duc­tion – only the 13th fea­ture film in the coun­try's his­tory – didn't just strike a nerve with lo­cal au­di­ences, it also be­came the first movie that Laos has sub­mit­ted to the Academy Awards.

Prior to 1975, film was vir­tu­ally non-ex­is­tent in Laos save for the pro­pa­ganda pro­duced and screened by the coun­try's war­ring roy­al­ist and com­mu­nist camps. And it would be 2008 be­fore the coun­try pro­duced its first in­de­pen­dent fea­ture film, Good Morn­ing Luang Pra­bang.

Directed by Sakchai Deenan, it was a de­lib­er­ately sim­ple ro­man­tic com­edy that con­formed to the gov­ern­ment's cen­sor­ship poli­cies. At the time, though, it was op­ti­misti­cally touted as the push that the coun­try's nascent film in­dus­try needed. In the end, with funds des­per­ately lack­ing and the watch­ful eye of the com­mu­nist gov­ern­ment's Cin­ema Depart­ment over­see­ing the in­dus­try, things moved slowly.

Ten years later, a new gen­er­a­tion of film­mak­ers is fi­nally break­ing the sta­tus quo. Do and Anysay Ke­ola, ar­guably the two big­gest names in Lao cin­ema, refuse to yield to pop­u­lar opin­ion, shy­ing away from the melo­dra­matic style im­ported from Thai­land. In­stead, their unique brand of art house cin­ema pushes the bound­aries of state-im­posed cen­sor­ship and gen­er­ates in­ter­na­tional head­lines in the process.

Nev­er­the­less, Lao­tian film­mak­ers are still far from en­joy­ing lav­ish, Hol­ly­wood bud­gets. “I was the only one who was able to pull off a com­pletely no-bud­get film at $4,500. It in­volved my friends work­ing for next to noth­ing. My dog was a star. We filmed it in our house,” Do says of her de­but, Chan­thaly, widely touted as the first hor­ror film made in Laos.

Ke­ola's first film, 2011's At the Hori­zon, has a sim­i­lar story – starting with zero con­tacts, the young film­maker re­cruited his team through YouTube.

Their rel­a­tive suc­cess, how­ever, opened the door to in­ter­na­tional co-pro­duc­tions – and the larger bud­gets that come with them. If Dear­est •

Sis­ter's $250,000 bud­get was still stag­ger­ingly low by in­ter­na­tional stan­dards, the ex­tra cash al­lowed Do to hire a pro­fes­sion­ally trained crew and tech­ni­cians, and pro­vided a boost to the film's pro­duc­tion val­ues, from cos­tumes to mu­sic.

“Gen­er­ally, hav­ing the bud­get jump from about $5,000 to $250,000 al­lowed me to cre­ate and com­plete a film that could match my vi­sion and goal,” she says.

In ad­di­tion to slowly swelling bud­gets, Laos' nascent film in­dus­try is grad­u­ally be­ing given the space to suc­ceed on its own terms by the re­lax­ation of cen­sor­ship. Do re­mem­bers pre­sent­ing Dear­est Sis­ter to the gov­ern­ment's Cin­ema Depart­ment as a “nerve-rack­ing” ex­pe­ri­ence.

“They watched it and they wrote down all the notes… and they asked me about the things that they didn't like,” she says. “They asked me to de­fend my­self. And they al­lowed me to speak and… give the pur­pose of why I felt it was nec­es­sary to have these el­e­ments in the film. And they al­lowed it to be shown in Laos.”

Do de­scribes con­sid­er­able progress from her first film, in which the cen­sor­ship board wanted all girls to be wear­ing tra­di­tional clothes, to her most re­cent, in which a girl ap­pears in bed in her lin­gerie be­cause she was able to make the point that “that's what women wear some­times when they go to bed”.

“I think they are [get­ting less strict], by far… I def­i­nitely mur­der some­one in my film. And that was not OK be­fore. So as long as you can de­fend your­self, [and] make the pur­pose known, I be­lieve that our cen­sor­ship is will­ing to work with you,” she says.

Ke­ola de­scribes a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion with At

the Hori­zon. “The el­e­ments of vi­o­lence [and] the use of lan­guage they didn't like, so they just re­jected [it] at the be­gin­ning,” he says.

How­ever, given that the movie dou­bled as his univer­sity the­sis, Ke­ola says he was able to con­vince the au­thor­i­ties to per­mit him “spe­cial con­di­tions” un­der which the movie could be made but not screened pub­licly.

Once the film was com­pleted, of­fi­cials re­alised that the vi­o­lence was not cen­tral to the film, and so, af­ter a few tweaks, it was approved for pub­lic re­lease. Five years later, in 2016, a screen­ing on HBO Asia made it the first Lao film to be shown on a ma­jor in­ter­na­tional TV net­work.

“[At the Hori­zon] was a break­through… I be­lieve it will also in­spire other film­mak­ers to re­alise: ‘OK, we can ac­tu­ally do some­thing new,'” Ke­ola says.

Mir­ror­ing the in­dus­try's grad­ual rise over the past decade, the Luang Pra­bang Film Fes­ti­val was es­tab­lished in 2009 and has played a ma­jor part in cham­pi­oning lo­cal cin­ema. The Unesco World Her­itage town has no cin­e­mas – there are just three in the en­tire coun­try – mean­ing the fes­ti­val's free screen­ings pro­vide a rare op­por­tu­nity for Lao­tians to see films made in Laos.

Founder Gabriel Ku­per­man feels that, by pro­vid­ing work­shops, com­pe­ti­tions and other ed­u­ca­tional ac­tiv­i­ties, the fes­ti­val is “de­vel­op­ing the film in­dus­try in the most lit­eral sense by giv­ing [young film­mak­ers] the skills to be able to be their own me­dia pro­duc­ers… More peo­ple are in­ter­ested in mak­ing films than ever be­fore.”

The fes­ti­val team also put to­gether the se­lec­tion com­mit­tee for this year's ground­break­ing Academy Awards sub­mis­sion. “I think it was a ter­rific step for the Lao film in­dus­try and helps [it] to gain more ex­po­sure,” says Ku­per­man. “Ev­ery­one who read the ar­ti­cles [de­tail­ing] the for­eign lan­guage rec­om­men­da­tions could see: ‘Wow! Laos has a film in­dus­try, so let's check it out.'” •

• The movie poster for Dear­est Sis­ter, the first Lao film to be sub­mit­ted to the Academy Awards• Anysay Ke­ola (cen­tre) on set. Ke­ola is one of a new breed of di­rec­tors push­ing Lao cin­ema for­ward

Lao­tian di­rec­tor Mat­tie Do is push­ing the bound­aries of film­mak­ing in Laos• A still from Dear­est Sis­ter, Do’s hor­ror movie that had a bud­get of $250,000 – rel­a­tively lav­ish for the Lao film in­dus­try

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