CAROUSEL GENERAL COMMENTARY

Through “Blood, Sweat and Tears, Hell or High Water”, Laos’ Growing Film Industry and First Female Director Boast Ingenuity and Determination

18 March 2020

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Through “Blood, Sweat and Tears, Hell or High Water”, Laos’ Growing Film Industry and First Female Director Boast Ingenuity and Determination

The Southeast Asian film industry, while relatively more modest in size compared to other international cinema, has seen a growth in interest in the past few years. The New Wave of Southeast Asian cinema introduced us to some memorable names such as Eric Khoo (Singapore), Tran Anh Hung (Vietnam) and Brillante Mendoza (Philippines), among others in the region. We are also familiar with the reputable genre of Thai horror, that has perfected the formula to elicit terror and unleash the fears that we did not even know we had.

Looking at the creative energies that the Southeast Asian film industry has, it struck me as a surprise that in 2016, Laos has only produced 13 feature films in the state’s history. So I delved deeper into the history of Lao cinema, and was inspired by the opportunities local filmmakers seized for themselves despite the constraints they had to work with in an industry that, up until recently, was practically non-existent. 

Still from Good Morning Luang Prabang (Image credit: Lao Art Media)

Before adopting communism in 1975, much of the films produced in Laos were propaganda films. It was only in 2008 that the first locally shot movie was commercially released. Directed by Sakchai Deenan, Good Morning, Luang Prabang สะบายดี หลวงพะบาง is a sentimental romance story that could be easily endorsed by the state.

Given the restrictions and censorship imposed by the government, filmmakers often have to limit their stories in order to get the approval of the state. While times have certainly progressed since 2008, it still surprised me that Deenan’s production was actually overseen by a member of the government, to ensure the film was up to their standard and did not negatively depict them. 

Nevertheless, the release of Good Morning, Luang Prabang proved to the government that the film industry is profitable, inciting the growth of Lao cinema, albeit slowly. Younger filmmakers such as Anysay Keola and Mattie Do have been more daring in their artistic pursuits however, venturing into more adventurous and less formulaic films. 

Still from The Long Walk (Image credit: Lao Art Media)

Mattie Do, in particular, has been making ripples, being the first and pioneering female director in Laos. Her debut film, Chanthaly ຈັນທະລີ (2012) is the first horror film directed and produced in the country. Chanthaly garnered positive attention from many, considering the constraints she and her crew had to work around. 

Do had a meagre budget of USD$5,000, shot the film on a Canon 550 DSLR and edited the feature on a refurbished MacBook Pro. Calling herself an “accidental filmmaker”, she had no formal training in directing, only jumping in on the enterprise after being convinced by her screenwriter husband, Christopher Larsen.  

The film was shot in her house, starring her own dog as a major character. Despite this, Do successfully awakened the national consciousness regarding horror, presenting more ominous themes weaved in with the everyday Laotian lifestyle.  Today, she has made two more movies, Dearest Sister ນ້ອງຮັກ (2016)  and The Long Walk (2019), going on to garner even more attention internationally. Dearest Sister became Laos’ first entry to the Academy Awards and The Long Walk continues to be screened in film festivals around the world. 

Do’s humble yet almost fearless beginnings as a filmmaker brings us back to the fundamental essence of filmmaking, which tends to get lost in the hectic world of producing – the simple joy of creating art that one believes in. In her hopes to kindle the interest and support budding filmmakers, she made all of the raw footage and files for the film accessible on Internet Archive, for people to practice on, as opportunities are scarce in the country. 

Still from At the Horizon (Image credit: Lao New Wave Cinema Productions)

With the shortage of resources, many filmmakers who are starting out reach out to each other for help, encouraging a mutually advantageous relationship.  Director Anysay Keola approached freelancers and crew for his debut film on Facebook and Youtube, At the Horizon (2012), many of whom agreed to work for free. Do and Keola have also assisted each other; Do helped with the english subtitles for his first project and Keola loaned him his camera lenses for hers. 

The attitude of young filmmakers in Laos is heartening, coming from an unpretentious objective to communicate the wonder of film as art and entertainment. There is a sense of camaraderie, supporting each other in their works. They teach us that hopeful filmmakers simply need to be bold and take a leap of faith, and like-minded people will recognise the spirit, and lend a helping hand to achieve their common goal. 

Obstacles that are in the way do not discourage filmmaking, but instead inspire creativity and individuality in order to overcome these very challenges, giving Lao cinema a distinctive voice. This distinctiveness, perhaps, is one of the most important aspects of a good filmmaker. 

Still from Chanthaly (Image credit: Lao Art Media)

Lao filmmakers have to struggle with balancing their own artistic pursuits, restrictions they face from the state, and the lack of infrastructure for filmmaking. Nevertheless, the once cultural desert of Laos cinema is now emerging as a promising industry. What the Lao film landscape demonstrates is the importance of clarity and faith in one’s art. Do’s advice? “Don’t back down”.  There will be hindrances, yes, but even those can be resolved as long as aspiring filmmakers remain fast to their work, and champion their community. 

You can watch Chanthaly ຈັນທະລີ  here.

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