The remnants of a nation’s cinematic heritage are stacked inside the Lao National Film Archive and Video Center in Vientiane. “When you go in, it’s floor-to-ceiling reels of film,” explained Lao filmmaker Mattie Do. “Some of them are only in pieces, some of them are damaged, and a lot of them are war propaganda films.”
This fragmented collection is all that’s left of Laos’ cinematic past, an industry that effectively ground to a halt in 1975 when the communist Pathet Lao movement assumed power in the landlocked nation.
Apart from propaganda productions, the following few decades saw just one feature film manage to pass the state censors – the 1988 period drama Red Lotus, whose director, Som Ock Southiphonh, would soon after open up a Vientiane bakery after financing issues prevented a second feature-length project from being realized.
It wasn’t until the 2008 Lao-Thai co-production Sabaidee Luang Prabang, the first privately funded Lao film in 33 years, that the industry started to show signs of life, with Lao authorities demonstrating a fresh awareness of the economic potential of local commercial cinema.
Do and a small group of filmmakers are now looking to the future as Lao productions are gradually earning the attention and respect of audiences worldwide.
In more recent years, Laos has seen the release of its first feature-length thriller in Anysay Keola’s At the Horizon (2011) and its first horror movie in Do’s Chanthaly, the film that saw her become the country’s first female feature director.
Chanthaly – which sees a young woman haunted by her mother’s ghost – screened at the 2013 Austin Fantastic Fest. Do’s bigger-budgeted second feature, the horror Dearest Sister, concerns a young girl who can communicate with the dead, and is currently touring the international festival circuit.
At last month’s Far East Film Festival in Udine, Italy, Do reflected on the unexpected success of her debut.
“Chanthaly was a very experimental film for us because it was so DIY,” Do said. “The whole idea was for me to get practice, for me to make a feature and show it at this local festival, the Luang Prabang Film Festival, and then I would be ready to take on a real project.”
With the country still producing a minuscule number of features every year, Do considers it important to provide support for her fellow Lao filmmakers. “I do what I can for my country,” Do said. “I try to do collaborations. I am open to people if they want to use my camera.”
The sense of community and understanding allowed by this intimately small industry even extends to the relationship between local filmmakers and people tasked with censoring their work.
“There’s probably like six of us, and six of them. So they all know us and we all know them by name,” Do said. “So any time I get censored for something, I am unafraid to go knocking on their door. I have open conversations with them all the time.”
And while Lao authorities have taken a more lenient approach to censorship in the past decade, there remains significant constraints on sexual and political content.
Do, however, is optimistic about working within these restrictions. “I don’t wanna make a porno. I’m okay,” she says. “I don’t wanna criticize the Lao government. I’m okay.”
Ironically, one group that hasn’t yet fully embraced the work of local cinema is the Lao people themselves.
Weaned on a diet of Thai comedies and Asian melodrama, Do feels the local audience was unprepared for the art-house characteristics of her debut, or for the notion of “local” films in general. But she has hope that they’ll make their mark as the industry continues to evolve.
“My goal is that, in 10 years, there’ll be these university students who’ll go back, look at my films and be like, ‘Holy crap, that was actually good,’” Do said.