Lao cinema: Where to in 2015?

LUANG PRABANG, Laos (MindaNews/11 Dec.) — Despite the lack of venues to show movies on big screens, Lao filmmakers are striving to produce features and documentary films and build links with counterparts from neighboring countries in an effort to improve their own craft.

Local filmmakers hope to see progress upon the establishment of the Asean Economic Community (AEC) in 2015, which should see the industry opened up to outside professionals who will bring valuable expertise.

The night market in Luang Prabang turned into an open air cinema on Saturday evening. Only the projector light shining on the large projector screen illuminated the area where spectators were filling up around a thousand blue monobloc chairs.

The occasion was the opening ceremony of the 4th Luang Prabang Film Festival (LPFF), featuring 28 films from Southeast Asia, including four movies from Laos.

There has been a huge increase in the number of Lao films in recent times, says LPFF director and founder Mr. Gabriel Kuperman on the night, adding that it will progress even more in 2015 as production companies here continue to produce at least one film a year.

As the AEC is coming, he continues, the LPFF’s goal is to provide a cohesive community for the exchange of films among Asean countries.

“By showing different films from neighboring countries, Laos can see if its film industry is on par with that of others,” he says.

The Lao film industry has experienced rapid growth as more young people are making movies while the equipment has become more accessible and affordable, says Lao filmmaker Ms Vannaphone Sitthirath
from Lao New Wave Cinema.

“We hope it’s going to be better in 2015 and get support from the Asean region,” she adds. Lao filmmakers are striving to create more movies despite not getting much financial and technical support from the government.

She says if it tried hard enough, Laos can get the attention of the Asean community and raise funds to support local filmmakers. The LPFF has also initiated the Lao Filmmakers Fund, which allows Lao filmmakers to apply for small grants to fund their film projects.

While “I love Savahn” by Lao filmmaker Bounthong Nhotmanhkong is being shown, a man in his 50s tells MindaNews that it was his first time to see a Lao movie, perhaps not surprisingly given that there are only two small movie theatres in the country.

The Lao International Trade and Exhibition Centre (Lao-ITECC) in Vientiane has two cinemas with a total of 500 seats.

Some 10 years ago, Laos once had a few movie theatres in Vientiane and the provinces of Luang Prabang and Champassak. They used to show movies from other countries including Vietnam and Russia, recalls Mr. Dhethnakhone Leungmovihane from the Film Department under the Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism.

But, as pirated DVDs swarmed into the markets, movie houses were eventually renovated as hotels, restaurants and other establishments.

Filmmakers in Laos need to find alternatives to show their movies and make some money for their efforts.

Ms Vannaphone says they conduct small screenings in private schools and with foreign expatriates at the French Centre and Martini Lounge in Vientiane. During international events, they have also had numerous chances to show their movies in the National Culture Hall and on occasion filled up its 3,000 seats.

Mr. Dhethnakhone, whose graduate thesis was an analysis about Lao films, says, “For Lao people to appreciate films from our country, a film must first be entertaining whether or not it is about some political agenda.”

President of Lao Art Media Mr. Anousone Sirisackdo spoke at a seminar on Saturday, noting that while films can help promote the country they can also be instruments to advocate good values among the youth.

He cites, for example, building new environments instead of beer shops outside the local schools.

Led by Director of the Film Department Mr. Bounchao Pijit, some 30 representatives from government offices and the private sector participated in the seminar and brainstormed on how to improve Lao film to link with Asean and other regions. In line with the LPFF, the annual meeting invites guests from neighboring countries to attend the event.

However this year, the participants were all from Laos as two invited delegates from Vietnam and Myanmar did not make it. The government’s budget as counterpart for the LPFF this year was 80,000,000 kip which is not enough to cover the airfares of foreign delegates.

Film festivals should not only be conducted only in Luang Prabang but also in other provinces of Laos, says Director of the Department of Mass Media Mr. Bondith Vathananon, who attended the seminar. To improve its quality of films, Lao filmmakers have to learn from the experiences of neighboring countries, he adds.

Laos “cannot say no” to link with neighboring countries despite limitations, Mr. Bounchao told the forum participants. It has to continue its cooperation with foreign ministries, according to Director of Propaganda and Public Relations Division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Press Department, Mr. Bounnhong Boutthavong.

He added that Laos should make films with neighboring countries that share its borders such as China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand and Myanmar, aiming to promote better understanding between the people of the respective countries.

The government has to prioritize making policies that will support film production and filmmakers, according to Director of Lao National Television, Mr. Bounchome Vongphet.

The Film Department has produced about 80 short films from 2009 to 2013, but none of them have shown for public screening yet, says Head of Feature Film Division Mr Khamphao Vannavong. He suggests that to promote and support such films, they have to be shown on television.

Lao people are bombarded with movies and television dramas from Thailand and other countries, but they surely want to watch Lao films, says Ms Vannaphone. “But they don’t have many movies to see,” she stresses.

She notes that the two Lao movies Huk Aum Lum and At the Horizon were received warmly by Lao people when they were shown in Lao-ITECC. “We want to see Lao movies. We have our own voice, our own language. And, we want to make movies for Lao people. We are still working hard to get support and co-produce with other filmmakers from neighboring countries.”

Lorie Ann Cascaro of MindaNews is one of the fellows of the FK Norway (Fredskorpset) exchange program in partnership with the Vietnam Forum of Environmental Journalists. She’s currently in Laos and hosted by the Vientiane Times.