From 2008 to 2020, the long-dormant domestic film industry in Laos began to see something of a renaissance, with a few Lao-language feature films produced by Lao directors released each year by 2019. To put this in context, in the 34-year span between 1975 and 2008 — the year Sabaidee Luang Prabangwas released — no commercial movies were produced in the country. Thai-language film and television was accessible, of course, and continues today to dominate media consumption throughout Laos; the ethnically diverse Lao people, however, have their own stories to tell, in a variety of languages and cultural traditions, and the gradual cultivation of domestic cinema has begun to share these stories inside and outside the country. Imagine the magic and the thrill of hearing your own language on screen for the first time.
When Anysay Keola was growing up in Laos, there were no movie theaters and people could only watch films on TV. Even now, there are only four cinemas in the whole country – three of them in Vientiane, and one in Pakse: none in Luang Prabang. This context helps us understand why the Luang Prabang Film Festival is so important to so many filmmakers – and audience members. Keola describes the 40 or 50 years up to the 2000s as “the dead period” in Lao filmmaking; a time between the “the golden era of cinema” (in terms of cinema business he’s quick to clarify, not filmmaking) and the opening of the first Lao cinema around 2005. Culturally, the country had started to open from the 1990s, with children like Keola mainly exposed to Thai films, especially Thai horror films, because they could understand the language and the reference points were similar.
In 2008, a Thai/ Lao co-production Sabaidee Luang Prabang was released; “this was like a sparkle for us.” Keola was overseas studying in Australia at the time, but he was “so excited” to see Lao voices in cinema – “I still remember that feeling.” Around the same time, his IT university course required him to complete a special effects assignment and show it to his friends, sparking a love for creating and sharing cinema.
Now, despite challenges such as the limited size of the market and restricted funding options, Keola has made a name for himself as one of Laos’ most accomplished directors. In his words, his films deal with the “life struggles” of ordinary people, often illustrated through science-fiction or magical elements. Growing up, the line between spiritualism and animism was “so blurred”, he says and “the culture may have subconsciously something to do with” these themes often coming up in Southeast Asian films. He explains that the Luang Prabang Film Festival generates a chance, or opportunity, for otherwise unfunded and unheard filmmakers to secure support for their work, to receive technical training, and to have their work be seen and appreciated; “without the Luang Prabang Film Festival, HBO Asia would have never picked up my first film,” he adds “that’s how important it is to me personally.”
Xaisongkham Induangchanthy liked reading a lot when he was young and dreamed of becoming a journalist. Instead, through a series of events — including winning a scholarship to study mass communications in Singapore — he started watching and learning about films. At that time, there wasn’t much of a Lao film industry to speak of, so Induangchanthy dreamed of making films from and about his homeland, “hoping that one day I too could make Lao films and screen them overseas.”
Before then, in his small hometown of Seno, Savannakhet, his experience of cinema was limited: “there was a stand-alone cinema called Seno Rama. Sometimes, my oldest brother would carry me on his shoulders to go and watch a movie there. I have fading memories about what we were watching then.” The cinema only showed Indian movies. When he got older and moved to Savannakhet city and Vientiane, there were still few chances to watch films in cinemas, and it wasn’t until he lived in Singapore and then Australia that he gained extensive experience of cinemas. In both countries, he favored local films, such as 4:30 by Royston Tan (Singapore, 2005), and Samson and Delilah by Warwick Thornton (Australia, 2009). Now, the directors who inspire him most include Jia Zhangke, Hirokazu Kore-eda, and Zang Yi-Mou. Like Induangchanthy, many of these directors deal with themes of family and relationships, and ordinary people with extraordinary tales.
I like to explore relationships between family members. I grew up in a big family in a small village far from a big city. But since I lost both my parents and had to move to a big city and then overseas to study, work, and live, I’ve been on my own. My yearning to be reunited with my family is instilled in me; it’s always there. An image of family members sitting and having dinner together can easily move me to tears.
His films also explore the trend of people moving from rural areas to cities, and the tension between traditional ways of life and modern pressures. “People are longing to return home to re-live a simple life for a moment,” he says, “but they can’t afford to live a slow life for long; they are forced by their circumstances and responsibilities or used to living in a big city where many opportunities are.” Induangchanthy sees the theme of the clash between traditional ways of life and modernity as relevant to many communities around the world.
As a filmmaker, Induangchanthy won the top prize at the Luang Prabang Film Festival’s Talent Lab in 2017, presented by LPFF and the Tribeca Film Institute; and was also a Lao Filmmaker Fund Grantee in 2013, 2014 and 2018. All films made by Lao New Wave Cinema Productions (the company he co-founded) have been selected and shown at the LPFF in the past. Of LPFF, Induangchanthy says: “it has brought us publicity, connections, and many opportunities,” noting also that funding is a huge challenge for Lao filmmakers and that the Lao Filmmakers Fund is currently the only such funding available in the country.
In recent years, Induangchanthy started LanXang Shorts – a short film festival that focuses on a short film competition; “I was surprised by the diverse and daring films that aspiring filmmakers made and submitted. It’s very promising for the future of Lao cinema. Many young people are interested in filmmaking.” His own dream would be to have the time and funds available to produce a feature-length documentary, allowing years to follow certain characters and stories: “I believe, in Laos there are a lot of stories that are worth capturing and sharing with the world.”