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.”