By Leni De Castro
The Laos film industry is like the awakened Naga raising its head from the Mekong River towards four of its neighbors as it opens its doors to the rest of the world. After the liberation of Laos from France’s occupation in 1949, subsequent civil unrest ensued, transferring power to the Lao Communist regime in 1975. The Lao film industry was literally nonexistent except for propaganda films to promote the ruling communist group. Independent filmmakers had no place there either, due to lack of funding, lack of equipment or due to the oppressive policies of the communist government.
In the mid-2000s, the government began to slowly open Laos’ doors to the world. 2008 saw the first gambit by a private production company coming out. Good Morning Luang Prabang is a joint venture of Thai director Sakchai Deenan and Laos’ Anousone Sirisackda. The project, however, had to undergo script approval before filming and strict monitoring by the Ministry of Culture to ensure that Laotian culture was being aptly portrayed in the movie. Because there are only two movie houses in the Vientiane capital and the Laotians’ income couldn’t be earmarked for something as luxurious as watching movies, the producers sought for international release. But because of this venture, the government saw the potential income that could be generated by the film industry as well as an opportunity to promote Laotian culture via the world stage. This production was an inspiration to other companies, thus paving the way for a string of films to be released then after, including 2015 omnibus Vientiane in Love and 2013 horror flick Chanthaly.
Independent filmmakers, led by Anysay Keola, formed their own company, Lao New Wave Cinema Productions, to produce thought-provoking features, including the Keola-helmed At the Horizon and other short films that deal with social and environmental issues.
Another milestone for the Laos film industry was the Luang Prabang Film Festival which started in 2009. Here was another path to ignite people’s passion for movies, a move that would institutionalize the industry and indirectly persuade the government to build movie houses where the masses can enjoy watching Laotian films. There are no cinema houses in Luang Prabang – ironic since the festival is held annually in this UNESCO Heritage site. Films are shown wherever people can convene; in a local hotel, handicraft markets and Project Space design studio and gallery. All admissions are free. The festival’s annual budget, according to its founder Gabriel Kuperman, falls below fifty thousand dollars yet, despite the meager funding, it has been able to maintain a high standard on exhibited films, relying on volunteer Southeast Asian film experts to suggest submissions.
Most of the films from Laos are very low budget. Productions are largely dependent on volunteer efforts of crews, service staffs and actors. Production companies, producers, staff and actors hold day jobs to support themselves but one thing drives these people in the Laos film industry: to make films that the Laotian people can be proud of.