I was invited to attend the opening weekend of the Luang Prabang Film Festival, which is screening 23 Southeast Asian films until Saturday.
The fest got me a deal on a Lao Airlines flight (one of the sponsors) and put me up at a My Lao Home guesthouse (another sponsor). So many thanks to the director, Gabriel Kuperman, for inviting me and putting on what hopefully will be an annual event.
I wrote up a story about it for The Nation, and it's in the paper today. Here's a snip:
The fest, the first-ever in Laos’ Unesco World Heritage city, flickered to life over the weekend, showing films from neighbouring nations in the hopes of getting Laotian people interested in making movies.
In fact, they already are. The opener on Saturday night was an exuberant compilation of 15 one-minute films made by children in Luang Prabang. They played to an audience of 1,000 that filled the 800 seats in the City Market Square and spilled out around the edges. Passersby would pause on their way to the walking-street night market.
The Oneminute Junior programme, put together by Unicef and various other cultural organisations, was under the theme of “Daily Life in Dreams”. The short subjects ranged from a public-service message about wearing motorcycle helmets to mini-profiles of artisans.
One of the most entertaining was Be Careful!, an animation of an aeroplane, similar to the tiny twin-propeller aircraft that buzzed past the open-air festival venue on take-offs and landings at the city’s international airport. The crayon drawings of the plane flying through a thunderstorm in the mountains were moved by hand in front of the camera while the noise of the aeroplane and storm were imitated by vocal sound-effects that had the audience in stitches.
Made just last month in a Luang Prabang workshop, it was the first time many of the children had ever held a video camera, says Kuperman, who’s been in Laos since 2008.
Other shorts gave voice to the children’s dreams, of becoming a teacher or owning a computer shop. Maybe now, some of the children will dream to be filmmakers.
I think the short films were my favorite of the festival, and would recommend the package to other festival programmers. It's not every day you see a film from Laos.
I'd seen most of the other films already.
The opening feature was the Irish documentary Today is Better Than Two Tomorrows, which was filmed in Laos by director Anna Rodgers. Beautifully shot and interspersed with philosophical quotations, it's an intimate portrait of two boys who seem destined to live the same hand-to-mouth existence as subsistence farmers as their parents. An uncle convinces the families to send the boys to Luang Prabang. One enters the monkhood, where he'll spend 10 years in meditation and getting an education. The other attends a school. I was grateful for the scenes that showed the temples and monastic life around Luang Prabang. Because I was on a working weekend, and concerned with covering the festival, I didn't take much time out for touristy things like visiting the temples.
On the van ride from the airport, I ran into Stirling Silliphant, who I became acquainted with years ago when he was living in Bangkok and playing in a co-worker's rock band, the Eastbound Downers. Stirling, son of the famous screenwriter, was there representing the Vietnam-based Indochina Film Arts Foundation, one of the festival's "gold sponsors".
I also met Blaine Johnson, who was providing technical support for Open Air Cinema, an American company that specializes in inflatable movie screens for outdoor screenings. While the once-popular outdoor cinema screenings are becoming thing of the past in Thailand, Blaine says they are all the rage in the U.S., where park districts put on shows. For the Luang Prabang fest, Jay had a conventional fixed screen, 20 feet by 11.5 feet, which was a bit small. But that was within the small budget of the festival. A large Sony projector provided by Lao Star TV beamed the images from DVD files ripped onto a laptop.
Lao pop singer Alexandra Bounxouei was the mistress of ceremonies on opening night, providing bilingual translation of the speeches by Kuperman and the various Lao government dignitaries.
There were only a few noticeable technical difficulties. Moisture in the projector lens made a red splotch on the screen that sometimes made it look like someone's head was bleeding.
And sadly, one of the films playing this weekend that I hadn't seen, Kelvin Tong's Singaporean ghost thriller The Maid, had a problem with its file, which had apparently been ripped from VCD and send on a DVD. It was pixellated and running poorly and then gave up the ghost entirely about halfway through. I had a great time watching it with the Lao kids in the crowd, who screamed and covered their eyes to keep from being scared.
Later in the evening, for movies like Adrift from Vietnam or Karaoke from Malaysia, the audience tended to drift away, but like any festival, there's a hard-core of die-hard viewers who'll watch them all.
The Lao movies like Sabaidee Luang Prabang starring Ananda Everingham tended to attract the biggest audiences, showing there's a hunger for local movies.