Starting an Asian Cinema:
Laos Past and Present

Som Ock Southiponh

In these days when Asian cinema is being celebrated all around the world, people seem to ignore the fact that there are only a few select nations such as China, Japan, and Taiwan which are dominating the international spotlight. There are many other countries like my own, Laos, which, because of economic and other reasons, are struggling to build a domestic cinema despite possessing an old and rich visual culture.

Laos is a small, landlocked multi-ethnic country. The social, cultural, and economic development of the 4.5 million Laotians was delayed by the long colonial occupation and by thirty years of war in Indochina. Unfortunately, very limited documentation exists on Laotian cinema. Exactly who did what, and when, remains largely a mystery. We know that twelve feature films have been produced so far, but regrettably only three remain in existence today. The oldest documentary film dates back to 1956 and includes rare footage of the former royal family. The first feature film was shot in 1960 and was entitled Fate of the Girl. Approximately 9000 reels of film are stored in the National Film Archives, including material shot by Laotian, Vietnamese, Soviet, and East European camera crews.

As the only professional, independent Laotian film director, my case speaks a lot about the past and present conditions of cinema in Laos. It is perhaps telling that I originally wanted to study law, but when the revolution happened, I was selected by the government in 1977 to study filmmaking in Czechoslovakia. It was not my first choice to become a filmmaker, but at the time I agreed because I wanted to go abroad to study something. That was the beginning of my nine years in Prague.

I enrolled at the Faculty of Film and Television, Academy of Arts and Music, Charles University, where I studied cinematography under Jan Machane, who was the best cameraman at the Barrandov Studio in Prague. Nine years was a long time to be abroad, but there were about 50 to 60 other Laotian students studying in Prague at the time, so I was not lonely. I was actually one of six from my country to begin studying film at Charles, but since the others left to go to France, Germany, and Switzerland or to return home, I was the only one who remained to graduate from that university.

The only time I returned home during that period was after a six-year absence to film a documentary production on Laos. That eventually turned into my graduation film, Country of a Million Elephants, a rather good 16mm work that was completed in 1986 and eventually broadcast on Czech television. As part of my graduation requirements, I also finished a thesis in Czech on Laotian and Southeast Asian cinema.

I finally returned to Laos for good in 1987 and began working for Lao National Television as a director and cameraman. The work I made there with little money was what one could call "tourist political" pieces about Louang Prabang (northern Laos). It was not what I could call rewarding: after studying at a university, I wanted to use my skills to make something of better quality.

So I left after only two months to begin working at the newly established Lao State Cinematography Company, where I met other Lao filmmakers who had studied cinema in Russia, Bulgaria, Hungary, India, and Czechoslovakia. In 1987, I made two 35mm films: one in color about the Communist Party Conference in Vientiane and the other in black and white called Red Lotus ("Boa Deng"). The latter is one of only two feature films made in Laos since the revolution in 1975, the other being the 35mm color production Gun Voice from the Plain of Jars made by Somchith Pholsena in 1983 (it was about the brave soldiers of the Second Battalion of the Lao People's Army, but unfortunately did not pass censorship).

Red Lotus is a revolutionary love story set in a rural village in Laos on the eve of the fall of the United States-backed royalist government. Boa Deng, played by the actress Somchith Vongsam Ang (who is now my wife), falls for a boy from her village named Khammanh, but in part due to the machinations of her stepfather, a government spy, his house is raided and he has to leave to fight for the Pathet Lao. In his absence, Boa Deng's parents press her to marry a rich man in the village, but she refuses. Her love is eventually vindicated when Kammanh leads a Communist attack on the village and kills the stepfather, reuniting the two.

A simple story, but it was also an opportunity to capture on film some aspects of Laotian life and culture, such as a traditional wedding ceremony. It also touches on some risqué subjects. In addition to propagandizing against the morally bankrupt forces of reaction, the film includes a sub-plot about the lecherous intentions the stepfather holds for Boa Deng, secretly snapping photographs of her when she is bathing in her sarong.

Despite its length of 83 minutes, Red Lotus was very difficult to make because we had nothing, really nothing. The big problem in making such a film in Laos is that we didn't have money. Red Lotus was made for only about $5,000 (U.S.), so we had to use a World War II era Soviet camera that had a tendency to speed up at will and a cast that worked for nothing. I must confess that the budget and the 22-day schedule did not allow for much opportunity to shoot everything the way I wanted to. Due to the lack of equipment in Laos, the film was developed and edited in Hanoi, Vietnam, even though it was shot in Vientiane.

I was actually not originally supposed to be the director of Red Lotus. A colleague who had studied documentary film in Russia was supposed to take up the megaphone while I was to be his cameraman. But it soon turned out that he was not sure of what to do, so I was promoted to co-director. By the time shooting started, he had become my assistant and eventually left the set before the film was finished.

Red Lotus showed in Vientiane cinemas for two weeks before moving on to the provinces in 1988. While the film was made in difficult circumstances, I am glad it has shown in the former Soviet Union (1989), Japan (1994), Thailand (1995), and in Cambodia, where it won a special jury prize at the First Southeast Asia Film Festival in Phnom Penh in April 1997. It has become the opportunity for many people to see for the first time not only a Laotian film, but certain aspects of my country's culture.

Yet making Red Lotus did make me feel that I would be better off working outside of the State Cinematography Company. I sensed that the only way I could really do the things I would like to do would be to turn independent. That's why I left the company in 1989 in hopes of establishing a small, private video production company. Money, however, was still a problem, so I did something which may be unique to the history of cinema: I started a bakery (on Saylom Road in Vientiane). My love of cinema was true, but I needed to earn money if I ever wanted to make films independently.

Fortunately, the bakery, which I run with my wife, was successful, so after about five years of hard work, I had raised enough money to buy my first professional video camera and to start up Lao-Inter Arts, Inc., the first private production company in Vientiane. To make our first production, however, we still needed outside help and, very fortunately, we soon got it.

Francophonie held a competition directed at 46 French-speaking nations calling for scripts on the theme of movement. I chose as my topic the remote Lenetene people of the village of Ban Nam Chan in the Houaxay district of Bokeo province. Their life cycle, in which they slash and burn one area of the mountainside, move on after a year or two, and eventually return to the same location, was similar to the rotational movement of the wooden spinning tops the tribe's young men skillfully wield in a traditional game. Fortunately, my submission was the sixth or last story that won a production grant of 40,000 francs ($16,000 U.S.). With it, I made in 1993 Lenetene's Spinning Tops, a 26-minute documentary produced on U-matic High-Band.

My crew spent ten days with the Lenetene, the first three of which were used just in gaining their confidence. A gift of French medicine helped in obtaining their approval. As it was, shooting only started after holding a ceremony to appease the spirits. For many of the Lenetene, this was the first time they had ever seen their own images on television, which we did show them after each day's shooting.

The completed video was selected to show at the 2eme Jeux de Francophonie, a sports and culture festival held in Paris in July 1994, and was awarded a Medal of Merit, certainly a great honor for my company and for Laotian cinema. It has given me more confidence to proceed in my quest to produce good documentary works independently. Lenetene's Spinning Tops later showed in the New Asian Currents section at the Yamagata International Documentary Film Festival '95.

My most recent video production (completed in March 1997), is a short cultural documentary called The Lao Lamvong on a traditional Laotian dance. While it was well-received out of competition at the First Southeast Asia Film Festival, I must admit I feel an imperative desire to produce a second feature film after the success of Red Lotus.

I have finished writing a script of about 120 pages on the relations between friends as seen in different situations. It will particularly focus on the different conditions of life experienced by the young and the old and what they think of each other in their minds. The tentative title is Given Time ("Kala Vela").

It will be very difficult to realize this project, however. The market in Laos is just too small, so there is no way to get back the money you invest by only selling it domestically. Outside help is needed, either from the government or from foreign investors. But film production by the government is usually restricted to only one or two films a year on government conferences or state celebrations. Recently, the Laotian government has expressed the intention to finance a film production, but as long as the country has other more urgent priorities, the Laotian cinema will remain a dream in the heads of a few Laotian filmmakers. If other countries far richer than Laos cannot sustain a film industry, how can we believe that Laos will have its own cinema?

Laotian cinema does not really exist. There are no other independent filmmakers in Laos. There are nine of us at Lao-Inter Arts, all of whom left the Ministry of Information and Culture to help form the company. All of us have received our education abroad in such countries as Bulgaria, Russia, and Czechoslovakia. The only thing we can hope for is that through co-production, meaning 100% foreign financing and 100% Laotian talent, Laotian cinema can keep, at least momentarily, its artisans active until better days arrive.

It is our hope that through our efforts, we can help build a domestic Laotian cinema culture, one that is independent and that captures the essence of Laos as a country, its people, and its deep-rooted culture and arts. Then I dream that when people praise recent Asian cinema, they will include Laos as well.

Maybe I should go back to my bakery to raise the money!


Editors' note:

This article was composed by the Documentary Box editor Aaron Gerow on the basis of notes written by Mr. Southiponh, who gave it final approval. The following articles were also used in writing this piece:

David Brane, "Success for Laotian Film-maker," Bangkok Post, 27 September 1994.

Woranant Krongboonying and Bhanravee Tansubhapol, "Film Festival Breaks New Ground," Bangkok Post, 28 February 1995.

Mima, "Lao-Inter Arts Inc.," Vientiane Times, July 29-August 4 1994.