Blue Chair Film Festival a force for good in Laos

Censorship remains a major obstacle for artists and filmmakers throughout Southeast Asia, but some filmmakers are working to break free from government control.

December 9, 2022
Blue Chair Film Festival a force for good in Laos
Blue Chair Film Festival ready to kick off in Luang Prabang. Photo: supplied

Growing up under Myanmar’s brutal regime, Maung Sun never imagined that he’d one day realise his dreams of becoming a filmmaker. Despite the risks of developing critical stories about his home country, storytelling is in his blood.

“It has always been really difficult to become an independent filmmaker in Myanmar because of the political situation,” Sun said. “But that struggle was what inspired my first movie ‘Money has Four Legs.’

In 2012, after decades of military rule, Myanmar’s newly elected democratic government initiated a period of political reforms. One of the reforms included the loosening of regulations on censorship in films.

It was at that moment that Sun knew he had to take a leap.

A decade later, Sun is now showing his first film at the Blue Chair Film Festival in the sleepy town of Luang Prabang, Laos. The event aims to shine a light on a variety of topics via documentaries to avant-garde features, all directed and produced by local filmmakers across Southeast Asia.

Money has Four Legs is one of the dozens of films that will be screened by regional filmmakers from 8-11 December. The Blue Chair Film Festival, once known as Luang Prabang Film Festival, is resuming after four years with a new director. 

The festival’s popularity has been growing since 2013. While three years earlier, it all started as an intimate event within Luang Prabang’s small community, it has now become one of the most acclaimed film festivals across the region.

After living in Singapore as an animation producer for five years, Sun moved back to Myanmar and started his own film production studio. But things were not easy. He had very little knowledge of filmmaking and had no real connections in the industry or financial support. 

Yet during difficult times, Sun often thought of his father’s words, which also gave him the motivation to persist and provided the inspiration for his film’s title. “You know, son, money has four legs, humans have only two. Money runs faster than humans. […] It will catch you sooner than you know it.”

As Sun’s film becomes more successful around the world, he shares every achievement with his producer Ma Aeint, who is currently in jail for protesting against the military coup in Myanmar.

After decades of military rule and ongoing conflict between the military and ethnic armed groups, the country saw some resemblance of democracy starting in 2012. But in February 2021, the military toppled the civilian government in a coup, sparking civil war across the country. Human rights groups accuse the junta of committing atrocities and crimes against humanity. 

Ma Aeint is expected to be released in 2023.

“We grew together making this film,” Sun said, “She is a really strong person and I know she will be fine. In the meantime, I am letting her know every time the film is selected for awards and how I am moving forward as a filmmaker. I keep her up to date with the world outside of prison as much as I can.” 

The film festival screens again

Luang Prabang, a UNESCO Heritage town, is immersed in nature and is a unique tourist location. With no public transportation or traffic lights, it’s a place where tradition and culture are well preserved.

The festival is not only a chance for local and international audiences to watch films from Southeast Asia, but also an opportunity for filmmakers to network with their colleagues, potential sponsors, and event directors.

“When I first joined the film festival team in 2014, I was expecting a kind of charming little event in the UNESCO Heritage town of Luang Prabang,” Sean Chadwell, the current Executive Director of Blue Chair Film Festival, told the Globe. “But what I found instead was a world-class event.”

Due to a lack of government authorisation and the pandemic, the festival was put on hold for four years.  

Although challenges ensued, local producers started coming together to conceive MEKONG 2030, a collection of short feature films that contemplate life along the Mekong River from 2020 to 2030.  

In spite of the multiple denied authorisations to host the traditional film festival, the project continued to touch on subjects like controversial development projects such as dams, mining exploration, and the high-speed railway that links Laos to China, while also occasionally referring to deforestation and climate change.

This picture taken on 8 February, 2020 shows Chinese workers building the first rail line linking China to Laos, a key part of Beijing’s ‘Belt and Road’ project across the Mekong, in Luang Prabang. Photo: Aidan Jones/AFP

“The themes rarely address major political issues. The approach to selection tends to prioritise aesthetics. But key social issues — challenges in the transgender community, women’s rights, and universal accessibility — are often part of the lineup,” Chadwell said.

Censorship remains one of the major issues for artists and filmmakers like Sun across Southeast Asia. Pervasive government control over artistic, literary, and cinematographic productions has been a major obstacle for local artists for decades. 

In Laos, the government has been enforcing strict censorship across all media since its independence in 1975. Initially, the regulation was aimed at protecting the newly independent country from foreign influence, but four decades later, citizens can still be jailed for producing material that could “weaken the state,” according to the Lao criminal code. This wide-reaching law often affects cinema, music, art, and theatre production, according to critics.

Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam are the three Southeast Asian countries with the strictest media censorship, according to the World Press Freedom Index 2021. Government control of media has hindered film production and filmmaker training for decades.

“Censorship has always been a problem across the region,” Sun said. “In Myanmar, especially so. If before the coup it was difficult to produce anything new, now with the new regime, everything is much harder and dangerous.”

Myanmar director Midi Z (eft) speaks to French director Michel Hazanavicius (right) following screening of “The Road to Mandalay” a film on Myanmar migrant workers during the Memory International Film Heritage Festival at Wizaya cinema in Yangon on 8 November, 2016. Myanmar’s only internationally recognised director, Midi Z, showed his work in his home country for the first time, calling the screening a “historical moment” for a nation emerging from decades of military oppression. Photo: Romeo Gacad/AFP

Yet Sun is not afraid to speak out.

“Since I knew it was very likely to be censored anyway, I wanted to produce a film that was making fun of media regulations in Myanmar as well as making fun of myself trying to survive in that system by following all the rules,” he said with a smile.

Similarly, Lao filmmaker Kiyé Simon Luang believes the only way to have a career as a filmmaker in the country is to rely on the international cinema industry.

“It is not possible to make cinema in Laos only with local funds or production restrictions,” Kiyé said. “You have to work with international guidelines so you can submit your projects abroad. That is the only way to represent Lao reality around the world.” 

Kiyé is the director of ‘Goodbye Mister Wong,’ a movie about a Chinese billionaire investing in mega projects in Laos. Kiyé created a fictional character, Mr Wong, to symbolise China’s growing influence in Laos. In the movie, as locals open small businesses, Mr Wong has them close up and invest in bigger projects like supermarkets and major infrastructure. 

A Chinese family buying water melons from a Lao vendor in the border town of Boten, a special economic zone land hired by China, in the Northern province of Luang Namtha. Photo: Hoang Dinh Nam/AFP

As a way to express the population’s concerns over social and political issues, film directors resort to fiction or documentaries as ways to share those concerns so as to avoid being subjected to censorship. 

A new generation of filmmakers

But censorship is less of an obstacle for the film festival’s side projects. While the event was banned from 2018 to 2022, regional filmmakers were still able to connect and receive training in a number of workshops organised by the former Luang Prabang Film Festival. 

From there, several new projects have attained new success. After Talent Lab, a pitch development program that ran from 2016 to 2019, in partnership with Tribecca Film Institute in New York, Martika Ramirez Escobar and Kavich Neang, two of the filmmakers who attended the lab in its first year, are now presenting their films at the festival. 

“We are very proud to see new filmmakers who have started their journey with us, now they are fully independent artists,” Chadwell said.

While the event aims to help raise funds to support local filmmakers throughout the year, it also serves as a springboard for new talent. One of this year’s new filmmakers, Sonepasith Phanphila, whose first film Absence of Sound, will be premiered this upcoming December.

“When I started producing the film, I knew I wanted it to be a means to sensitise my country about deafness. Especially, how deaf people can also live a ‘normal’ life.” he explained. “This kind of movie has never been done before in Laos.”

He is excited to see his efforts being repaid. It’s an opportunity to show his potential as a Lao filmmaker and to start creating a network in the industry across the region and abroad. 

In the meantime, Sun is ready to dive into his second feature. Starting from scratch, Maung Sun and Ma Aeint made it through a myriad of obstacles to reach international success with their first movie, and they hope to see it on screens in Myanmar one day. 

“We agreed to make this film using our own money because we didn’t have any idea how to find or apply to receive international funds. We grew and learned together with this film and we made it,” he said.

“Even if the political situation in our countries makes our lives more difficult, if you have passion, you will find a way to make it to your goal.”

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