Wednesday, December 25, 2013

[Film] Telling stories for Lao American audiences

Over at Io9.Com they had an interesting question: "Why does every story have to be an Earth-shattering epic? They were responding namely a certain sense of sameness in most of the major films coming out now. It goes well with their other discussion The Reason Why So Many Movies Seem So Similar. I'd also point out their article, 10 Lessons That We Hope 2013 Has Taught the Entertainment Industry.

It's important to me as we start seeing an increase in the number of films coming out of Laos, particularly from the work of the Lao New Wave Directors such as Anysay Keola and Mattie Do, and the infrastructure the Luang Prabang Film Festival and the Vientianeale International Film Festival are building. I think it's vitally important that Lao cinema first be by our community for community, and not merely pandering, trying to cash in on the curiosity of foreigners.

To build an international audience is laudable and should be kept in mind, but not at the expense of telling ourselves the stories we want to hear. To narrate our perspective in our own words, on our own terms. This last matter is a particularly egregious failing of one movie currently making the rounds this year, where we would be hard pressed to call it an authentic Lao movie despite being supposedly set in "Laos." One can argue there are several such films already in the pipeline trying to Lao stories without actually embracing the Lao who must still be Lao long after the filmmakers have gone back home to wherever they hail from.

With well over 400,000 Laotians in the US, Canada, France, Australia, Japan, England, Germany, and elsewhere, we are presented with a very interesting market and opportunity for the aspiring Lao film-maker in Laos. There are spoken and unspoken constraints regarding what will fly both within Laos and abroad. There are some conversations we can't have. But there are many others we should not neglect if Lao culture is to realize its full potential.

How can Lao cinema embrace the best principles of democracy while being artistically innovative, not only for world recognition, but to create a wondrous legacy for the generations of Lao yet to come?

The folks over at Io9 are making some great points I want to highlight because I think they can apply not only to movies of the fantastic or the futuristic, but to all genres.

They made note of one screenwriter's frustrations with the current Hollywood process. "They all seemed to have the same notes. 1) the main character has to be the only person who could possibly be the hero of this script. They have an epic destiny or a very specific set of skills that make them perfect. Gone are the days when a protagonist could be an anybody who happened to be in the right place at the wrong time. 2) the stakes have to be raised. No matter how high the stakes are now, they need to be higher. This can't be about one small town, it has to have the possibility to leak into the whole world. It can't be about one man or woman saving their child. In the process, they also have to stop the villains from taking over the government."

There are stories for which this is appropriate, but can Lao cinema, in its present nascent state sidestep this largely formulaic and overexposed model regularly to create its own distinctive voice? Can it do so while remaining enjoyable and coherent entertainment? If you ask an audience to watch something for 90 minutes to 2 hours in this day and age, there should be a pay-off that's transformative for them. As I have counseled so many other writers, the point is not to sound like the authors we have, but to forge our own distinctive voice, wherever that may take us. This is not to say we blind ourselves to the work others have done, but it must still strive to be a unique participant within the grand conversations.

As a writer, I always remember the old reviewer who half-jokingly remarked that his criteria is: "Is this film more enjoyable than watching a film of the same actors sitting around talking about how they made the film?" That's a good baseline for success, but not the only one, of course.

IO9 made some great points, such as "Some stories are better smaller. The truth is that some stories are folk tales, not sagas; a tighter focus doesn't make them inherently less worthy, and their stakes are no less crucial to the story for being closer to home."

I also appreciated their points that no one, and that means -no one- is coming out to films for generic pretty or cool anymore. We also see a lot of receptiveness towards female leads.  This is all very compatible with both Lao values and Lao resources for making films. I think we can easily build upon that.

We should not seek to merely imitate, but innovate. The Japanese writer Yamano Koichi suggested, there are three phases to building a literary tradition. It's like building a house, the apex of which is Yamano's third phase, Putting Up A New House ( or "creative departure"). It's here that Yamano contends a country has found it's own original voice, one that eschewed Anglo-American models. At this point, the artists are presenting work informed by their own traditional and contemporary culture and worldviews.

So, for Lao in the US, in Laos, and anywhere abroad beginning to tackle this issue, we must go at it with a risky abandon, a love and curiosity about our heritage, and a sense of engaged voices that don't reinforce what we think we know about ourselves, but instead create plurality. Lao cinema must embrace our diversity and find a way to be comfortable within that.

But what are stories and trends you see emerging that you'd like to see more of, or less of?

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