Friday, January 15, 2010

Nollywood, Bollywood, Hollywood and the Lao

The other day, I was talking with some friends the concept of Nollywood, the Nigerian film industry that some claim produces 50 movies a week at a cost between $10,000 to $28,000 a film on average. They hope to one day rival Hollywood. It's an interesting ambition, and perhaps one day may rival Bollywood, the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai.

Naturally, I then wonder what a really ramped-up Lao or Hmong film industry would look like. And what's might hold us back?

Funding for Bollywood films is often based on private distributors and a few studios, and increasingly Indian banks and financial companies who can now lend money to those studios. Which I imagine is something of an improvement, although in the old days the Mumbai underworld was also credited with backing the production of films and getting involved either by physical of monetary means. I don't think we'll see that happen in either the Lao or Hmong film industry in the US. Everyone will always suggest that getting the money is the hardest part. The other challenge for our community seems to be issues of piracy.

Access to reasonably professional equipment does not necessarily seem to be the problem at the moment, but issues of time and a comparatively small pool of professional actors, writers and technical personnel to draw from at the moment, so many are settling for semi-professional or amateur talent to get involved.

I worked in Minnesota for a while with Asian Media Access and their Cinema With Passion series to present Hong Kong films to the public in the late 1990s. This was before Asian films made it big after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a few others. As a result, I got to see a very wide range of quality but most often, passion in the productions.

Even if the plots and dialogue of Hong Kong films could get very thin, and the results were often rushed, at the end, you had results. Often with people at least looking happy for that effort. Abd nire experienced. I found it inspiring to see a city of people so intent on making movies, as if there was simply a sheer joy and adrenaline rush from making movies. There's a certain cowboy element to many of them, where it's really clear someone could and often did really did get hurt by the reckless attitude of some production companies, but many resulted in visual brilliance.

This pains me most as I see any number of Lao and Hmong film makers today with great ideas for scripts but little progress in completing them. I hope for a happy medium in our production process. To flood a market with crap or cinematic spam is certainly nothing to aspire to, yet a crippling attachment to perfectionism, too, will stunt the growth of Southeast Asian refugee film industries.

I take note of this particularly with the recent success of the '$70' zombie movie Colin or the barebones budget of Paranormal Activity which seems to owe a great deal to the low-budget, high-content ambitions of The Blair Witch Project or the $900 film The Last Broadcast.

It's not all about the money, and besides the horror genre or films like El Mariachi, or the science fiction films La Jetee and Alphaville, we can look at a thoughtful film like the audacious My Dinner With Andre and say that American over-reliance on technology, pyrotechnics and 'star-power' is often a crutch.

The absence of these elements is not necessarily a guarantee either, as we see thanks to films in the Dogme 95 tradition, that, as avant garde as they may be, are also most often... boring. Surely, the one truly unforgivable crime of art.

We've seen a substantial rise in Asian American film festivals and Asian American film-making teams emerging.  This is exciting and promising. We need to encourage more robust representation and community engagement and discussion of these topics and opportunities.

For the Southeast Asian American film industry to truly succeed with meaning, I think we need to keep encouraging even beginning writers to continue refining and polishing their stories, to take risks while committing to deeper truth and excellence. One of the most important things we can do is build up individual and community capacity for risk. So that even if a particular film of project flops, we do not consider it some terminus, a final end point to someone's promising career.

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