Luang Prabang Film Fest & Gabriel Kuperman

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First published 30th January, 2011

Luang Prabang has no working cinema but that didn't deter Gabriel Kuperman from becoming the founder and director of the first-ever Luang Prabang Film Festival in December 2010. The festival of Southeast Asian films was a big hit with tourists and locals alike and is set to run again in 2011. We speak to Gabriel about the struggle to bring films from around the region to Luang Prabang, how Lao teens got involved, his amazement at the turnout and his hope to show Lao sub-titled films at this year's event.

Crowd watching a screening at the Luang Prabang Film Festival

Laos has produced very few films throughout its history, has just one operating cinema in the capital Vientiane and none at all in Luang Prabang. What drove you to set up the first Luang Prabang Film Festival last year in such an apparently film-unfriendly place?
Precisely the fact that there was such a small film culture in the country is why I decided to set up this festival! The main goal of our project is to help stimulate a more active film industry here in Laos, while getting the younger generations more interested in the art form. Internationally, there have been several very positive examples of film industries that have sprouted as a result film festivals started in places without much film. It is my hope that we see the same effect here, though I recognise it might be a slow process.

Can you tell us a little about what went into setting up the outdoor festival? How much work does it involve to set up a festival from scratch?
The task of setting up a film festival in a country where few people had ever heard of such an event was no easy feat. It seems I spent as much time explaining what the festival would look like, as I did planning for it. The majority of our hurdles came as a result of limited funding, though the vision and format of our festival put a great deal of extra work on our plates as well.

We choose our films for the festival based on a set of recommendations by film experts in each of the participating countries. We call them our "Motion Picture Ambassadors," and from their list of the best recent films made in their countries, we find out which distribution companies are interested in taking part in our community-built festival. The two main caveats, however, often make these profit-driven companies somewhat resistant: they must agree to let us show their films from a digital file (for budgetary and logistical reasons) and waive their normal screening fees. So, convincing them to believe enough in the project that they would agree to these terms was challenging at times.

Since Luang Prabang has no working cinemas, setting up the venue took a great deal of planning and cooperation from many different people and organisations. Thankfully, the community was very supportive of the project, and there was help around when it was needed.

Why did you decide to show only Southeast Asian films?
As far as I know, there did not exist a major festival that only showcased the filmmaking of all of Southeast Asia. So, firstly, I saw that need to be filled. There are many international film festivals around the world, and therefore it seemed a better choice for our project to focus our content on the immediate region. By doing so, we are encouraging Lao filmmakers to further their craft by highlighting the tremendous work that their neighbouring countries are doing. I felt like that approach would make a more successful industry here within closer reach in their minds.

Rolling out the red carpet

Opening the program up to China, Korea, or India would certainly provide more content, and maybe even more funding, but those countries have such enormously successful film industries already -- I felt it would be more suiting to focus on the burgeoning industries in Southeast Asia. That being said, some countries in the region are doing quite well in terms of film, and that gives Lao filmmakers a great opportunity to learn from them. It is my hope that as this project grows, it gains popularity as a Southeast Asian film festival, with Laos and the town of Luang Prabang continuing to be the host venue.

The festival kicked off with a set of 15 one-minute films made by Luang Prabang's children and sounded like a big audience hit. Have any other festival programmers picked up the compilation?
We were fortunate enough to be able to join forces with UNICEF and a local media resource centre called My Library to present the oneminutesjr program. This international, arts-based initiative brought together 15 teenagers for a 5-day workshop where the youth were taught basic camera, directing, storytelling, and teamwork skills, as well as how to think creatively about issues and representation. Instructed by experienced video artists from abroad, each participant developed his or her own story based on our workshop theme of "Daily Life and Dreams" and produced a 60-second video that was screened at the conclusion of the workshop and at our opening ceremony. For many of these students, it was the first time they had every touched a video camera, and seeing their films on a big screen was really a special treat for them and their families. Because of the special format of the program, these films will likely not reach other festivals, but they can be screened online. We will be producing more workshops like this before the festival in December.

What kinds of people came to see the films? That is, mostly Laotians? Expats? Tourists? Southeast Asian film fans?
We had a terrific mix of people in our audiences. There were Lao that came after hearing advertisements on the radio, there were expats whose businesses sponsored the event, there were film professionals from around the region to witness the launch of this new festival, and there were tourists who stumbled upon the festival after getting off the slow boat from the north. We were quite pleased at the varying backgrounds of people who could spend time together enjoying the universal pleasure of watching film on a big screen. That activity, which we have become some accustomed to in the West, is something few Lao people have ever experienced.

How does film censorship work in Laos under a Communist government? Was it an issue at all for the festival?
When I first conceived of this project, my first step was to approach the national Department of Cinema, which is a division under the Ministry of Information and Culture. I pitched the project to them as something they should considering producing, and I offered to direct it for them. Incredibly supportive of the project from the beginning, I would not have been able to do this project without their assistance throughout the planning and preparation stages. The government even granted me a year-long, renewable expert visa, the first such visa the department had ever issued to a foreigner.

Children watching screenings at the Luang Prabang Film Festival

When it came time to pass the films through the censorship board, they had simply two main requests: that we try to refrain from showing excessive sex and violence (which, given our open-air venue, was a good idea anyhow), and that the films not be critical of any country's government. Given Laos' political alignment, I found this second request to be understandable, and for the most part, easily respected. The censorship board kept in mind that this was an important and contemporary international arts event, and wholly passed essentially all of the films we put forward. While they found a few films politically inappropriate for the main venue, they did say we were welcome to show them to private audiences of filmmakers -- not what you might expect from a Communist government.

What was your own favourite film of the festival?
It's tough for me to choose a favourite, as I feel so many of the films were noteworthy. I loved the noir-style cinematography in the Malaysian film When the Full Moon Rises. I found the story of the Indonesian film The Photograph to be deeply moving. 881 from Singapore was one of the most exciting and fun-to-watch films of the festival. Of course, being based here in Luang Prabang, Today is Better than Two Tomorrows found a special place in my heart, as it did with most of our local audience.

What was the highlight of the festival for you personally?
After over a year of working on the festival full-time, with large losses of blood, sweat, and tears, seeing the great numbers of people that showed up for the screenings made it all worth it to me. We set up 800 chairs at the venue, an amount we anticipated to be far too many. On opening night, when upwards of 1,400 people showed up to participate in this new cultural event that they likely didn't fully comprehend, I was floored. I just kept circling the venue, trying to take it all in.

Laos is an absolutely stunning country; what is the outlook like for Laos as an actual shooting destination for regional or even global filmmakers?
Another one of the main goals of our project is for filmmakers around the world to take a closer look at Laos, and Southeast Asia, as a great place for budget filmmaking. Admittedly, we don't yet have much infrastructure here for foreign companies to source their film crews here, but that is being built. Once Lao people have access to the necessary training and equipment, filming here could be done here very much on the cheap. There are incredibly diverse locations here that can be taken advantage of, and even existing stories that should be told. I would love to see more films shot here, as the potential economic and cultural benefits to the country are great.

The Luang Prabang Film Festival

Can you tell us anything yet about what's on the agenda for this year's festival, set for December 3 to 10? How will this year's festival differ from last?
We are following the same system of procuring films as we did last year, via the Motion Picture Ambassadors program. We feel it's a great way to curate a "best of the best" festival. We will likely have a smaller, secondary venue this year, which will allow us to show more films. Provided we raise enough funds, we hope to be able to put Lao subtitles on all of the main-venue films, to make them more accessible to the Lao audiences. This year, we plan to have more things going on in Luang Prabang during the week of the festival, to fill in the daytime gaps between our evening screenings.

We are working closely with several national and international organisations to produce unique film-related exhibitions and activities in different venues around town. Hopefully this will drive even more people to the festival, and help to engage the local audience into more active thought about film. Additionally, this year we plan to put on the Roadshow that we have been eager to launch. After the main festival in Luang Prabang, a smaller selection of films will tour other major provinces in Laos, with mini-festivals held over 2-night stops in each city. This travelling festival will provide these communities with an opportunity to interact with an international cultural event, something that they rarely have the chance to do.

The dates for this year's festival are sort of getting into the start of high season; how far ahead of time should people book accommodation if they're planning on coming to the festival?
I would suggest that, at the very least, a few months before the event, guests should finalise their travel plans. Later than that might be fine as well, though hotels and guesthouses do tend to be full during the high season in Luang Prabang. In the next coming weeks, we will be launching our new website which will have information about our hotel and travel partners, so please check there for some good deals during the festival period. Additionally, our Facebook page is another way to stay up-to-date on our project and its activities. As it was last year, all of our screenings and activities are free and open to the public, so we encourage everyone to come and celebrate Southeast Asian cinema with us.

All photos graciously supplied by the Luang Prabang Film Festival.

Through 2011, every Monday we'll feature an interview with a person working in the travel, tourism and hospitality industries across Southeast Asia. From masseuses to restaurateurs, princesses to paupers, we aim to bring a diverse range of voices here to to shed some insight into travel in the region or the region itself.

About the author:
Samantha Brown is a reformed news reporter. She now edits most of the stuff you read on, except for when you find a typo, and then that's something she wasn't allowed to look at.

Read 1 comment(s)

  • Congratulations Gabe and everyone involved. Your blood, sweat and tears paid off in a grand way! The faces of the audience say it all. What a wonderful experience for the country. I am sure that every year will only get better and better. The idea of the Roadshow to reach others in the area sounds terrific. Again, congratulations!!

    Posted by Shelley on 1st February, 2011

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