Unlike its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam, Laos has never had much of a movie industry. After it gained independence from France in 1949, the country's royalist and communist factions each churned out propaganda documentaries to support their respective causes. But beyond that, a lack of resources and equipment thwarted efforts to develop an independent moviemaking scene. When the communists took control in 1975, propaganda films became an integral part of nation-building. With the exception of a trickle of patriotic stories funded by the government—such as "The Sound of Gunfire From the Plain of Jars" (1983)—the production of movies for entertainment never really took off.
Now it's poised to. A privately funded Lao movie, the first in 33 years, is scheduled to hit the big screen in Thailand and Laos in April. Codirected by Laotian moviemaker Anousone Sirisackda and Thailand's Sakchai Deenan, "Good Morning Luang Prabang" is a romantic road movie about a young journalist who grows up in Australia and falls in love with a beautiful Lao girl during a visit to his father's hometown, Luang Prabang. The lead roles are played by Laotian beauty Khamlek Pallawong and Ananda Everingham, a 25-year-old Laotian-Australian actor who will appear this year in at least five movies, including the just-released Singaporean romance "The Leap Years," with Joan Chen. Everingham, who is also one of the new film's producers, hopes to market it to international festivals. "The project is very art-house and was shot on a very tight budget over 13 days," he says. "But I feel very patriotic about it because it's the first independent movie in so long. It's really a landmark for Laos."
The film even has the government's blessing. After years of neglecting the film scene, officials are suddenly showing interest in the industry, to bring much-needed revenue into the country's fledgling economy after years of political seclusion. "The government would like to accelerate the development of a local film industry, but at this stage it's really just the beginning," says Bounchao Phichit, the director of the National Film Archive and Video Center. Phichit is expected to be appointed director general of the newly revived Department of Cinema within the Ministry of Information and Culture. The old department helped finance a handful of films but was disbanded in 1986 due to a lack of funding.
Money and technical knowledge are still giant hurdles for Lao filmmakers. There are a handful of independent companies, none with any real feature-film experience. While digital technology has been important in developing cinema in Southeast Asian countries like Malaysia and Singapore, the cameras are still too expensive for most Laotians. "Good Morning Luang Prabang" is in fact a Lao-Thai co-production between the record label Lao Art Media and the Thai private production house Sparta; the technical crew had to be recruited mainly from Thailand.
Finding an audience in Laos will also be key to the industry's development. "Right now there are only a handful of movie theaters here," says Anousone Sirisackda, who is the president of Lao Art Media. "The audience is too small because people don't have enough money to spend on movie tickets. So we can't recoup our investment with local audiences alone." Lao Art Media is now planning to shoot a long-running TV drama series, which Sirisackda hopes will help build a Laotian audience. He believes that the new Department of Cinema will start encouraging international filmmakers to shoot in Laos and help build some of the much-needed infrastructure. And if it finds a place on the international festival circuit, that will help draw attention to a country with unspoiled scenery and plentiful cheap labor—just what a fledgling filmmaker needs.