Making A Lao American Film Festival, 2020 Edition

Back in 2010, I put together a list of Lao American films and films about the Lao and Hmong communities that student groups and local communities could consider programming for their cities to hold a Laotian film festival. A decade later we have some excellent entries that have been added to the mix, so it makes sense to update it now, with an eye on even more films to add in the future that might have slipped under our radar.

This list is NOT complete or encyclopedic, but it will give you a start on your own journey into the fun and often quirky body of Lao cinema in the US and around the globe.

The following films and shorts have been shown in the past around the world and provide a good solution to the famous King of the Hill scenario:

The First and Second International Conference on Lao Studies and the Vientianale Film Festival have all demonstrated this can be accomplished.

As reminder, speaking from the perspective of an artist and community organizer, I would request that if you’re going to organize such a festival, please don’t use pirated copies or excerpts that chop up the artists’ visions and message. Be ethical and get permission when possible.

Nerakhoon: The Betrayal by Thavisouk Phrasavath (2008) is currently the leading film communities are showing, and for good reason. It received an Oscar-nomination and won an Emmy in 2010,  the first film to hold that distinction.  The film stands out for the way it explores the history of one family during the war for Laos in the 1970s, and as they make their way to America. It also serves as a profound meditation on the nature of betrayal and the chain reaction of further betrayals such actions create in societies.

Origin Story: The Documentary by Kulap Vilaysack (2018) After first becoming aware, at the age of 14, that her father was not her biological father, actress and filmmaker Kulap Vilaysack embarks on a quest, from Los Angeles to Minnesota to Laos, to meet her biological father for the first time.

Phetmixay Means Fighter by Rita Phetmixay (2010s) is a short film looking at the life of her father, a soldier from the Royal Lao Army as he rebuilt his life with his family in the US.

The Letter by Becca Berry, featuring Sydney Viengluang (2016). When a mother finally decides to leave her past behind and break free of her ties for a chance of discovering the world, she is forced to go beyond pen and paper and confront her daughter in order to overcome their cultural and generational divide. An 11-minute short film. By extension, I would also call attention to Z-Nation from the 3rd to 5th season, where Sydney Viengluang breaks ground as the first recurring live-action Lao character in an American TV series, Dr. Sun Mei, in the history of television.

Found by Paramita Nath (2009), a 5-minute tone poem examining the story of award-winning poet Souvankham Thammavongsa’s collection Found from Pedlar Press. A narrative film that is a meditation on the theme of reconnecting to one’s past and trying to decipher its impact on carving out a place for oneself in the present. In 1978, her parents lived in building #48. Nongkai, Thailand, a Lao refugee camp. Her father kept a scrapbook filled with doodles, addresses, postage stamps, maps, measurements. He threw it out and when he did, she took it and began reconnecting to her roots. The poems of Found, with their blank spaces and small print, their language so unforgiving in detail that every letter, gesture, break, line and shape became for us a place of real meaning, were built out of doodles, diagrams, drawings into a work characterized by the elegance and power of its bareness to let us see and to hold back much of what we see.

Getting Lao’d by Steve Arounsack. After 25 years of silence, the private Lao music and film industries are reawakening. Filmed over 10 years, the documentary GETTING LAO’D: THE RISE OF MODERN LAO MUSIC AND FILMS follows a new generation of young pioneers as they reimagine Lao media in a Communist country. The film, featuring many of the country’s most prominent musicians and filmmakers, is perhaps the most comprehensive examination of the rise of modern music and films in Laos. Many neighboring countries in Southeast Asia have seen their music and film industries remain vibrant. Laos, however, remains shrouded in mystery due to its land-locked geography and communist regime. This documentary provides extremely rare insights on a media landscape that tipped the cultural fulcrum. This is a story about a small country with a big heart.

Princess of Laos by Mychal Mitchell (2013).  A scrappy example of independent film production, a 13-year old Lao girl does not reveal her past in order to get the Private Investigator’s full cooperation. Abandoned by her biological father, she travels to America to help locate the man she never knew. She doesn’t know the Private Investigator has a history full of misconduct, running from his own past and a killer while searching for the girls father.

Go To Sleep: A Lao Ghost Story, or Bai Non by Phet Mahathongdy O’Donnell (2019) is about a middle-aged Laotian refugee who struggles with his harrowing past, failing marriage, and demanding career when he is haunted by a mysterious, supernatural entity from his homeland. This is one of the promising short film debuts of recent years in our community, featuring famed Lao American actor Ova Saopeng (Pirates of the Caribbean, Refugee Nation, Lao As A Second Language) and several members of TeAda Productions. I consider it a don’t miss.

Bridging the Gap of Dreams (2017) is a more recent Lao American documentary made by Lao Americans that approaches the subject as “Lao Americans who overcame their odds and barriers.” The film takes a look at the journeys of Sengvilay Aphay, artist Chantala Kommanivanh, Thonglouane Keorajavongsay, Wanda Sihanath, Akarath Soukhaphon, Alex Hanesakda,  Kate Volarath, Chasen Chau, and the Lao Youth Summer Camp (M.E.O.F). A little over one hour, it’s relatively easy to program into a film festival schedule.

A Refugee’s Story: Khamsay Huang Documentary by Kelly Huang (2015) is a debut from a promising Minnesota-based Lao American film-maker.

Bua Deng: Red Lotus by Somouk Suthipon (1988) Told from the perspective of Dara Kalaya it was intended to show her life during the 1960s and living through the rise of the Pathet Lao and an exploration of the ideals of what a Lao woman should be.

Luk Isan: Child of the Northeast by Choroen Lampungporn (1991) Based upon the award-winning novel by Khampoun Bounthavee on his childhood during the Depression in the region of Isan.

Bombies by Jack Silberman (2000) From 1964 to 1973 the US secret air war dropped over 2 million tons of bombs on Laos making it the most heavily bombed country in history. Millions of these ‘cluster bombs’ did not explode when dropped, and still pose a threat nearly 40 years later. You can learn more at Bullfrog Films.

Blue Collar And Buddha (1987) is a one-hour documentary discussing vandals and attacks on Lao trying to build a Buddhist temple during the early years of their resettlement. A look at the opinions of townspeople and American officials attitudes towards the Lao and refugees and highlights the differences between refugees and immigrants. You can obtain a copy from Collective Eye

Bomb Harvest by Kim Mordaunt is another documentary on UXO following a bomb removal team in Laos for two months. Australian bomb disposal specialist Laith Stevens has to train a new young big bomb team to deal with bombs left from the US Secret War, all the while local children are out hunting for scrap metal from bombs. This timely story is terrifying, yet filled with eccentric characters and moments of humour, vividly depicting the consequences of war and the incredible bravery of those trying to clear up the mess.

This Little Land of Mines by Erin McGoff (2019) is a more recent entry looking at the UXO issue in Laos running at just a little over 1 hour. “A feature documentary about 80 million unexploded American bombs in Laos, and the resilience of Lao people as they work to clear them,” it is of interest in order to see how our conversation on UXO has grown over the decades since Bombies and Bomb Harvest.  

Laos Free by Corey Sheldon (2013) is one of the rare animated examples addressing UXO in Laos funded by Kickstarter back in the day with the collaboration and support of many members in our community. At just a little under 10 minutes it can help fill in different gaps in intermissions or as part of a short film selection.

Becoming American (1982) A documentary on the Hmong journey following the life of  Hang Sou, and his family who lived six years in the Thai Namyao refugee camp. Distributed by New Day Films.

The Best Place To Live by Peter O’Neill and Ralph Rugoff (1982) is one of the early documentaries on the lives of Hmong resettling in Rhode Island. There is a sequel that was being made.

The Leaf, Not Yet Falling by Vannasone Keodara is a short film at 13 minutes documenting a girl’s childhood memories and over two decades of experience living in exile.

Letter Back Home by Nith Lacroix and Sang Thepkaysone (1994) is a 15 minute look at Lao and Cambodian youth in San Fancisco and was originally taken back to Laos to show how refugee youth were really living in the US. It received  Second Prize in the Chicago Asian American Film &Video Contest, and the Best New Vision Documentary Award at the Berkeley Video Festival and was broadcast nationally on PBS.

Death of a Shaman by Richard Hall (2002) follows Fahm Saeyang who takes a look back at her father’s unsettled life and death and the heartbreaking path he took from respectability to hopelessness. It examines how a Mien family suffered through a 20 year ordeal of poverty, racism, religions, drugs, jail, and the murder of her sister.

Between Two Worlds: The Hmong Shaman In America by Taggart Seigel (1996); produced by Collective Eye Films is one of the early documentaries on the Hmong shaman traditions completed a little over 20 years after the Laotian diaspora began. You can find it online in fragments, but the entire documentary is 30 minutes long.

The Split Horn by Taggart Siegel and Jim McSilver (2001) is the story of Hmong shaman Paja Thao and his family in Appleton, Wisconsin. It documents the 17-year journey and a shaman’s struggles to maintain his ancient traditions as his children embrace American culture. Presented on PBS by ITVS and NAATA.

Kelly Loves Tony by Spencer Nakasako (1998) Following the life of 17 year old Kelly Saeteurn and her “American dream.” as a Iu-Mien refugee. But her dreams exist in sharp contrast to her reality. She’s pregnant and her boyfriend Tony is a junior high drop out and ex-con. The film follows two young people struggling to make their relationship work through obstacles like parenthood, gender issues and cultural and educational differences. This one’s hard to find.

From Opium to Chrysanthemums by Pea Holmquist (2001) At the height of the Vietnam War, in 1969, Swedish filmmaker Pea Holmquist traveled to South East Asia to make a film on a Hmong village leader named Lao-Tong and the Hmong. This film documents Holmquist’s return after 30 years. With new material filmed in Thailand, Laos, and the United States, and incorporating scenes from the 1969 documentary, the film shows how much has changed, and what has happened to the Hmong, both in Thailand and Laos, and in the United States. Distributed by Icarus Films.

Ten years ago, the Vientianale Film festival screened:
The Secret of Palm Leaves 
Our Daily Opium
Let the Gibbons Live 
Laos, Land of a Million Elefants (German)
Approach to the Underworld (German) 
and Want to be a Soldier and Land of Freedom by the Lao Cinema Department.

Unfortunately there aren’t any detailed synopsis available for these films but they are possibilities, if you wanted to look for them, although it would likely be easier to find them under their German titles.  I’m almost certain there are several French films that would be relevant to this list, but those details were not readily available.

I should also point out that the Hmong have a very extensive film and video tradition that is beyond the scope of this article, and readers interested in their cinematic output should definitely look for it, because it’s a fascinating journey for them that I don’t think gets appreciated as often as it should be.

Laos completed its first superhero film, Moon City in 2018. While it’s no Avengers, it takes us back to an era when people had fun trying to tell an imaginative story and championing a Lao appreciation for values of justice and standing up for others who need help. I’d look forward to their follow-up. Some may want to consider the films of Sonny Syonesa like In III Dragon, or the Lao Warrior series by Kenji Saykosy but individual film festival programmers tastes will differ.

Of course, there are several Hollywood and mainstream films that set in Laos: Air America, Gran Torino, Little Dieter Learns to Fly, Rescue Dawn, Love is Forever and the Chuck Norris film Missing in Action (Not really recommended, as it’s only said to be set in Laos and reflects nothing of the country or culture). This list doesn’t include Chang, made by the director of the original King Kong, which many believe is one of the first known films featuring Lao people.

Individual film festival organizers may have different ideas about what they would and wouldn’t want to program into their schedule, but I hope this updated list demonstrates now more than ever that we don’t have a shortage of options available to us. What others should be considered?

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