By Rachna Sachasin
Luang Prabang, Laos, December 2, 2016
Each evening, townsfolk and festivalgoers will assemble at a large outdoor theatre at the start of Luang Prabang’s Handicraft Night Market, where the festival’s signature royal blue chairs will be lined up in neat rows. In years past, the audience comprised of an exotic milieu of regional hipsters and urbanites, ethnic minorities peddling handicrafts, local families, government officials and novice monks, all assembled to catch the best of Southeast Asian film.
The five-day festival includes dance, music and theatre performances, as well as an exhibition of photographs from Myanmar by photographer Philip Jablon, founder of the Southeast Asia Movie Theatre Project, who will lead a discussion on the plight of the country’s abandoned stand-alone theatres.
This year, director and founder Gabriel Kuperman has upped the ante, presenting moviegoers and filmmakers with a broader range of programming and workshops. Kuperman launched the festival in 2009 with support from Laos’ Ministry of Information, Culture and Tourism, and to date, LPFF has shown films only by Southeast Asian filmmakers. Each year Kuperman collaborates with LPFF-appointed “Motion Picture Ambassadors” from each country to handpick the finest contemporary films from the 10 represented countries.
This year, 32 feature films made the official line-up, and will be shown alongside four programs of short films. Since it’s inception in 2009, the festival has only screened a handful of films from Myanmar, and this year only one made the cut – City of Jade, directed by Midi Z. Kuperman says a lack of resources and censorship are among the reasons independent films don’t get much exposure inside and outside Myanmar. “We had three entries from Myanmar this year, and two were rejected by the [Laos] censorship board,” he said.
Midi Z, whose real name is Chao Te-Yin, was born to parents of Chinese descent in Shan State. The 34-year old director grew up steeped in the poverty and political turbulence of the times, before being awarded a scholarship to study in Taiwan when he was 16. Midi Z has lived more than half his life in Taiwan, although his cinematic gaze rests on his homeland.
Like his previous, internationally acclaimed films, Ice Poison and Road to Mandalay, Midi Z’s City of Jade is semi-autobiographical and issues its subject and plot in a slow, lyrical style. It documents the director’s journey through Kachin State, where his older brother spent his life in the region’s gruelling jade mines. While the storyline focuses on Midi Z’s struggle to understand and reconcile his brother’s life, the fraternal bond and economic struggles explored in the film resonate broadly, giving voice to the perils of poverty, drug addiction, migrant labour, human trafficking and oppression – issues that continue to plague the country’s hinterlands.
While his films spotlight a region not often explored by mainstream media, Midi Z is reluctant to attach himself to an agenda. “As an artist or director, to ‘look into an issue’ isn’t what I want. My motive is simple – to tell the stories of my family and friends. It is a cathartic process to express things I can or cannot understand,” said the director via email.
The film is a powerful indictment of the country’s rogue crime and drug-infested jade mines, though at its core it is a human story of brothers reuniting and reconnecting, of attempting to define the inexplicable. Shot is Mandalay and Hpakant, Kachin State’s “city of jade”, the movie took two years to complete. Production was steeped in technical and cultural challenges, says Midi Z. The harsh physical environment, as well as cultural factors made production particularly difficult.
“People are very sensitive to the camera, creating challenges on the artistic side. An even bigger challenge is that in terms of a documentary, what you record, including all things beautiful and ugly, the local people cannot understand your point of view. It’s always been a challenge for a documentary filmmaker to be brave to tell a story.” Yet it is brave story-telling that Midi Z accomplishes and LPFF champions.
LPFF’s line-up includes several films that tackle social and political issues, although a fair number of comedy and romantic films add levity. At its core, the film festival celebrates the region’s unique perspective and creativity and exposes the world to the talent and stories behind Southeast Asian films. While Midi Z, like others who showcase their films here, has received accolades at international film festival circuit, screening films at LPFF before a local, regional audience is particularly satisfying.
“It’s a good thing that my films are shown all over the world so the audiences get the chance to see them. If they could be screened in my homeland, it would be even better,” he said.
The Luang Prabang Film Festival runs December 2-7. For more information visit lpfilmfest.org.
Photo: Midi Z’s film City of Jade will be shown at the Luang Prabang Film Festival. Credit: Myanmar Times