Interview: Mattie Do

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Born in Los Angeles to Lao immigrant parents, Mattie Do moved to Vientiane in 2010, and has since become a key player in the country’s emerging film industry. Her feature debut, the low-budget Chanthaly (2013), was the first horror film to be written and directed entirely in Laos, and the first to screen at festivals abroad. I caught up with her at the London Film Festival where her second feature Dearest Sister (Nong Hak), also a horror film, was screening, and we chatted about Laos’ class structures and cinema culture, and what it is like to be a nation’s only female director.

Could you describe the state of the film industry in Laos when you arrived in 2010. 

Mattie Do: There was no state of the film industry in Laos. We thought film was going to die, literally. I mean, my bosses Anousone Sirisackda and Douangmany Soliphanh were the first people to make a commercial-type film, a romance drama [Good Morning, Luang Prabang, 2008], for the country after the Revolution. People lined up on the streets to see it – they’d never seen a Lao film with Lao language before. And then they made a bunch of other sequels of that film, and they’re really like over-the-top melodramas – but they were getting bored, and they were like, “We don’t really want to direct anymore, and we need content.” And when I arrived, noone else was really working on films except for one young group called Lao New Wave Cinema. We both came at the same time and started development at the same time – but it was a real struggle. For me it was very freakish, because it was an accident that I became a filmmaker. I never wanted or expected or thought I would be a filmmaker. So it was a surprise for my bosses to get behind me and say, “Yeah, you will be the next generation of Lao film. It’s gonna be great! Lao film will float.” They didn’t say it was going to thrive, they said it was going to float. So it was bleak, it was very bleak.

Once you had decided that you were willing to make a film, how did you even get an independent film off the ground? 

MD: Well, the first one [Chanthaly] was made for almost no money. I asked a beer company for sponsorship. That’s my house that we filmed it in. That’s my dog. That’s my car. Everything was so contained, and we did it for US$5,000, but it wasn’t even US$5,000, cos we got this beer company to sponsor us, and they didn’t pay us for a while, so we went to them, “You guys, we’re like starving, we kind of need the money to be able to make the film, and to pay the main actress [Amphaiphun Phommapunya] at least, you know.” They were like, “Ok”, and they gave me a cheque for $4,500, and my husband [Christopher Larsen, writer of Chanthaly and Dearest Sister] asked, “Where’s the other $500” And they said, “Well, that’s going to be given to you in beer.” So much beer drinking in that film! And I own the camera, it’s a little Canon DSLR called a 550D. And Anousone and Douangmany from our company fed us, literally they had their wives cook for us, and we just did it in my house, and it was quite an accident, my husband just had this confidence that meant that I could do it. I think he knew that if he just threw something at me, as a ballerina, I would complete – because that’s in some way what a ballet personality is: you don’t give up. And so he knew – as soon as he showed me how to turn the camera on and off, and he showed me how to shot list – what was going to happen.

Has the situation on Laos since improved for filmmaking?

MD: Oh, it’s improved vastly, but we’re still super behind. We’re a very young generation. We don’t have infrastructure, really, so, it’s simple. Our main problem is we don’t have a trained crew – but my own crew has worked on so many feature projects now because of me. And we don’t have any equipment, so we still have to bring the equipment from Bangkok. But it’s changed, because since I’ve been in Laos I’ve helped two co-productions, not including my own. So I helped a US and Canadian co-production called River [directed by Jamie M. Dagg] – it’s a beautiful film, actually. It really shows Lao landscape as if you were in Laos. I mean, the story is not particularly Asian, but the landscape is fantastic. And then I did Bangkok Nites [directed by Katsuya Tomita] with a Japanese crew called Kuzoku. They’re amazing! That was fun, because they’re another kind of Asian crew. And so single-handedly we have been able to do a European co-production Dearest Sister, a North American one, and another Asian one. And we’ve just seen a lot of people becoming interested in Laos, so since I started working, we’ve seen this new boom, but we’re all still kind of blindly exploring without means, and we’re so inexperienced.

Both Chthanthaly and Dearest Sister are ghost stories. What drew you to genre? And how do the tropes of genre help you tell Lao stories?

MD: To be honest, personally, I just love genre! Genre is so fun! The people who work in genre are so nice! I’ve discovered this much later, becoming a filmmaker. They’re very helpful to each other. But as to the stories – you can go almost anywhere with genre. You don’t feel restricted. It’s not a comedy where you feel like, “Oh, it’s funny in England and America,” and then you go to Asia and nobody is laughing, or you go to Africa, and people are like, “Why is that funny?” Comedy is not associative. Even romance is not that associative. Since I’ve become a filmmaker I’ve started watching other films at festivals, and sometimes I watch romance films, and I’m like, “I can’t understand this relationship.” It’s not a bad thing, but I love that in genre you can do any crazy story, but fear translates universally. You can go to any country and be frickin’ afraid of their ghosts, of their supernatural, of their horror, of their people. Fear is such a universal instinct, and that travels, and I wanted to make stories like that.

Both Chanthaly and Dearest Sister boast female protagonists and adopt a notably female perspective on Lao society. How important has it been for you to present this feminist angle on Laos?

MD: It’s been ultra-important for me. I didn’t specifically intend to make feminist films about women only. In fact, my third film stars a man – the gardener character [Yannawoutthi Chanthalungsy] from Dearest Sister is the star of the next film. But what I did notice is there was a huge gap for women in film in Laos. I discovered I was the only female director. When you watch Lao films, it’s always starring a man, and women are always – I can’t even call them secondary characters – they’re almost like Barbie dolls, posing in the background being pretty, or crying. They’re soulless, almost.

And what has the response been to your films domestically?

MD: To be honest, my first film Chanthaly is a strange film: it’s solidly in the arthouse category – and initially it was difficult for a lot of the local population to understand it, because they had not encountered arthouse film before, and they’d only really encountered Thai soap opera and melodrama, or pure Thai genre which is jump scare, jump scare jump scare. They didn’t know what to think about it, but they were ultra-impressed by hearing their own language. Seeing their food on screen elicited a huge reaction the first time I ever screened it in Laos. People gasped, they were like, “Oh my god, sticky rice on screen!”, because they’d never seen their own food on screen before. And I had all kinds of young people – male and female – coming up to me and saying, “You portray life in Laos so realistically – I feel just like Chanthaly, I’m just like her.” This is my life too, because I don’t portray it as the poverty porn that everybody who comes to make a film in Laos wants to portray. Dearest Sister is a commentary on class divide and wealth divide, but I’m mostly not portraying the extremely wealthy. I portray a solidly middle-class, normal lifestyle that people are shocked by – [they say] “I feel just like her – you made a film about me.”

Were there any specific reference points, filmic or folkloric, that you had for Dearest Sister

MD: Visually I was not trying to imitate anybody else’s style, but folklorically, this inky, seeping, black, ashy ghost – noone ever described it like that in my language, in my country, but they describe black ominous forms, and most people are cremated upon death, I’d say 98% are cremated – and that’s why I was really insistent on this blackness and that kind of slow-moving ash.

The ghosts in Dearest Sister seem relatively benign, whereas the living characters are all compromised, if not corrupted, by their pursuit of cash. Is money the real malevolent spirit in the film? 

MD: When I say, “Money is the root of all evil,” it sounds so stereotypical, right? But I live in a developing country and I can see the effect that money has had on our tiny little country. We as a people in Laos are very kind people, very open-hearted, generous people. You can still walk on the street in Laos, and if somebody is having lunch on the street and you seem interested in what they’re eating, they’ll invite you to eat with them. You know, they don’t know you. Even if you’re foreign, they’re very kind and loving people. But I have seen money turn my kind and loving people into something dark and sinister and rotten, and my movie definitely shows that. We have what we call the ‘hi-sos’, meaning high societies, and ‘lo-sos’ – and ‘so-sos’ are like middle-class, and Ana [Vilouna Phetmany] comes from a so-so family in this film, Nok [Amphaiphun Phommapunya] is lo-so, and Mimi [Maluly Chanthalangsy] and all of her friends are hi-so. People call me ‘no-so’ [laughs] – because I don’t have a real Lao last name, my father was an immigrant to Laos, I have no wealth in my background, or any background. I’m a mutt, I’m mixed, so I’m a no-so. To be able to see this dynamic from this outside view is quite insane, actually, because you see lo-so people who are in the villages, and they’re so – I don’t want to say this – I guess, ‘natural’, and okay with so little means, but when they go the city, you think that they’re going to be the same, you think that they’ll have some cash and save it and live within their means – because they know how to live for very little. But they end up trying to become a hi-so. And you talk to some Lao people, and they’re like, “Oh, someday I’m going to be a hi-so. And then I can bring my own relative, and treat my own relative like an indentured servant and be a total witch to them too.” It’s really sad, and I hope that changes in my country. I don’t have a solution to it, but I hope people see Dearest Sister and go, “Dude, we suck. We’d better change.”

In Dearest Sister, the ghosts are trapped between worlds, but that is of course true of the living as well; for in various ways all three of your main characters – Nok, Ana and Ana’s Estonian husband Jakob (Tambet Tuisk) – are caught between different classes and cultures in a developing nation undergoing rapid transition. Could you talk a bit about the socioeconomic and national allegories in your film? 

DM: The assumption for Ana is that she’s just trying to marry up, but I do see that in the relationship between Ana and Jacob, they love each other. But maybe their relationship wasn’t based on the most common denominator: she’s very pretty, he’s very handsome, life did get better living in this awesome house than in her parents’ house. But I think that she’s very insecure and she’s very trapped between these two worlds, because when they bring Nok into their home, and she’s like this little country bumpkin, I think Ana has this moment where she feels extremely insecure and hates Nok even more. She’s like, “This is is how my husband and all my friends see me. She’s my cousin. I hardly know her, but she’s my cousin, and basically we’re the same.” And deep-down inside she’s not sure if she’s the same or not. And for Nok, she’s like, “Oh my god, how can this still be Laos? I’ve lived in Laos for 22 years of my life, and then I come here, and it’s like a Laos I never knew.” There are two Lao girls who are completely foreign to each other in the same country, in the same house, speaking the same language, but have nothing in common, besides this very distant and thin bond of family. What’s really interesting about Dearest Sister is how I’m trying to portray all the different subsets that you encounter in Laos. I tried as hard as I could. Like the sexpat, the do-gooder NGO worker, the corrupt NGO worker, and then the NGO workers that are just complacent and apathetic and go along with everything. And then you’ll see like the servant class, and then you see the lo-so village class, and Ana who is super in the middle. And I love when you meet Mimi, because she is this level of hi-so that you cannot even begin to understand, just throwing money around like it’s nothing. The country’s evolving and the people are too. We’re very much trapped in this intersection where we are trying to identify ourselves as well.

© Anton Bitel