Laos film festival nurtures big screen dreams

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The Luang event may be the world’s only major festival in a town without movie theaters. Open air viewing every night in the town’s main square attracted big crowds.

Boating along a serene stretch of the Mekong River near the UNESCO World Heritage town of Luang Prabang, some passengers were overcome with emotion. “I screamed,” said Xaisongkham Induangchanty. “We all screamed.” Tears poured down Siege Ledesma’s face. “I cried ugly,” she confided. “Really ugly.”

Their tears were an expression of joy, unrelated to the beauty of the surrounding scenery: Both were filmmakers attending the Luang Prabang Film Festival in mid-December, where they participated in a competition for young filmmakers seeking funding. On the boat trip, they were announced as winners.

Held annually since 2010 in this picturesque Mekong town, the festival shows productions from across Southeast Asia, even though Luang Prabang lacks a cinema. Movies are screened in a wooden hall at the Sofitel Luang Prabang hotel, and in the open air in the main square. In a town of 50,000 people, the twice-nightly screenings drew overflowing crowds.

The opportunities presented to filmmakers and film buffs was even bigger: a chance to see top features and documentaries from around Southeast Asia, to network, attend panels featuring regional and international cinema experts and nurture hopes for the big screen. For struggling filmmakers from poor countries, such as Induangchanty, who is from Laos, the festival can serve as an unrivaled field of dreams.

A jury chose Induangchanty’s script for his film “Raising a Beast” as the winnter in the talent lab competition, awarding it a mentoring package provided by the non-profit Tribeca Film Institute in New York. The prize includes help to prepare this filmmaker to attend and pitch his project during the next Tribeca Film Festival in New York in April.

“For me, this is really huge,” said the Vientiane-based filmmaker, who turned 39 just after the festival. He is part of Lao New Wave Cinema, a production company, but like many Laotian colleagues he mainly earns his living working for foreign film crews, or on commercials. Yet making films for the silver screen has always been his goal. “I’ve had this idea in my head for a long time,” he said of his planned first feature, a family drama.

In coming months, Induangchanty will be helped to hone his proposal, then transported to New York for scores of meetings with film producers and investors who may be willing to finance the film, according to Bryce Norbitz, manager of artist programs at Tribeca Film Institute. “Our goal is to help these filmmakers succeed,” Norbitz said.

Ledesma’s prize was in some ways even more substantial — a $10,000 award from Aurora Media Holdings, a Singapore media investment company. Her planned feature, “Cat Island,” is set in Japan. She is free to use the funds as she chooses, but could work with Aurora to raise additional capital toward her budget of about $500,000. In any case, the prize focuses vital attention on her proposed second feature, which has also generated interest from Japan, where her 2013 debut film, “Shift,” was a surprise hit.

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