A tale of revenge in Laos challenges censors

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Watch a clip from the At The Horizon trailer

Since the communist takeover of Laos in 1975, the media has fallen under the control of the state. Film has been seen more as tool for exporting propaganda rather than entertainment.

But that looks set to change with the production of the first thriller in the country's history.

Under the banner of the "Lao New Wave" movement - a group of young film-makers is challenging strict censorship laws, rekindling a cinema scene which has lain nascent for decades.

Their debut, At the Horizon, was shot in just 19 days. It is a tale of revenge and psychological conflict centred around two characters from opposite ends of Laos' increasingly polarised social spectrum.

The film has already caused a stir in the country, pushing the boundaries of cinema and tackling controversial issues like class and corruption.

Soap operas and melodrama

Now it's set for even bigger things with a screening at the OzAsia film festival and entry to the Asia Pacific Screen Awards in Australia later this year.

Image caption,
Individuals in Laos can be jailed for up to a year for producing material that 'weakens the state'.

Anysay Keola, 30, is the film's director. At his favourite coffee bar haunt in the downtown area of Laos' capital, Vientiane, movie posters cover the walls.

In the adjacent room Keola's friends are experimenting with ways to soundproof the door so they can screen films undisturbed by the hubbub of tuk-tuks and market traders on the dirt road outside.

Like most young people in Laos, Keola grew up on a cultural diet of Thai soap operas and melodrama.

The handful of native Lao movies that have emerged in the last few decades have carried strong communist messages and do not appeal to the younger generations who favour the excitement and entertainment of counterfeited Hollywood films that are increasingly sold in shopping malls.

Studying film at Thailand's Chulalongkorn University, Keola became determined to make a movie with a Lao audience in mind.

'Indecency' is out

But directing a thriller in his country was never going to be easy.

Laos' government enforces strict censorship across all media. Under the criminal code, individuals may be jailed for up to a year for producing material that could "weaken the state".

Politically sensitive topics or anything seen as indecent, subversive or which may undermine national culture, in their view, is out.

The Ministry of Information and Culture has even attempted to limit the influence of Thai culture in Lao music and entertainment, but with little effect.

Image source, BBC Sport
Image caption,
Anysay Keola dreams of kick-starting Laos' cinema culture

In theory, the censorship laws exist to protect the country's communist ideals, but the law is broad, and a lack of definition on what "weakening the state" entails means it is down to individual interpretation - decisions are often politically motivated.

It is very difficult for an artist to push against the status quo and be more expressive.

It is hardly surprising that media is dominated by propaganda and educational documentaries. "It is safe to make a movie about that," says Keola.

The script for At the Horizon was initially rejected on the grounds that it was too violent.

Keola appealed, and the green light was granted on condition that the guns were blurred and the ending changed.

"For the authorities we have to represent the justice that should happen in society - so all the bad guys have to go to jail," says Keola.

On the international circuit, the original will be used.

But even in the censored version, At the Horizon addresses a side of Lao society that has not been shown on screen before.

Keola hopes that the film's success will convince the Lao Government that it is acceptable to portray Laos in a more modern way.

"I'm trying to show Laos as I've seen and experienced it," he says. "You come to Vientiane and you see the luxury cars and sports cars, but if you ride that car out of the city for 10 minutes, you see wooden houses. It's a big contrast."

'Women in jeans'

Laos is going through a period of unprecedented economic growth, driven mainly by foreign investment.

With this growth comes globalisation - and manifestations of creeping Western influence feature heavily in the film.

It is the first time women have been shown wearing jeans, with men displaying earrings and tattoos.

Lao youth tear between paddy fields in Cadillacs and club scenes portray groups of nouveau riche congregating around expensive bottles of spirits, smoking and texting on iPhones.

Laos ranks highly on Transparency International's corruption index. It is a society where money speaks, and it is no coincidence that one of the main characters in the film - a middle-aged man from a rural background - is a mute.

The "Lao New Wave" group say they are not political - but they hope to get people talking about these issues.

"If five people or 10 people are aware, it's better than nobody caring, right?" Keola asks.

The violence of At the Horizon might be small fry compared to the directors who inspired Keola - he cites David Fincher, Michael Mann and David Cronenberg as his main influences - but many were left shaken by the film.

"Some cannot even watch the whole movie," Keola laughs. "I totally understand - many do not have exposure to thriller movies, or indeed to any types of movie."

There is still a long way to go before the members of the Lao New Wave group realise their dream of kick-starting Laos' cinema culture.

The size of the market is a big problem. With only two cinemas in the country, many of Laos' six-and-a-half million people do not have access to them, even if they could afford the price of a ticket.

But by showing that a market-driven, home-grown movie scene is not impossible, the new wave movement is making the first tentative steps to a new era of film in Laos.

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