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American Film Showcase Kicks Off Year 2: Reflections on Laos

By Eric Neudel

A temple entrance in Vientaine, Laos. Photo: Rachel Gardin Mark

Earlier this year, I was invited to be a film envoy for the American Film Showcase (AFS), a cultural diplomacy program sponsored by the US Department of State and managed by the USC School of Cinematic Arts, with IDA and Film Independent as partners. I would be going to Laos for two weeks as the part of the first delegation of Year 2 of the AFS.

Even before I boarded a plane in Boston on a Friday this past May, I had wondered what being a film envoy really meant.

I arrived in Narita Airport, Tokyo, 16 hours later, and awaited a rendezvous with Mary Sweeney, the film expert for this trip, and Rachel Gandin Mark, the AFS program administrator. We flew another seven hours to Bangkok and checked into our hotel. Saturday somehow disappeared into the fog of time zones and date lines, and soon we were flying again to our final destination: Vientiane, Laos.

It was Sunday morning when the US Embassy's deputy public affairs officer, Ken Kosakowski, ushered us through immigration at the airport. We met him again that afternoon in the hotel, along with Gabriel Kuperman, the director of the upcoming festival, American Film Week; and Pam DeVolder, the embassy's public affairs officer. My film, Lives Worth Living, which tells the story of the Disability Rights Movement in the US, was scheduled to play in the middle of the week, bracketed by a series of Hollywood blockbusters. The movies would be shown in an outdoor setup on the banks of the Mekong River, next to the night market. The US Embassy team hoped that the beautiful venue would attract a large crowd from the throngs of people who stroll through the market while catching a cool breeze flowing off the great river.

But almost immediately, the arrangements for the festival ran into trouble. The Embassy had secured the correct permits from all the appropriate authorities in the Lao government. But on opening day, something more powerful and mysterious than the appropriate authorities objected to the venue and questioned the entire plan. Ultimately, the much-admired US Ambassador, Karen Stewart, negotiated for another venue at the National Cultural Center. But this hurdle gave me an insight into how things work in Laos. There's a Lao government, and then there is a mysterious higher power.

Soon, I saw that this higher power has its own ominous course. And yet one finds a relaxed country with minimal military and police presence, and very little crime. Vientiane is a small city with great places to eat and affable people. Seemingly everywhere there is a Buddhist temple, along with monks wearing orange and red robes moving about. Young tourists carry their enormous backpacks down Vientiane's narrow and crowded streets. It's obvious that Laos has a booming economy with a rapidly modernizing populace.

Nothing seemed out of sorts in Laos—but I had the feeling that something was. Simply put, the Lao government does not trust Americans. Indeed, they have good reasons to distrust all outside influences. In the past, Laos had been considered an insignificant backwater—a country whose borders did not count. Many foreign armies had invaded it. Most relevantly, it had been bombed by the US—a "secret war" hidden by the CIA, and several presidents and cloaked by more obvious events during the Vietnam War.

After the US Embassy team worked things out with the Lao government, American Film Week opened Monday night, albeit to a diminished audience. Kosakowski knew I was interested in learning about the conditions for people with disabilities in Laos, so he arranged several meetings. The first, with activists at the Lao Disabled People Association, was really engaging. I was surprised by their openness and their familiar concerns: little access to buildings, jobs, transportation, etc. Wherever you go in the world, these problems resonate for people with disabilities.

Lives Worth Living was the featured film on the third night of the festival. The AFS team started the day at the COPE (Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise) Visitor Centre—one of the very few organizations in Laos that provides support and rehabilitation for people with disabilities. We toured their mini-museum, which included a giant mobile of suspended cluster bomb casings. It's a sobering sight that reveals the danger Lao villagers still face every day by what the US bombers left behind decades ago. To give perspective to the problem, the bombing campaign in Laos from 1964 to 1973 was the biggest in world history; by the end of the war, the US had dropped more than two million tons of bombs on Laos—30 percent of which are still waiting to explode. Accidents are common and they regularly thrust new victims into the ranks of the disabled.

Later that day, I brought all my camera gear to a workshop on sound recording. At first, I thought that I should talk about basics, but I quickly realized that the 12 attendees were very advanced. So the discussion took a different route, and we had a great exchange about filmmaking techniques. I rushed back to the festival to present my film prior to its screening. This was a wonderful session for me because I had the chance to talk with the audience about Dr. Fred Fay, my dear quadriplegic friend and the brilliant activist who inspired the making of Lives Worth Living. The screening afterwards moved me to tears. Here I was, halfway around the world, and my film was playing on a big screen.

The following day, I met with an emerging filmmaker, Mattiphob Douangmyxay, at his home on the outskirts of Vientiane. He showed me an array of clips and cuts for his first feature film, Big Heart, which sweetly evoked the trials of young love. We reviewed his soundtracks and I taught him how to isolate sections of troubled tracks and how to apply filters to them. We also went over the fundamentals of track arrangement. Working with Mattiphob, I suddenly felt our connection. Even though the Lao live in a Communist country, our understanding of the magic of life was very similar.

I had another experience like this two days later when I went with a pop star musician named Sam to a bar in downtown Vientiane to show him how to use boom microphones for recording live music. When we moved from the sweltering heat and bright sunlight into the cool darkness of the bar, Sam and I saw an older Thai pop star teaching bass guitar to a remarkable group of young Lao musicians. To my delight, his lesson evolved into an amazing American blues jam session.

And that is how my AFS trip ended. It had been an exotic journey to a beautiful and peaceful place. But the "secret war" sits like the proverbial elephant in the room. For my part, I felt burdened by it and realized that I was now connected to it. But most people I met seemed reluctant to talk about it. When they did, they were curt. Amazingly, they said that they don't hate the US at all. And with their otherworldly forgiveness in mind, I began to understand what being a film envoy for the American Film Showcase meant: I had gone to Laos to hear that message.

Eric Neudel is a film envoy for the American Film Showcase and the director of Lives Worth Living, a documentary about the disability rights movement in the United States for the PBS series Independent Lens.