SPOTLIGHT January 2018: Mattie Do, Lao Filmmaker, Oscar Contender for DEAREST SISTER

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awfjspotlightsmallsmallmattie do buddhistFilmmaker Mattie Do’s very name signifies a series of impressive firsts: Lao’s first woman director and helmer of the first Lao movies to play at international film festivals, and more recently, her latest film Dearest Sister (Nong hak) became the first from the country to be submitted to The Oscars’ Best Foreign Language category.

Of the thirteen feature films made in Laos, Do has directed two of them: aside from Dearest Sister (also the country’s first international co-production), her debut Chanthaly (2012) was the ninth feature film ever produced there, as well as being Lao’s first horror movie.

Dearest Sister was developed in part by through the Cannes Film Festival’s Fabrique des Cinemas du Monde emerging filmmaker development program, and although a familiar face on the international genre film festival circuit, Do’s astonishing achievements are very much due wider recognition.

Mattie Do and Lao Cinema

Dearest Sister was shot across Vientiane Province in Laos’s north west, and Do consciously sought to represent her country as honestly as she could. The restrictive nature of the country’s Communist forces historically rendered its film industry comparably negligible, only recently finding its legs. Born in Los Angeles to immigrant parents, Do had no original intentions to become a filmmaker: she studied as a cosmetologist and her first ambition was to become a ballet dancer. Arriving in the country in 2010 with her husband (screenwriter Christopher Larsen), a series of unexpected events instead lead Do to filmmaking. As she has noted in numerous interviews, she fell into the job when her husband wanted to work with production company Lao Art Media.

matti do with mikeAs Do explained in a recent interview with Senses of Cinema, “The people at Lao Art Media needed content and they got this wild idea that I should direct films. My husband said, ‘That’s a perfect idea because she’s super pro at performing arts.’ My reaction was, ‘Pro at performing arts? I teach six-year-olds to line-up and I’m lucky if they know the difference between their right and left foot.’ But, that is how I became a filmmaker – because I worked with non-actors.”

Learning the craft on the job, the unusual circumstances that led her to a filmmaking career in large part granted her a flexibility and openness to experimentation that other, more traditionally trained directors may not have experienced.

Gender and Genre

As Do noted in a recent interview, her cinema literacy stems from an adolescent love of VHS culture and b-grade horror films like Puppet Master than a more orthodox exposure to high-brow ‘cinema greats’. Both Dearest Sister and Chanthaly demonstrate an intuitive understanding of the genre’s mechanics, and Do has found horror’s familiar codes and conventions to be a perfect way of communicating to non-Lao audiences the intricacies of her culture, particularly in terms of gender, class differences, tradition and superstition. These themes permeate both films, and while the supernatural tales of visions and ghosts have clearly proven to be highly accessible and satisfying for international audiences from Puerto Rico to Italy to Australia, they also adhere to Do’s fundamental mission of representing Laos in a non-fetishized manner, in contrast to how it is so commonly characterized by outsiders.

Still from Chanthaly
Still from Chanthaly

Home is Where the Horror Is

Although she spent much of her early life in the United States and worked for a time in Europe, Do returned to live in Laos in 2010 to look after her father following the death of her mother, an event that inspired her debut feature Chanthaly (2012). Like Dearest Sister, both films focus explicitly on the tensions within families that are brought to the fore by supernatural elements. In Chanthaly, the title character (played by pop singer and Do regular Amphaiphun Phimmapunya) lives an isolated life with her overbearing father, and begins seeing visions of her mother’s ghost triggered by medicine she needs to treat a genetic heart defect. In Dearest Sister, Phommapunya’s Nok is a poor country girl sent to look after her wealthy cousin Ana (Vilouna Phetmany) who is slowly going blind. Ana’s condition grants her a different kind of vision that Nok exploits, complicating their already tense relationship.

Still from Dearest Sister
Still from Dearest Sister

Truth and Taboo

In her determination to represent Laos in a way that is more truthful to the experiences of those who live there – especially women – Do has often noted that this side of life in the country is rarely shown in Western cinema. This tendency to reduce Laos and its culture to exoticized Other clearly infuriates Do, and her work seeks to be a conscious antidote.

mattie do handsPart of this mission has been to include and acknowledge the role of tradition and superstition that play a central role in the foundational mythologies that aligned her so closely to the horror genre. This has in the past caused issues with the Lao Department of Film, whose initially demanded she censored elements of Chanthaly to do with superstitions and other taboo subjects.

But, as Do noted in an interview with The Mary Sue, even this experience taught her something pleasantly surprising about making films in Laos: “One thing I have to admit that’s really progressive about the Laos Board of Censorship for the Department of Cinema is they have both men and women”, she said. “At the censorship hearings, I’ve had equally men and women watching the film and making comments and notes on the film and that is very progressive of them.”

Why We Chose Her

awfjspotlightsmallsmallWhile her name will be new to many, it is this strength, determination and clarity of vision that renders Mattie Do one of the most important women filmmakers working today. As a self-taught director in a country with virtually no real industrial infrastructure, that she has received international acclaim and nothing less than the country’s first Oscar submission is a remarkable achievement.

mattie do head 1What renders Do even more remarkable, however, is her endless support for other filmmakers: in 2014, she uploaded over half a terabyte of raw footage from Chanthaly to so that other emerging or struggling filmmakers could see first-hand all the individual pieces that are used to put a feature film together (including technical specifications of their equipment, shooting scripts, Adobe project files and even “open source edit decision lists for those not using Adobe”). Do’s generosity of spirit both as an artist and as a human being comes across not only in gestures like this, but in the style and themes of her films.

Chanthaly can be viewed in full on Mattie Do’s YouTube channel:

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).