Personal Journey Becomes Documentary on Modern Lao Music, Movies

Arounsack-ProfilePicture-2017_full.jpg

What started as a simple question became a quest to figure out what happened to Lao media. After noticing that original Lao movies and music had become stagnant, Steve Arounsack, director of upcoming documentary, “Getting Lao’d,” wanted to know why. Now Arounsack is ready to share his discoveries with audiences, 13 years since its inception. From Vientiane, Laos, Arounsack gives insight into the years-long process and what he hopes will spark renewed conversation.

“Getting Lao’d” will officially debut during its world premiere on Friday, Feb. 23 at 6:30 p.m. at the 2018 Seattle Asian American Film Festival (Northwest Film Forum and Broadway Performance Hall). Stay tuned for news about future screenings. 

GL Poster Web.jpg

What inspired your journey into researching Lao music and cinema?

I think it can be traced back to probably 1994. [It was] my first trip back to Laos and this was when the country hadn’t really opened its borders. I remember hanging out with my cousins and I asked them, “I’d like to hear some Lao music,” and of course, they would play the old Lao music. Well, I don’t really want to hear the old Lao stuff. I’ve heard that from my parents’ cassettes back in the states. Is there any new, modern music? And they played me some music that sounded new, but it was Thai music. They said there wasn’t really any [new Lao music]. It really sparked something in me like, “Wow, there’s really a tight control of the media here in Laos.” It really made me question why isn’t there really anything new being produced.

I started coming back every year around 1999 or 2000. Then I began hearing this new hip hop beat that’s coming out, and I was like, “That’s cool” because I hadn’t heard anything like that. I started hearing about this singer Alexandra Bounxouei. She’s the first modern hip hop music star. She has this really distinctive look and she was making this pop music. I think everything really started when a friend in Luang Prabang said, “Hey you want to go to this concert?” in 2004. Usually a concert means five drunk people in the back with a karaoke set so I didn’t expect too much. The concert was a big groundbreaking event because that’s like the first major concert in Laos and it was called the Lao-Thai Friendship concert. They had famous singers from Thailand partnering up with these newer singers from Laos. 

I think when you see the documentary, you’ll understand the [music industry] better. Up until about the year 2000 it was pretty heavily controlled. It’s still heavily controlled today, but you have to submit your script or your lyrics to a censorship board and they have to approve it and all that stuff. Now they’re a little bit more relaxed because there’s been so many advances since then. There was this turning point where the Lao government eased up a little bit so until 2004 at that friendship concert, that was a big breakthrough that put all these young Lao artists in a concert for Lao people to really say “Wow, there really is a growing scene here.”

That concert kind of broke the doors open to a new era. That’s where I met Aluna [Thavonsouk] and I filmed the pre-concert. We got to follow her around, follow her art. I brought her to the states to perform in 2005 so she traveled with me all over. Seattle was Aluna’s first U.S. concert appearance and that was really historic because Lao people got to see a major hip hop artist in the states doing a concert with other Lao folks like Sarky, and I recorded that too. It's all in the documentary – this whole arc. But this was back when they were kids, now they’re really famous. I met them and did a really quick interview with them. I didn’t really think anything of it (at the time). Just that these really new kids are pushing everything forward, which is great. A few years passed before I came back, but when I was in the states, I kept hearing about them (Lao musicians), like Lao people in the states beginning to take interest because now it’s hip hop and modern beats. So I came back around 2006, 2008 to finish a few more interviews. I started filming for this documentary around 2004 all the way until 2016. 

Since you worked on this project for so long, at what point did you feel you could finish the story or that you’d done it justice?

I think I always feel like the documentary is imperfect, but I think it’s important enough at this stage to release it and for it to be accepted into film festivals. It’s kind of a recognition of its professional quality… but I would really like to screen it at smaller venues in smaller groups for the Lao folks to understand what happened to their country. Because in smaller groups, it allows for more meaningful conversation. The group that we had at Lao National University, that was like 25-30 people; that was really fun.

A student waits to view “Getting Lao’d” at a private screening at the National University of Laos in Vientiane.

A student waits to view “Getting Lao’d” at a private screening at the National University of Laos in Vientiane.

Do you see Lao music gravitating toward a certain genre? Which ones and why?

I think it’s still a lot of hip hop, rock – rock actually has a pretty strong foothold here. You don’t really hear too much alternative. I think it’s influenced from the people that are creating. So the people that are creating it have studied abroad… and have been influenced by the West and who they listen to before they came here or moved back here. Then they brought their sensibility and their style. Recently we’ve been seeing a fusion of all the new Western stuff mixed with the old traditional stuff like the khene. They’re putting that in their music now so we’re seeing a fusion of what makes Laos unique. Like moving forward, they’re going backward. 

Over the years, was there anything that surprised you during your research and interviews?

I think I was surprised how long this effort took me and very few documentaries last more than a couple of years. I think it’s an appropriate time that if I were to wait any longer, it would become too stale. I think what else surprised me was the effort it took. First, I had to be in touch with someone overseas for this long and to travel. Two, and this is on the positive side, is that once I built up these relationships with these people, they’re very open to sharing with the world. The level of access I had was pretty refreshing and I think that’s just the Lao nature, being hospitable. I think they’re actually willing to open up and reveal more because they knew that the documentary was going to be geared more toward overseas. When they interview here, it’s more like the TMZ, Access Hollywood. It’s very surface stuff. They don’t get to really explore what frustrates them or what their dreams are. So this was maybe one of those few times where they got to put out a wider emotional palette. It was great to get more of a wholesome picture over so many years. They were pretty honest. The documentary isn’t as light as people might think.

Can you talk a little bit more about the state of the film industry?

Yeah, that’s where much of the interest in this country is right now. The music industry, they’ve kind of gone two different directions. The music industry has kind of stabilized, like I don’t know how many advances there are left. For the movie industry, just a little bit of background. In 2008, there’s a movie called “Sabaidee Luang Prabang.” That was the first privately-funded film in over 30 years. Everything else before that was government-sponsored propaganda. It was directly produced by a Lao company and a Thai company, and that really broke the doors open. Then the government really had to think about what their role is in producing films. Maybe it’s not to produce films, but to approve films. 

Other ones started coming out. “At the Horizon” (2012) was probably the other major film during that time. It was created by this younger group. Sabaidee Luang Prabang was produced by folks that were pretty established in Thailand and by a company called Lao Art Media. What’s a little more interesting is this newer company called Lao New Wave Cinema; they’re really the ones pushing things forward. One of the most well-known production companies. So you got a bunch of Lao kids that are producing movies that are amazing, got into all these film festivals, [getting] international recognition, and we followed those folks all the way too. Sort of the beginning of their stardom. So everyone wants to be in movies now. There’s probably more interest in being a filmmaker than it is to be a musician.

Laos submitted its first film for consideration to the Oscars. What do you think that means for the industry in Laos?

There needs to be some clarification of that. It’s an important step forward, but the way that really works is most countries get to submit a film for consideration. It’s just that Laos was never able to submit a film before. Every country gets to submit a film for consideration to pass the first round. To be Oscar-nominated, it comes down to five or six and that’s already huge, and we’re hoping that a Lao film will be among them soon. I think there wasn’t an infrastructure to submit a film and it was the Luang Prabang Film Festival and some people in Vientiane here that really helped to move it forward. I think that’s really great and it’s an important first step. 

Steve Arounsack interviews Anysay Keola, director of “At the Horizon” (2011), a thriller which pushed boundaries in the Lao film industry, taking on controversial issues like class and corruption.

Steve Arounsack interviews Anysay Keola, director of “At the Horizon” (2011), a thriller which pushed boundaries in the Lao film industry, taking on controversial issues like class and corruption.

What do you hope to accomplish with the release of the documentary? Is it more for the community or for educating those outside?

I think it’s a little bit of both, but I think for me, it’s a passion project that I think was borne out of a question. And that question went back to 1994, like why isn’t there any new music being produced in Laos? I think when we struggle with questions of identity, we begin to ask questions and I think part of those questions are “Where did I come from? What is that place like?” Music was a part of that journey for me because I really wasn’t tapped into Laos until I asked the music question. By me listening to the music, it really helped me improve my language skills and it helped me better understand where I’m from, what type of words are being used in Laos, all the expressions being used and how those expressions change over time. Music is at the forefront of cultural change. It’s that canvas that the new generation gets to express how they feel about the world and that helps them answer questions of identity. That’s what makes it so fun to gravitate towards it. It’s an expressive place where there’s still some censorship issues and that’s what makes it sort of so exciting. 

It’s not only just for the fans (of the entertainers), but also for folks who love Laos, but you don’t know much about what happened. It sort of fills in the gap of missing information about the Lao entertainment industry for people overseas and some people here in Laos. They don’t have a full understanding because nobody really sits down and thinks about the history, and we don’t expect them to do it because they’re so busy creating the history. It’s like, you’re living your life and you don’t really have a chance to really reflect.

Now reflecting back on everything you’ve covered in your documentary, what do you see as the future of Lao entertainment and media?

They’re kind of going two different ways. I think the film industry has grabbed more of the people’s imagination, because it’s more visible and there’s some sort of glamour attached to it, which may or may not always be true right off. I think a lot of kids have that dream (of making it big), which I think is important. It also has to be coupled with the reality of the market size. Even the people that are really successful are still sometimes finding it hard to make it a living. 

For music, I think artists are really just releasing singles now, rather than whole albums. They’ll do ringtones, they’ll do concerts. So they’re at different places right now… I think we’re going to see more international collaborations. There’s like Japanese and Chinese collaborations in the film industry. 

Steve Arounsack and Aluna meet with students from the National University of Laos in Vientiane after a private screening. 

Steve Arounsack and Aluna meet with students from the National University of Laos in Vientiane after a private screening. 

Any closing comments you'd like to add?

I think maybe I just want to convey the sense that this film is really for, apart from educating others of what’s going on in Laos, my goal with this film is just to answer questions for myself, first. Why isn’t there any new Lao music? These are questions of identity like who we are, where are we from, what’s going on in the places where we’re from. Music and film are really that cultural canvas that signal change and for Lao people to understand what’s going on in their country is important. This whole project was never about making money. The whole point is to give Lao people a sense of the struggles of these early pioneers, these very young people that changed the country. An easy way to say it is “Small country, big heart.” I remember when we screened this at Lao National University, Aluna was there. She’d already seen it privately, but when she was answering questions about it, she actually got emotional because she was surprised. Seeing herself on screen just going through all those struggles, she was reminded again about all those sacrifices. It’s kind of a testament to the power of this film, even for people on the inside. I know it’s far from perfect, there’s a lot of things I would still change, but it’s important that it does come out.

Savannah Rattanavong