Interesting Travelers – Interview with Gabriel Kuperman

I arrived in Luang Prabang, Laos, in early December, 2010, intending on only spending four days there before heading to Thailand.  During my early explorations, I came across a sign near the city center promoting a film festival that was starting in two days.  Thoroughly intrigued, I decided to attend the opening ceremony the following evening.  The opening film blew me away and I ended up staying for the full duration of the week long festival where they showed three films a night from Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.

Since I love film, this was a serendipitous opportunity I couldn’t pass up.  Over that week I spent my mornings watching the monks receive alms, my afternoons exploring the city, and my evenings watching a variety of films that gave me a view into Southeast Asian life that I couldn’t have gotten any other way.  I tracked down Gabriel Kuperman, the founder of the festival, and he agreed to do the following interview.

A representative from the Laos government hits a gong marking the start of the festival.

A representative from the Laos government hits a gong marking the start of the festival.

Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself?

Raised in Washington, DC, I received both my undergraduate and graduate degrees in Cultural Studies and Media Studies, respectively, from the New School in New York City.  There, I was building a career in film and television before I decided to uproot myself and move to Luang Prabang, a tiny town in the mountains of Northern Laos.

How did you first find yourself in Laos?  Was it part of a bigger trip or just an interest in Laos that got you there?

I had planned a trip to Thailand with a good friend, and decided that after she left, I would tack five more weeks onto the trip, and backpack through Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia on my own.  In January of 2008, I fell in love with Laos, the first stop on my solo trip.  The three days I planned to stay in Luang Prabang became three weeks, and those three weeks became three months.  I did eventually make it to Vietnam and Cambodia, but only to return back to Laos, turning my little 9-week trip to Southeast Asia into a 6-month one

It was clear to me that, despite my passion for New York and my work back home, I had to relocate to Laos, as the country was (and is) changing so quickly, it would be a different place if I waited for another opportunity to come along.  I have been in Luang Prabang full-time since November of 2008, with no plans of leaving.

A small performance at the opening ceremony of the Luang Prabang Film Festival.

Dancers and musicians are part of the performances that mark the start of the film festival.

How did the idea for the film festival come about?

When I was here as a tourist, I immediately noticed the lack of film in the country.  There are no active cinemas in Luang Prabang; the shells of two older theaters stand empty, long since hollowed to make space for now-defunct karaoke bars and Chinese restaurants.  In fact, only 2 or 3 movie theaters that still play films exist in the whole country.

Following years of war, political upheaval, and severe economic difficulty, Laos has virtually no film industry whatsoever.  The Lao are avid consumers of media (most of it being Thai movies and such), which suggests there is potentially a huge following for Lao stories by Lao filmmakers should a local industry take off.  Unfortunately, at this point, the majority of Lao people have no concept of filmmaking as a career.  In general, media is very underdeveloped here, as Laos is somewhat culturally isolated and critical thinking is not encouraged.  This being said, there is no underestimating what a life changing experience watching a high-quality film on a big screen could be for someone who has only ever seen cheap productions on bootleg DVDs.

I realized that, were I to come back to live in Laos, I must use my position of privilege, my university education, and my New York media industry experience, to make a difference.

Thus was born the Luang Prabang Film Festival.  Our project’s most obvious objective is to celebrate Southeast Asian cinema over eight nights each December.  By looking closely at the craft of filmmaking in our neighboring countries, our domestic goal is to stimulate a more active film industry here in Laos.  Before accomplishing that, we must educate Lao about media literacy, and the art of film.  In turn, we hope this inspires young to Lao enter the burgeoning film industry and help it to grow.  For these reasons, LPFF commits not only to produce the annual festival, but also to engage Lao people in varied film projects and activities throughout the year.

The audience for the festival was a mix of locals from the area, officials from all over Laos, backpackers moving through and tourists on holiday.

The audience for the festival was a mix of locals from the area, officials from all over Laos, backpackers moving through and tourists on holiday.

What was it like getting the project off the ground?

After spending a little time settling in, I approached the Department of Cinema (which is a division under the Ministry of Information and Culture) in mid-2009.  I explained to them that a film festival would be a good project for them to produce to help spur a more active industry, and, of course, I offered to run it for them.  They were very excited about the project, and granted me a yearlong renewable expert visa, the first such visa ever granted to a foreigner from their department.

The government has continued to be very supportive of the project, providing LPFF with the use of public venues for the duration of the festival, as well as the time and resources of their staff during both the planning stages and the event itself.

Despite this logistical support from the government, there was little else that was easy about setting up an international event in a developing country with no infrastructure for film.  Admittedly, in some ways I made our tasks more difficult for my small team.

For example, with the concept of this being a community-produced event, LPFF devised a unique way of selecting its films to showcase.  In each of the participating countries, LPFF appointed a film expert, or “Motion Picture Ambassador.”  In all cases, this person is a national of the country they represent, works in the media or arts industry, and is well connected to local filmmakers.  It was their responsibility to suggest around ten films made within the past five years, which represent the best their country has to offer.  From those lists, LPFF procured screeners from the regional distribution companies that were interested in participating in our non-traditional festival, and this often took a great deal of convincing.  (Only companies willing to waive their screening fees and allow their films to be shown via a digital format could take part.  These stipulations were based on both logistical and budgetary constraints.)  A small committee of Lao nationals and foreigners (alongside the Department of Cinema) decided on the final films to be screened.

LPFF is quite indebted to our volunteer Motion Picture Ambassadors, all of whom spent a great deal of time carefully preparing their suggestions to us, as well as promoting our festival in their respective countries.  While this kind of programming choice creates infinitely more work for LPFF, we felt that it was a positive way to engage the participating countries, and allow them to feel some ownership of the project.

A little local girl watches the opening short films that were made in and around Luang Prabang specifically for the festival.

A little local girl watches the opening short films that were made in and around Luang Prabang specifically for the festival.

What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced in the early phases?

Our very biggest hurdle in the beginning is the same one that still exists today- finding adequate funding to keep the project viable.  While we have incredible support from the local community, who donate a great of their time and resources to the project, we still have many expenses that must be paid in cash.

Raising enough money domestically is a great challenge. Lao companies don’t have huge amounts they can contribute, and last year, it was difficult convincing them to put what money they did have into a new project they had never seen before, and therefore couldn’t really understand.

The bulk of our funds raised last year came from a couple of foundations and generous private donations.  As a result of this lack of adequate funding, several of our plans had to be scaled back significantly, while others had to be delayed until we have a bigger budget.

Once the project started rolling, was it a smooth run throughout?

For the most part, yes.  Inevitably, things always fell into place later than we would have liked, but they made it there eventually.  We didn’t ever face any enormous roadblocks, only small ones along the way.  Fortunately, the people who understood the project and its great benefits became our biggest proponents.  So, it was always helpful to have the support of those people and organizations.

The culmination of over a year of planning produced a terrific outdoor film festival that screened 23 films from 9 different countries. Throughout the week of the festival, and since the festival as well, our organizers have heard such terrific feedback from guests, both Lao and foreign.  As we had hoped it would be, this event made a significant impact upon those in attendance, many of whom had never seen films from Southeast Asia, or who had never even seen films on a big screen before.

Were your expectations met at the conclusion of the festival?

They were surpassed, in fact.  Our opening ceremony and first screening drew a crowd of around 1400, almost twice the number of people we expected to show up.  It turned out that our assumptions were right- Lao people were hungry to engage in the much-loved tradition of going to the movies.  And they came in droves.

The government was very pleased with the project as well, and before the end of the festival, the officials were already talking about the following year’s event.  I hope this project continues to benefit Lao people, while highlighting the incredible filmmaking that is happening in the region.

Logo for the Luang Prabang Film FestivalWhere do you go from here?

We are already knee-deep in plans for this year’s festival, which will be held December 3 – 10.

As well as the festival went last year, we are looking forward to bigger and better this year.  Supplementing evening screenings during the weeklong festival, there will be many activities surrounding film and media that guests can take part in.  Notably, LPFF is working closely with UNESCO, the French Cultural Center, and the Department of Cinema, as well as other organizations, to curate special exhibitions in venues around town that reflect the history of film in the country and region.

In an effort to continue making this festival as accessible to Lao people as possible, we would really like to be able to continue with our plans to take a condensed version of the festival on the road to other provinces.  I do believe that this year, that will be possible.

We also believe that it’s important for us to subtitle more of our films in Lao and not just in English, in order to allow for a greater benefit to our Lao audiences.  Unfortunately, this is a huge expense, but we do believe it’s worth it.

Additionally, we plan to hold more educational activities throughout the year, activities that would continue to promote Lao filmmaking as an industry and art form that can help put Laos enter the international cinematic arena.

For more information about our project, please visit our website, and also “like” our Facebook page for updates.  We hope to see you in December!

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  • Anonymous

    Love this project, and how Gabriel has managed to seamlessly marry his passion for cinema with travel/development. I similarly feel in love with Loas when I was there, the people, nuances and food. What a wonderful project that will be all the more successful because it’s so closely aligned with your personal goals. :) Look forward to following along with the LP festivals development, and hope to make it there that time of year!

  • Ndinger

    A Film Festival in Laos. Now that is an interesting interview. It’s amazing what you find when you begin to travel the world. Well done.