Luang Prabang Festival: Malaysia's 'Redha' Takes Top Prize

Luang Prabang City - Getty - H 2017

The growing Southeast Asian event featured an expanded program this year, spanning 32 screenings, panel discussions, live music, exhibitions and an educational endeavor hosted by the Tribeca Film Institute — all of it taking place in the shadow of historic Buddhist temples.

The Luang Prabang Film Festival, a boutique event showcasing emerging cinematic voices from Southeast Asia, wrapped up its eighth annual edition this week, honoring Malaysian film Redha with the audience choice award.

Held annually amid the historic Buddhist temples of Luang Prabang, Laos, a UNESCO World Heritage town, this year's LPFF featured an expanded lineup of 32 feature films, four programs of shorts, exhibitions and performances, and a talent lab hosted by the Tribeca Film Institute.

The event's big winner, Redha, follows the story of Alina and Razlan, who discover that their only son is autistic and must confront the harsh realities of raising a child disabled by a condition they know little about. The film was directed by Tunku Mona Riza, who attended the festival for the screening and participated in a Q&A with the audience, as well as a public panel discussion on Muslim voices in Southeast Asia. This year's audience choice award was decided by a five-star online rating system that allowed viewers to submit their votes by smart phone after screenings. 

All of LPFF's screenings and events are free and open to the public. At night, some of the showings take place in the open air in the heart of Luang Prabang's public market, drawing large numbers of families and villagers from the surrounding community. Luang Prabang has no working cinemas, so it's not uncommon for some attendees to see their first movie on the big screen at the festival. Accompanying the headline screenings were concerts from popular Lao singers Touly and Ola Black Eyes — "a platform for these performers to showcase their talents to an international audience," the LPFF's organizers said.

LPFF's 2017 country in focus, or "Spotlight," was Thailand, with a full day of programming devoted to screenings and industry discussions of the issues faced by Thai filmmakers today. LPFF’s rich program of shorts — a particularly valuable set of platforms given the nascent state of the region's film communities — included: a selection from the 2017 Vientianale Short Film Competition that showcased budding talent in Laos; Thai shorts to complement the festival's Thailand Spotlight; the top films from a Youth and Agroecology Short Film Competition held by LPFF and the Agroecology Learning alliance in Southeast Asia; and recent award winners on Viddsee, an online video platform featuring short films from across Asia.

The LPFF Talent Lab, now in its second year, included 10 film projects from six ASEAN nations. The lab, which was extended to two days this year, included a pitching workshop led by Bryce Norbitz and Molly O’Keefe from the Tribeca Film Institute.

A live pitching forum followed the training session, with feedback provided by a jury comprised of filmmaking professionals from around the world, such as Oscar-winning American producer Kenneth Lipper and Jeremy Sim of Singapore-based media investment firm Aurora Media Holdings, among others.

The jury selected Lao-Filipino project Raising a Beast to attend the TFI Network market during the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival in New York, where TFI will introduce the filmmakers to editors, distributors and financiers, mentoring the Southeast Asian team through the completion of the film. Written and directed by Xaisongkham Induangchanty (Laos) and produced by Abigail Lazaro (Philippines), Raising a Beast tells the story of two Hmong siblings, Ying and Neng, who are blessed with beautiful voices and dream of moving to the city to become singers one day. When their father refuses to sell the family's prized bull to help pay for Neng’s education in the city, Ying becomes a bull trainer to cover her brother’s expenses.

The Talent Lab's other winner was Filipino project Cat Island, pitched by Siege Ledesma (director, writer) and Ang Alemberg (producer). The project received the Aurora Producing Award of $10,000 to go toward production expenses. The film follows a young Filipino woman who makes a personal pilgrimage to Japan's real-life, Cat Island, an eccentric isle mysteriously overrun with felines.

Another new addition to the festival’s program in 2017 was a documentary production workshop organized by the U.S. Mission to ASEAN and the American Film Showcase. Filipino-American filmmaker Ramona Diaz (Imelda) and Patrick Shen (Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality) led a five-day workshop with 14 participants from the Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative, who collectively produced four short documentaries during the week.

Bringing a dose of grass-roots cinematic activism to the proceedings was an exhibition of photographs by American photographer and documentarian Philip Jablon. A tireless campaigner for the preservation of Southeast Asia's heritage movie theater architecture, Jablon spent February and March of 2016 researching and photographing the movie theaters of Myanmar, a nation experiencing an overall rebirth of cinema-going. A selection of the photos were presented in Luang Prabang as the latest chapter in Jablon's long-running Southeast Asia Movie Theater Project.