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“I Am the Horror Community”: An Interview with Laos’ First Lady of Horror, Mattie Do

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Mattie Do is a remarkable woman. Her first feature film, Chanthaly, was the not only the first horror film ever made in Laos, but the first Laotian film directed by a woman. The film was well-received internationally, and Do was heralded as a commanding new voice in modern horror, presenting audiences with a chilling and smart commentary on familial ties in modern Laos.

Do was born and raised in Los Angeles. She worked as a make-up artist on American and European productions before relocating to Laos in 2010 where she worked as a consultant for a Lao film company. She is well-known within the small Laotian film community as an artist with a revolutionary vision. In a country that has produced fewer than 20 films in its history, Do is already well into her second feature, which, she says, will up the ante on Chanthaly thematically and visually. How will the censors handle her? “Let’s see what I can get away with!” she says.

Do’s second feature is Dear Sister, a ghost story about a Lao village girl attempting to escape poverty by manipulating the illness of a wealthy cousin for her own ends. Dearest Sister requires a lot more blood than Chanthaly, which, Do says, means a bigger budget is required. The film is being crowd-funded through Indiegogo. Do is directly involved in the fundraiser, offering a part in the film to top-tier contributors. She also makes sure to contact all who donate, regardless of donation amount. Do said, “I make an effort to write back to all of our contributors personally. I want people to understand that contributing to a film like Dearest Sister is important for many reasons.”

Do’s Indiegogo campaign, which is in its last two weeks of fundraising, can be found here.

Sally Christie chatted to Do about filmmaking, horror, censorship, and how Dengue Fever can really mess up a day on set.

MONSTER: You are not only the first female in Laos to ever direct a film, but your film was the first Lao film to turn a profit. Are you feeling additional pressure with your second feature, Dearest Sister?

MATTIE: It’s interesting, because I usually talk about Chanthaly making profit as a lead in to an explanation of how I used the film to revamp the business model for making film in Laos.

At the time we made Chanthaly, there was just one cinema in the country. Since there were only one or two Lao films a year, people came out to see them, but the box office takes were pretty regular. Every Lao film makes about US$5,000. So I took that as my starting point. The thought was: If I can only make five grand, then I better spend less than that.

Before Chanthaly, Lao filmmakers made their films with family money or personal money. So we introduced the idea of product placement. We made a few deals around town to bring down our equipment costs. And at the end of the day, we finished the film without any debt. We’ve carried that philosophy into the next film.

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MONSTER: In order to make Chanthaly, you simply picked up a book on film direction and got to work. Now that you’ve got that experience behind you, how will you approach Dearest Sister?

MATTIE: [Laughs]. Until you’re making a film, no amount of books can really prepare you for the clusterfuckery of actually finishing a film from pre-production to seeing it projected for an audience.

I’m glad to say that Chanthaly has prepared me in lots of ways for Dearest Sister. We realized how we can streamline our workflow during production and in post, what works and doesn’t work when it comes to DIY editing and color correction, and, most of all, knowing what we need to prioritize to make sure we have coverage without wasting a ton of time shooting a bunch of material that we’ll hardly be using.

I think [Chanthaly] taught me to look at what is happening at that moment on camera, break it down with my DP and say, “Yeah… we should probably get that again from another angle just in case.” or “Nah, that’s all we need. Moving on.”

Most importantly, the experience of shooting Chanthaly has taught me that shooting a film during the monsoon season is just stupid. One second it’s sunny, the next, my crew and I are chasing equipment that’s being blown or washed away by the unpredictable weather!

MONSTER: You are promising us a whole lot more blood with Dearest Sister. Are you concerned about censorship?

MATTIE: The Ministry of Information and Culture [in Laos] has gotten to know me very well. After their experience with me and Chanthaly, I feel like they’re almost looking forward to what I throw at them with Dearest Sister.

I think they’re kind of confused and fascinated when dealing with me. I’ve talked them into approving the production of the international cut of the film, and then after I finish the edit we’ll figure out what to cut out to make them happy.

They’ve also asked me to shoot a bit of a different ending for the Lao version. So, I do have censorship issues that I have to respect, but I like finding a bit of wiggle room when it comes to the rules. I’m kind of the rebel filmmaker. We’ll see what I can get away with!

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MONSTER: Can you tell me little bit about the folklore behind Dearest Sister?

MATTIE: Dearest Sister is based on experiences that Lao people have had or superstitions they share. Some of the ghostly encounters that our protagonist has are taken directly from stories people have told me about their own visions or hauntings.

Lao ghosts are more tangible, non-wispy, visceral beings. They’re always visiting people in dreams and relaying messages, often about winning the lottery, for some reason. I wanted people outside of Laos, even in neighboring countries, to see that we have our own beliefs and superstitions, and that our film stories are unique to what everyone else is expecting. The anticipation is that we’re just another Thai film with Thai-like culture and beliefs, but really that’s not the case at all.

MONSTER: Both Chanthaly and Dearest Sister are concerned with women’s roles and gender inequality in Laos. What was it was like, as a female, moving to Laos after spending the majority of your life in the United States? What drives you to explore these themes in your work?

MATTIE: To be honest, I keep returning to explore these themes in my films because I am disturbed by the lack of strong and independent female characters in the existing films here in Laos. Even when people attempt to make a female role a major role, the character is often written as dimwitted and rather passive. It simply isn’t the case in real life, and I think it’s a shame that that gender portrayal gets perpetuated here.

I admit it was difficult to come back to Laos as a very independent woman in the US. It wasn’t exactly because we’re a male dominated society (which we are), but it was more that people in my line of work didn’t really know how to approach or communicate with me. They were unaccustomed to seeing a woman working as a filmmaker, but truthfully, they appreciated it. Surprisingly, the people who didn’t appreciate it were the foreign expat communities, especially the NGO types that are known for their zealous efforts to help and aid developing countries. It was almost as if I popped up out of nowhere and somehow offended them, the glorious guardians of Lao culture. And because I was not created or chosen by them they couldn’t tolerate or accept my work.

I encounter roadblocks on many fronts when it comes to guardians of culture, from really offensive sexist comments implying that I am not responsible for my own film, but [rather] the men in my crew were.  Or even racist comments, like “You’re not a real Lao.”  I like that one. When a non-Laotian tells me I have no right to call myself Lao, my own blood and ethnicity.

I was raised by my Lao mother, a strong-willed, intelligent woman who was the definite matriarch of our home. She would roll in her grave if I backed down and gave up filmmaking because a bunch of neo-colonialists got incensed.

MONSTER: When you were making Chanthaly, you had to stop filming because of a dengue fever outbreak. That’s gotta be another first in film history! What happened?

MATTIE: Oh, Dengue Fever. We were about two-thirds of the way through the film. It was our day off, and we were in the office. The day started out normal, by noon my husband had a massive fever. He fell asleep at 4pm and didn’t wake up for about 18 hours. He was my DP, and suddenly he couldn’t hold the camera rig. He just lacked the strength. So, we postponed two weeks. Three weeks later, the rash broke. And at that point all you can really do is drink coconut juice and hope you don’t have the strain that kills you. It took him about two months to really get his strength back. And by that time, we’d wrapped production. Luckily, he didn’t pass it to anybody else in the cast or crew.

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MONSTER: The film community in Laos at the moment is quite small. Does that mean you’ll be working with the same cast and crew as Chanthaly?

MATTIE: I will definitely be working with the same crew, and some cast, from Chanthaly. Chanthaly herself, Newt (as we call her), plays one of the main characters in Dearest Sister. She is an amazing and naturally talented actress. She was a failed pop singer turned waitress when I found her. When we started to work together, I realized she was talented and started to train her to be ready to work on a feature.

I also have a crew that knows me extremely well, we’re like family. There are five of us in total, including myself and my husband, so you can imagine how close we are. Working with both my cast and crew has become symbiotic. Even the other actors and new crew members have noticed that we have a way of communicating with each other that is almost telepathic. It’s exciting that we can build our film family and add to that.

One thing I really cherish is having a close relationship with everyone working on my film. I don’t like to waste a lot of time with negative personalities since filmmaking is already difficult and stressful enough. We work odd hours, long hours, and it’s a pretty dirty job; no one wants a gloomcookie walking around making things worse.

MONSTER: Is there any kind of horror community in Laos?

MATTIE: No. I am the horror community. People mention horror in Laos and the response is, “Oh, you know that Mattie, right?” Lao people love horror too, but because there was no Lao horror before me, they could only really see the most commercial horror films coming out of Thailand or Japan which they would get from a bootleg store. Chanthaly was their first experience of horror in their own language, and horror approaching a more artistic and different story than the typical commercial and formulaic stuff they get to see.

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