If you haven’t heard of Mattie Do, you’re depriving yourself. Stop that. It’s just not healthy. For those who don’t know, Mattie Do could be labeled many things: shrewd businesswoman, outspoken advocate of female artists, a female horror filmmaker, the only female director in Laos. But Do is more than the sum of her descriptors--she’s a legitimately great filmmaker. Her newest feature length film Dearest Sister is a love letter to all the contradictions and horrors of the Lao psyche, while reaching across cultures to address universal themes like betrayal, greed, and exploitation. The power of Dearest Sister resides in its ability to give viewers an insider’s look into the intricacies of Lao culture, its fable-like narrative of growing dread, and the time it spends making us love or loathe its characters, before savagely reversing our sympathies. You’ve never seen a film quite like Dearest Sister, and for hardened genre fans, that’s a rare boast these days.
Do is positioned at a precarious and thrilling time in the cinema of her country. Laos has made less than 20 films in its history, and the only two horror movies to its credit were directed and written by Do. She kindly took time to grant Cinedump an interview about the challenges and rewards of working in Laos, her personal vision of horror, and her work to develop more female directors. Read on, watch her movie of Shudder--you won’t regret any time you spend with this gorgeous nightmare.
Pennie Sublime: Do you face any unique challenges as a female director/businesswoman in Laos?
Mattie Do: I am lucky in that the people in Laos who know about me, and the government department representing film and culture, are ultra-proud to have a female director! The most difficult challenge I face as a female directing films is strangely enough from non-Lao people and sometimes, from some other filmmakers as well. Often I have trouble with Westerners coming here for other film related projects, and they just can't take me seriously. I get that I'm not an actually trained, film-school graduate director, but it seems like the fact that I've been able to at least pull off a feature film or two should at least earn an ounce of equal respect. It doesn't. I have a lot of issues with other Westerners looking past me towards the closest male in the vicinity when a question is asked and I'm answering, and then they'll ask the question again until some male repeats the answer I just said. There's a lot of eye-rolling when I speak about the work at hand from these sorts of people too. The worst statement I've ever had was a fellow Lao filmmaker saying to my face, "Well... people are mostly interested in your work because you're a girl making horror films." I didn't understand what that statement was supposed to mean. I've also seen statements inadvertently aimed at me from male colleagues like, "You don't have to be a girl to make films about girls." And I'm like, "Okay... well I don't have to be a dick to make a film, in that case."
PS: Where do you see the future of female horror directors in Laos?
MD: Right now I'm having difficulty predicting the future of film in Laos at all. We are still struggling to make films that are viable and of high quality. We have a lot of young girls who have dabbled in shorts, and I've tried to train other women to do film work, but the two young ladies that I've worked closely with have exhibited a lot of talent in other fields of film. For instance, Wardrobe and Line Producing... I seriously have an amazing line producer and she's only in her early 20s! I'm not sure when the next horror film from Laos not by me will be made, much less the next film in general regardless of the director's gender! I'm hanging on tooth and nail just trying to continue on with this work, but as we know, finance for the arts world is unpredictable, imagine finance for a film in a country without the infrastructure, technicians, or box office to support a project. I really can't begin to imagine what the future will be like for us. I hope to see more female stories from Laos by females though, because there is a deep and often painfully provocative side of a story still hardly represented by not having the perspective of a woman.
PS: How does the culture around filmmaking in Laos differ from that in the west?
MD: Oh wow, filmmaking culture in Laos is essentially not comparable to the West at all! We don't have an official film school, we don't have an institution teaching actors for film, there is no screenwriting course, and there are no trained technicians. We don't have any official gaffers, grips, continuity people, camera operators, sound techs... none of that. Besides myself, all the other filmmakers have had to go to school in the West or other more developed parts of Asia, and sometimes they bring back this "big crew" system where each person on the crew has one very specific job, and you've gotta hire a ton of people with a bunch of PAs to run around and follow orders for you. It's a system that I don't find very sustainable for here yet. When I make a film, I have a crew of about 5-12 people, not including the actors, and we all do a little bit of everything to help each other out. Hell, even the actors have to help out once in a while. There's also very little hierarchy on my film sets, since we're all working and slaving together towards one goal - get the film made. I'll have my producer, Annick, perched on top of a ladder adjusting a reflector as quickly as I'll be doing make up and hair touch ups while I'm directing. My heavy labor guys have to have their pick of food and eat first, because they're the ones that keep our film set going, we all eat together, but I must make sure that my crew eats first, and besides the actors, we all take down the set and leave together. I don't like to leave before my crew leaves, because we all have to help each other set up and take down. I think that's pretty different from the West. The fact that most of us have no background in film makes it a different kind of camaraderie that I don't sense from a lot of Western film folks... we feel like we're all in this together, if something goes wrong, we aren't pointing fingers at each other, we just get shit solved and done.
PS: You've spoken in the past about other Asian country's horror films being big in Laos, and wanting to give the Lao people their own horror films. How does Lao horror culture differ from that of other Asian countries?
MD: Our horror culture is actually quite similar to Thailand, which makes sense as we share a border and our language is very close. However, Thailand has a rich history of horror films already, and they definitely have an established Asian style. Yes, we have the ghost that is a gorgeous woman's disembodied head with entrails hanging hidden under her cloak, and yes we have hopping vampires similar to China, and yes, we have witches and demons like everywhere else, but nothing about most Asian horror feels like Laos to me. When I watch Ringu, The Grudge, or Train to Busan, even The Shutter and Lada Land [films from Japan, Korea, and Thailand], they don't distinctly feel like Laos and our people or culture. Laos is this incredibly sunny, warm, colorful place - it doesn't make sense for me to follow the palette of the cold, grey, high contrast, desaturated, almost black-and white-ghost films of these other countries. Why should a Lao film look like every other Asian film? Laos doesn't even look like Korea or Japan, even Thailand has become quite different from Laos. We also have a cultural acceptance that spirits and the supernatural are all around us, surrounding us, and the majority of our population believe still in the possibility of spiritual visits, hauntings, or disturbances, so my characters do as well. Yes, many people are scared or terrified of ghosts, but there is almost a mundaneness to being told that they're there, like, "Oh hey... I totally got haunted yesterday." I really wanted to show audiences how commonplace occurrences like this are for our people and therefore my characters. I also wanted to show a side of my country that no one but a Lao person would ever get to experience, not even a visitor from Thailand - the internal attitudes, reactions, as well as familial and class struggles of our people. Things like belief in "lottery-ghosts" that predict winning numbers, or premonitions that felt uniquely Lao to me, I wanted to show to the rest of the world. I was quite surprised to find that many other countries and cultures had similar beliefs too! Even Italians have a version of the deceased bestowing lottery numbers to their relatives!
PS: What was your favorite horror film of 2016?
MD: I fucking loved The Autopsy of Jane Doe. It was terrifying, thrilling, and yet still had a light sense of humor about the characters. It was thoroughly enjoyable, and it was delightful to see a (spoiler alert) witch story again. Also, I thought it was masterful how the director, Andre Ovredal, handled a villain that at no point moves, speaks, or interacts physically with the two main characters. I also felt that he and his DOP handled the shots very well and tastefully, considering the body is on display in a morgue for an autopsy, bare and exposed for the entire film. They never linger in a leering or perverted fashion on her, and I was amazed by how even though "Jane Doe" is inert and immobile the entire film, how it always seems like she is reacting to what is happening around her, and as she becomes more in command of her situation, she becomes more beautiful somehow too! I loved how this film went back to the old roots of a traditional scary horror film, but made it completely contemporary and new. I wish that this film had a wide theatrical release. It was amazing.