17-23 April 2020

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HIFF Blog

October 29, 2019

HIFF39 KAU KA HŌKŪ NOMINEE: 5 Questions with Mattie Do, director of THE LONG WALK

Mattie Do’s accomplishments as a pioneer of Laotian cinema are quite impressive, and she’s only just getting warmed up. Her first film CHANTALY was the first to ever screen outside of Laos, and her follow-up film DEAREST SISTER was Laos’ official submission to the 90th Academy Awards.

Her latest film THE LONG WALK has already been invited to several major film festivals, and HIFF is honored to be among them. We asked her to share her story as a groundbreaking filmmaker and what’s next for her in the months ahead.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your journey as a filmmaker thus far.

I think my journey as a filmmaker has been a sort of comedy of errors and luck! I am eternally grateful that I could become a filmmaker at all, and have an outlet to tell stories through film and reach audiences around the world. Honestly, I had never dreamt of being a filmmaker, and I thought it was one of those impossible careers where you had to have a healthy dose of wealth, influence, connections and a bit of nepotism to even consider the chances of being a filmmaker. Turns out, once in a blue moon a few random people can simply fall into a director's chair! 

I started as a struggling and rather untalented ballet student who had followed my then boyfriend to Europe, where he was working as an aspiring screenwriter at a film school in Italy.  I learned rather quickly that when you're not terribly talented at ballet, there were no scholarships for you, and our accessories such as shoes and uniforms were really expensive, so I started moonlighting as a part-time nanny and make up artist. My first job as a make up artist was at the film school my husband worked for, doing make up for the actors and actresses filming their shorts and having their portfolio pictures taken. That was my first exposure to the world of film, and at the time, I still had no interest in working in film besides to make an extra buck or two to buy ballet shoes. Unbeknownst to me, the knowledge of what was going on around me on set in Italy stuck. 

When I moved to Laos to be near my widower father, I was looking for work as a children's ballet teacher and had an opportunity appear out of the blue to direct a film. Lao's oldest production company Lao Art Media was interested in my husband as a screenwriter and director, but he had to reject the directing job as he wasn't interested in being a director and couldn't speak Lao. Instead, he suggested I direct a screenplay he wrote for me. How different could it be from teaching children ballet? So I made a film. Now I'm showing my third film here at HIFF, and it's been an incredible, albeit bizarre journey towards this moment. I still can't believe I'm a filmmaker.

What inspired and motivated you to work on THE LONG WALK?

My inspiration and motivation for this project is actually a bit tragic. I lost my mother to cancer when I was 25, and of course, the death of a loved one like that never really leaves you. It affected me deeply, and for years I wondered if something could have changed, if we as a family could have done something different and if we had, could she still be with us today? 

Two years ago, I lost my dog Mango also to cancer. Unfortunately, in the case of Mango, he could not communicate like a human, and we had to make the choice to euthanize him. I think it was the hardest decision that we've ever had to make in our lives. Were we helping him? Were we ending his suffering? So many people told us to euthanize him earlier, yet he seemed really comforted to stay with us for actually a few extra years despite everyone's suggestions. Of course, there was nothing that could prolong a dog's life, but the scar of having to make the decision for him never left me... and this film was borne from those memories. 

What if we could turn back time and make the changes we regret not making? What if we had this foresight from having lived those terrible experiences already, what we do or tell ourselves in the past to avoid the impending sadness? How would that affect us? These are the reasons I made this project. 

I also felt strongly that I needed to take the stereotypes of Southeast Asian art films and upend them. There seems to be an unspoken notion of what all Southeast Asian art films must look and feel like, what they must resemble, and I frankly don't agree. I think we should be able to make whatever kinds of films we want to make, and that we should definitely take ownership of our personal and cultural stories and imbue them with our own style and flair, regardless of what is expected. 

What were some of the greatest challenges of working on THE LONG WALK?

There were so many challenges with this film... besides working with a very small budget, one that was reduced from what our original goal was, we were in extremely rough conditions out in the jungles of Laos. We had very little equipment, a tiny crew, and a few natural disasters here and there. We also had to stop our production one week into shoot and find a new camera crew, as the original crew didn't exactly understand what I was trying to do as a non-traditional filmmaker. Midway through the shoot, our producer had to hit the stop button and find me a new DOP, Matthew Macar, who respected and understood what I wanted and needed for the film. It was wild to pause the film, then restart from zero again without the equipment we previously had, and going from an actual camera crew to only two people... my DOP and his assistant. We had fewer days to pull off everything as well as reshoot the footage from before, and we didn't ask for additional budget despite the costs of the previous shooting already having been spent. It was extremely difficult and crazy cowboy, and lots of people actually thought we were dead in the water, but if anything, my team and crew have grit and determination. We survived.

What do you hope audiences will take away from watching THE LONG WALK?

I hope that audiences will be able to ruminate on the decisions they make in their lives, both past and present, and that they can understand that despite our feelings of regret for mistakes and issues we have from the past, that life can and will move on, that we cannot change what has already transpired. I hope that people will watch my film and see a different view of Laos, one that is unexpected, and that they will appreciate that any kind of story can come out of any kind of place... for example, a time travel serial killer film in a rural, rustic village in Southeast Asia. 

What are you and your THE LONG WALK’s plans beyond HIFF?

Beyond HIFF, our film will travel to a few more festivals such as the prestigious Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan, and also to Macau International Film Festival where the project was actually first pitched and conceived! It's very exciting to have been able to travel the world with this film and introduce a story so personal and unique to other countries and cultures around the world. After this film, I am immediately diving headfirst into a few more films that I'm developing with my team, though these films will be less arthouse in approach, more genre and thriller oriented. I think I need to do something a bit more fun after such a heavy portrait on grief and loss like this film! Haha!

Read about all the HIFF39 KAU KA HŌKŪ Award nominees. To read more and purchase tickets, go to THE LONG WALK program page.


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