A Short Film for Laos
Allan Sekula was born in 1951 in Erie, Pennsylvania; he lives in Los Angeles. His recent projects critically examine the changes wrought by globalization. These theoretical investigations, however, are always grounded in the concrete experiences of specific communities.
Sekula had originally planned to develop a project involving the Mekong River, but he reconsidered after traveling to the Plain of Jars during his first visit to Laos in October 2005. He has stated that as an American, he felt an obligation to visit this site—one of the “secret battlefields” of the Vietnam War. Located on the Xieng Khouang plateau in Xieng Khouang Province, the Plain of Jars is also an archeological landscape on which are scattered thousands of large stone jars in clusters from one to more than one hundred. In the 1930s, the archeologist Madeleine Colani hypothesized that the ancient peoples who once lived there made the jars in connection with their funerary rituals. Local legends tell other stories: King Khun Cheung made the jars after a military victory to store rice wine and then to house the remains of the heroes who had fallen in battle; a race of giants made the jars as cups for drinking rice wine, which they threw to ground; the site is a magnetic field, created by vast reserves of mineral ore that lie underground, which attracts lightning and pulls down metal objects from the sky. This last legend explains why so many airplanes crashed over the site during the war, including U.S. bombers, which between 1964 and 1969 dropped over 75,000 tons of explosives there. Fred Branfman’s book, Voices From the Plain of Jars: Life Under an Air War (1972), which Sekula had read during the war, includes eyewitness accounts from locals who witnessed the devastation. Sekula included in the film a scene shot in a cave filled with about 400 Buddhas, one for each person killed there during a 1969 bombing raid. Relics of the war can also be found in the homes of many locals, who have salvaged metal from downed airplanes to create tools and utensils. The story of metal and its roles in both the imaginary and the political economy of Lao communities since the war would become the story that Sekula would tell.
Sekula’s search for traces of the war led him to consider its legacy in the present. On both his October 2005 visit and a subsequent visit in January 2006, he filmed scenes of daily life in and around Luang Prabang. For example, he filmed the charcoal workers of Ban Done Keo, the blacksmiths and brickmakers of Ban Had Hien, and the gravel gatherers of the Nam Khane River. Many of these people are struggling for economic survival as competition from low-cost goods imported from China increases, while some can afford to install huge satellite dishes next to their homes. He also filmed individuals at leisure, including students and the celebrants of Boun Ok Phansa, the annual nighttime “Festival of Light,” during which people release into the Mekong River offerings and small boats decorated with flowers, incense, candles, and sparklers, called fireboats, which eventually are consumed in flames.
The film Sekula made from this footage is a portrait of aspects of contemporary Lao society 30 years after the war’s end, a time when the Lao are adjusting to the new economic order of globalization as it transforms the rhythms of daily life. He portrays these rhythms through a series of interconnected sequences: the 2005 Boun Ok Phansa celebration, which tellingly includes not only Lao celebrants, but the crew and cast of a Dutch/Flemish reality television show, who were racing to Tibet on one Euro a day and were shocked to learn that this is the average daily wage in Laos; a blacksmithing family forging machete blades; school children buying and eating sweets and playing marbles with focused determination; workers making bricks, a laborious process that requires transporting, extruding, and slicing wet clay and then carrying the bricks by hand to a drying area; men and women dancing joyfully to Lao music on a sidewalk on a hot night. As Sekula has written, “In Laos, the rhythm of the forge is also the rhythm of the hearth, not so far from cooking over a wood fire. But there are other rhythms as well: the relentless industrial output of the brickmaking machine, the shoveling of gravel, the counting of money by young girls learning the lessons of the market, the quiet flux of voices at the river’s edge as the fireboats float away on the dark river.”
Although the film is not structured as a linear narrative, the repetition of certain motifs binds the sequences. One motif is rolls of currency, which we see in the hands of three youths—a toddler resting on a mat while his family hammers out machete blades; a girl selling sweets to her friends; another girl selling snacks. As a store of value, including the labor produced by the workers portrayed, currency is a sign of the new economic order that Sekula represents. Another recurring motif is fire: the candles and sparklers of the fireboats; the forges of the blacksmiths; the sparks shed as a worker polishes a metal blade with an electric grinder; and implicitly, the explosions that maimed the Plain of Jars, igniting the landscape. As a force of both destruction and creation, fire in the film signifies the shifting relationship between Laos’s past and present, in that the Lao have rebuilt their society from the ashes of the war, only to rebuild it again in response to the challenges of globalization. As Sekula has observed, in Laos, “the guiding spirit of the forge,” perhaps the film’s central motif, “is a scavenger, picking up after the demons of war.” This observation helps explain the relevance in the film of Boun Ok Phansa—a ritual that is both an offering for the dead, who are greeted and bidden farewell with the fireboats, and a symbol for the renunciation of earthly goods by the Sangha.
Although the film is a portrait of aspects of contemporary Lao society, Sekula acknowledges that this vision is filtered through his personal impressions. It is framed by shots at the beginning and end of the bandaged leg of the artist, as he lies in a hospital bed in Bangkok (he broke his leg during the January 2006 shoot and wryly includes in the soundtrack to the second shot audio of a news story on a trend among underinsured U.S. citizens to outsource their health care to developing countries). It is shot with a handheld camera that occasionally produces images that are lyrically slowed down or that dissolve into fluid, abstract patterns, disrupting the illusion of realism. And toward the film’s end, Sekula even turns the camera onto his own face, including during a sequence intercut with the credits showing the people of Ban Hat Sien preparing a baci to celebrate his recovery and his return to Laos in October 2006. This inscription of his own image into the film encourages viewers to consider how this subtle portrait of Laos is also a portrait of the artist himself.