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Southeast Asia’s pioneering Luang Prabang Film Festival, held annually amidst the ancient Buddhist temples of Laos’ UNESCO World Heritage town, is set to hold its first post-COVID edition in December.
The event pivoted to a virtual format in 2020 as the pandemic swept the globe, but further budget cuts the following year forced a full cancelation. The festival’s organizers say they faced long odds in mounting a physical event this year, but once Laos reopened its borders to tourists in May, they went into overdrive in assembling government support and corporate sponsors.
“When our government partners approached us in May, the day the Lao borders reopened, the path back to a live event wasn’t clear at all,” says Sean Chadwell, LPFF’s executive director. “At that point, we had an office — only because it’s the norm to pay rent here several months in advance. No staff. Nothing in the bank.”
But by early June, corporate partner commitments, support from the local hospitality community, and dedicated group of volunteers had kick-started the effort to produce a comeback festival, Caldwell says. “It’s a typical story arc,” he adds, “where you think the good guy is down for the count but he manages to haul himself back up for the fight.”
An event built on goodwill, the Luang Prabang Film Festival shows cinema sourced exclusively from Southeast Asia and all screenings are free and open to the local public. The town of Luang Prabang has no regularly operating cinema, so the festival makes use of a historic, open-air square as its main screening venue. Past editions have attracted over a thousand local and interview viewers to nightly screenings, so the festival is adding a second night venue to offer additional film selections from the region.
This year, LPFF will exhibit over 20 Southeast Asian features and a program of panel discussions and Q&A sessions with visiting filmmakers and industry professionals. The festival’s full selection will be unveiled in October.
Caldwell says the festival plans to build on this year’s recovery edition in 2023 with the resumption of additional industry functions. The event previously ran a talent development lab in partnership with the Tribeca Film Institute, giving a vital boost to several years’ worth of participating Southeast Asian film projects, including the Filipino comedy-drama Leonor Will Never Die (a special jury prize winner at Sundance this year) and the Cambodian drama White Building (a Venice Film Festival selection that became Cambodia’s entry to the Oscars).
“We’ve quietly been working on delivering Labs again in 2023,” says Caldwell, adding, “We can’t wait to welcome filmmaker creatives back to Luang Prabang.”