Filmmaking as a Creative Journey

Within the unfolding story of film there are those significant occurring moments that will contribute important chapters. One such person expanding the application of the cinematic language and hence contributing to cinema’s ever-expanding story is Laos’ first feature filmmaker Mattie Do. Her second feature film is the horror Dearest Sister that tells the story of Nok (Amphaiphun Phommapunya), who leaves her village to travel to Laos’ capital to look after her wealthy cousin Ana (Vilouna Phetmany). But Ana’s blindness is exasperating her contact with supernatural spirits and Nok soon finds herself taking advantage of the foresight the spirits offer.

In conversation with Aesthetica, Do reflected on her surprising creative journey and how her ballet background has served as an important influence in her approach to the filmmaking process. Meanwhile looking ahead to her third feature film she discussed how it will sit in opposition to Dearest Sister, yet how her approach and emphasis on dance will inevitably forge a connection between the two films, both representative of her creative voice.

A: Is it true that your movement into filmmaking was unexpected?
MD: It was an accident … I’m still in shock that I’m a filmmaker and it’s very funny how – I wouldn’t say how demanding I am because that makes me sound difficult – but how stringent I’ve become on my aesthetics and what I like and require from my team. I always work with this micro crew and my Estonian and French producers were great. My French producer Annick (Mahnert) is awesome because I think French people have this vision for auteur filmmaking … They love it. And Estonia’s still quite a new country in film, but sometimes Estonian producers are: “You need more establishing shots … You need more wide shots. Why don’t you establish anything?” I was: “It is a film about a blind girl, and she doesn’t see, so you’re not going to see either… It’s alright.” This was definitely a deliberate choice I made and the French producer said: “That’s what Mattie wants to do, so we’ll do it.” The trust that my French producer had in someone who has no background in film was actually kind of hilarious!

A: Your comment about syncing the story with the technical approach reminds me of Martin Radich’s reflection: “What I had written for Norfolk, it was very sedate, very languid and a very hypnotic type of story. And when you suddenly feel you’ve an hour to shoot that scene, it’s almost working against what it is you are trying to capture.”
MD: Well my husband is my screenwriter, so it is very easy for me to be sure that my script ends up the way I want it to be because he listens! I am lucky, but for me it’s actually the opposite. I have a ballet background and so I can envision the way my characters will move through a scene, and I can totally envision the pacing. It’s almost choreographed and you’ve seen some of the long shots that I take. Things like that are very natural for me because in ballet that’s how we move, and my expectations for my DOP Mart Ratassepp were so demanding because he was one guy. There was no focus puller, no assistant cameraman, no team. It was just one guy with a handheld camera and I didn’t know it was difficult and challenging because no one had ever told me before. When people would tell me you shouldn’t do that because it is challenging, the French producer and my husband would be: “Let her work through it.” I think they preferred that I didn’t know that I shouldn’t approach something. They just threw me at it, let me go for it to find my own way, which has been super fun.

A: Do you find that as critics we sometimes forget that a filmmaker is learning by doing and omit an allowance for a filmmaker’s education?
MD: But don’t you think that people that have made 20 films are still doing new things and are still learning? It’s the way it should be, and as a ballerina you definitely have that. You’ll learn the classics and depending what company you are hired by, if you are doing Swan Lake Russian style then the steps for Odette are always going to be the same. And if you are a ballet fan at what point do you just become sick of the damn ballet and no longer go to see it anymore. But it’s because of what each person and every performance imbues in the performance that makes classical ballet beautiful, and I believe that filmmaking is like this.

I could give this script to someone else to direct and it would not be this film. It would be something entirely different. And for myself the trust that Lao Art Media, Screen Division and my husband had in me to work out my own vision onscreen was incredible. For instance my husband would sometimes look at my storyboards and say: “What are you doing here?” I wanted the camera at the beginning of the film to always follow because I feel that Nok is a character that is new in this city and new in this lifestyle. She’s so foreign to everything that I wanted to follow her and I wanted us to feel that we are tagging along, but she’s tagging along to everything that Ana’s doing.

Then when we switch to Ana I wanted to be in front and I wanted to be close because Ana’s blindfolded and she couldn’t see anything. I wanted it to be disorientating, confusing and for the audience to be blind as well. We are watching her and panicking for her because she doesn’t know where her next step is going to fall. And he was: “Okay.” No questions!

A: The way you shoot syncs with the experience you are attempting to create, as if you are looking to thread the world of the film, the audience and the filmmakers together. Do you think this is true?
MD: Definitely. The way the characters move and the way the audience receives a film needs to all be intertwined. Again that’s the dance background because I am in movement, and what I portray is different to what the audience sees. So I am very, very careful about that, and that’s why I didn’t think it had to be so traditional. Why there are no wide shots and establishing shots is because I didn’t think it was necessary with these characters.

A: Will the experience of shooting and editing Dearest Sister impact your approach to writing and directing in the future?
MD: Oh definitely. As I explained to you I was super keen on this film being edited in a certain way. For instance the following in the beginning and the leading at the end. The extreme closeness, the claustrophobia was super important to me because these two girls live very claustrophobic lives. My third film is going to be quite different. It is going to show the open landscapes and how lonely it is for a man living in rural Lao with no neighbours; living in complete underdevelopment where the developed world has forgotten about him. It is the expanse of him as a single person in a hut, the loneliness and his strange quirks. So it is a very different film, the opposite, but again I always go back to my ballet background for directing.

I love to move in close and so even I show wide expanses and wide shots, then for me the emotion is in the movement and the eyes. When I’m a ballerina what you see as the audience is one flat wide shot, but that is not what I see as a dancer. I take my partners hand and I see his hand and mine; I see his eyes and his face. I feel the chord of the ballet around me and and I can translate that into different shots – record a ballet as my medium shot while the audience has a wide shot. For me when I see my partners face, when I am dancing with him and he’s lifting me that’s my medium shot or my close-up. My macro shot is when I take his hand. So I translate all of this into the processing of my film work.

Paul Risker

Dearest Sister is available to watch now

1. Still from Dearest Sister. Courtesy of Organic Publicity.