Groundbreaker: an interview with ‘Dearest Sister’ filmmaker Mattie Do

In her own words, Lao filmmaker Mattie Do, director of the subtly chilling thriller Dearest Sister (now streaming exclusively on Shudder), is experiencing “developing world problems.” It’s already considerably more difficult to coordinate a phone interview between Toronto and Laos thanks to the large time difference (when it’s 9am here, it’s 9pm there), but there are other considerations within the developing country. When we were scheduled to chat over the phone, it seemed like Do had either disappeared or forgotten about the interview. In actuality, she was without power or internet for several hours on the night of our call and things were completely out of her control. It’s inconvenient for her, but she handles it warmly and gracefully when we are finally able to catch up via email once the power is back on.

Nothing has come easy for Do as a filmmaker, but she’s making quite the impact on a global level. Not only would Laos be classified as a still emerging nation, but its filmmaking industry remains in its infancy. The country, which lived under Communist rule for decades since the 1970s, had previously only produced propaganda films. Only in the past twenty years have fictional narratives been permissible, and the country has produced less than twenty films in total. Although she was born in Los Angeles (to Lao and Vietnamese parents) and returned to the country only in the past decade, Do has already made two of the country’s films as not only the country’s first female filmmaker, but also the first person to make a horror movie there.

Dearest Sister, Do’s follow up to her debut feature Chanthaly, comes deeply rooted in Lao history and mythology while critically and poignantly looking at the pronounced class divide that exists in the country. It’s not what most Western audiences would classify as a standard horror movie given its sometimes dreamlike and meditative start out of the gate. It’s the story of Nok (Amphaiphun Phommapunya), a young woman eager to make some money by seemingly any means necessary to escape her trying and impoverished life. She takes a job as a caregiver for her cousin, Ana (Vilouna Phetmany), a woman of means who is going blind. Initially, Nok is distrusted by Ana’s inner circle (sometimes for good reason), but when the blind woman starts getting mysterious visions, the young assistant attempts to help and interpret what they could mean.

We chatted with the remarkable and candid Do via email about Dearest Sister, how her upbringing has influenced her as a filmmaker, the growing Lao filmmaking industry, her country’s class divide as exemplified through her characters, and what it’s like being the first true genre filmmaker in her country.

Mattie Do

Since the film industry in Laos is still emerging and growing, does that make it easier or harder to come up with a concept for a movie? Is creating something there like an open book or do you tailor an idea to what you know you have at your disposal?

Mattie Do: What’s awesome about making film in a place where film has just started growing is that it really is an open book! Potential new concepts and ideas are endless, and I feel like there are so many ideas at my fingertips that I want to try and realize, but whether or not I have the capacity to execute those ideas yet or the support to is a different story. It’s not every day you can encounter a place where almost any idea is unexplored or completely new! There are still so many stories to tell, even very typical stories like melodramatic love stories and slapstick comedies that Lao people are used to seeing from here still only happen once or twice a year at most (if at all)!

But yeah, most times I do have to tailor my stories to what I have at my disposal. It’s just part of the reality of working here in Laos. For my first film, I knew I had Newt (Amphaiphan Phommapunya) that was willing to be my actress, I had my whippet-dog, my house and car, and also since my boss was going to be on set as producer everyday anyway, I threw him into the mix and had my screenwriter write a part for him as the Father character. It was great! I often cast people I know I want to work with or who I have trained specifically and then have my screenwriter write parts for them in the film, because I feel that they will add an extra layer to my story and breathe life into the film. We always kind of have to work with what we have, and being flexible is so important when making an independent film. When I don’t have access to something, or when something goes wrong, it doesn’t do me any good to whine about it or stamp my feet and throw a tantrum. Neither is money going to magically grow on trees for me to buy what I need (if it was even available for sale or purchase in this country in the first place), so yeah, we really have to roll with punches and build the film around what we have available here for sure!  I remember when my DOP said he wanted to use an ARRI Amira, I was like, “Nope. Too expensive, where would I even get one?” and when we were able to find the finances for it through some amazing Indiegogo contributors, and also get access to one in Bangkok from VS Services, it even shocked me! I was so used to working with nothing, that it was like a dream to have suddenly have access!

Despite the challenges, I know I’m super fortunate because not only do I want to make new stories here that haven’t been done before, but I also want to make films that are interesting to myself that perhaps wouldn’t be considered viable in a country with more established filmmaking. I find that in the rest of developed Asia, in Europe and America, or the more established countries I guess, that sometimes there can be a fear to take risks on strange new ideas. At least here in Laos, as long as I don’t break any laws, I can essentially dream up any kind of story I want. It’s pretty great! Now how to get them made is a different story!

How did the concept of Dearest Sister come together and how did it change as you were making it? Were there certain things that you wanted to do that couldn’t be done?

Mattie Do: Dearest Sister came about in a few different ways. First, my writer and I knew that since my first film was getting attention, that we couldn’t be caught off guard if someone asked if I had another project brewing or not. Secondly, when I was attending Fantastic Fest, my first film festival ever, I had such an amazing experience that I knew no matter what, I had to make another film and find a way to come back. Thankfully Dearest Sister made the selection process when it finished! I would have died a little inside if I didn’t get to go back haha! Third, while we were loosely developing the story, a representative of the French Institute put out a call for film projects from our region to participate in an amazing film lab at Cannes called “La Fabrique des Cinemas du Monde”. They suggested that I submit Dearest Sister. We filled out the documents and sent them our rough drafts, and kind of just closed that door and forgot about it. We actually never imagined that Dearest Sister would be one of the projects selected to be workshopped and pitched to co-producers. I had to read the acceptance letter three times to understand that we were accepted! From then, the script started getting workshopped and more streamlined. A lot changed. I turned one of the characters (Mimi) into a female when she was originally written as a male, because when I encountered the actress, she was just so perfect for the part that I thought, “Well why not? We just need to make some wardrobe adjustments!”

The film also became bigger in scope during development because we acquired our co-producers from France and Estonia. I had the chance to have SFX makeup artists come out to work with us from France, and I had an excellent DOP who could shoot beyond the original scope I thought I was previously limited to. This project actually grew in a lot of different ways that I didn’t originally expect at all!

Of course, there were some lame subplots that were overly complicated that got cut out early on during the “train wreck” drafts of the script. The early editions are always a bit embarrassing, to be honest! But that’s why we do rewrites! The craziest last minute change was that there was a whole water haunting, where a ghost rises up out of the water and comes for Ana. We couldn’t find a location with a swimming pool, so in the end, we cut that out and it happens on her second floor terrace/balcony. That was based on a true event that happened to my mother, where she had a ghostly visitation from a drowned looking apparition. We found out a few moments after that incident that her aunt had passed away from hypothermia in a storm a few hours before.

A lot from Dearest Sister stems from what Lao people culturally believe, things like visions and hauntings from spirits, learning lottery numbers from the deceased, etc. I really hated it when my mother passed away that so many of our Lao relatives and friends felt it was perfectly acceptable to approach me and ask if my mother had “given” me any lottery numbers in a dream or in a visitation of some sort, and if they could know those numbers too. A part of me thought, “Wow… this is totally inappropriate and kind of tacky.” but another part of me thought, “This is totally weird, does anyone else believe in this too?” and so I put it in a movie!

I found a lot of the film really reminiscent of the kind of tone that Apichatpong Weerasethakul employs in his films: kind of surreal, sometimes dreamlike, subtle, and in touch with the darkness of the material and the history of that region of the world. Do you find yourself having to explain the film to people, particularly to western audiences who might not completely understand the culture this film was made in? Related side question: since there haven’t been many films made in Laos, do you find people coming up to you after watching the film and saying that they have learned something about the country or culture through your film?

Mattie Do: I’ve been really pleased to find that most of the Western audiences have just gone for it and seem to understand it really well! There are so many reviews coming out that have been fantastic with the depth and insight people have for a story that is not quite typical to their daily lives, but really, I’ve been so happy to see that people are rolling with it! I have had many occasions where I had to explain that the lottery in association with spiritual visitations is NOT a made up device that I invented purely for the film. Actually, while the ghostly-lottery thing is the part that seems to be most unknown to Westerners, another thing that has really blown me away is the response from other Asian countries! I’ve been approached by so many people who’ve seen the films who said the same thing, “I didn’t know that anyone else believe that ghosts could bring lottery numbers either! We have a similar believe in Singapore, Taiwan, China, Thailand, etc. etc.”  Heh, wow. That’s been super cool. I feel like I’m kind of their soul sister in weird stuff Asian folks believe in.

So I guess, yeah, a lot of people do feel they’ve learned a lot about my country and culture through watching my film. I’m really excited about that though, because I try very hard to portray what is happening in our lives in a very truthful way, even if sometimes the truth isn’t so pretty and is kind of revolting sometimes. It’s really intense how I struggle to stay true to what’s happening here, how people here react, behave, speak, everything… It can be very revealing to an audience that isn’t very familiar of our country, but I hope it continues to show people how different we are from everyone else, yet how we share so many of the same issues and problems too. I also really hope that it shatters a lot of preconceived notions about what our country and people are like, because often when I see film portrayals of South East Asians on screen, I can’t help but feel, “That’s not like any part of South East Asia I’m familiar with. We’re nothing like that.” because I wonder if it’s not really an image created to meet the expectation of what people want to see or have already pre-assumed as authentic.

In a country where not a lot of films have been made, how difficult can it be to describe to people that you made a genre film? Do you think in some ways it’s easier to get a genre film made in a country that’s still trying to find a cinematic voice?

Mattie Do: Haha, genre film is a unifying force if anything. I learned from all the wonderful genre festivals I’ve attended that genre is a form of entertainment and story that people want to see from all walks of life and all cultures. I think after my first hurdle with my film, Chanthaly, it hasn’t been so difficult. It was initially super difficult because we’d never had a supernatural genre film before, and the government was a bit fearful about the approach, and they weren’t sure how much influence my film (or any film for that matter) might have. We had less than a dozen films at that time, so it was all still very new to everyone! What is difficult for the audiences here is the sort of genre I’m doing. It very much toes the line between genre, art-house, and drama, and while we hadn’t had any of our genre films in the past, Lao people were very accustomed to watching soap operas and big commercial Thai, Japanese, and Korean genre blockbusters, so when my films came out, it wasn’t quite like anything they had ever seen before. Even now, our audiences are still getting used to cinema culture in general… not only my films. Only recently have Lao audiences realized that talking across the room to each other in cinemas is not acceptable, and that if you want to understand the story, arriving on top and not missing the beginning is important.

My struggle in making a genre film is more about how I can keep pushing and expanding my content without wildly offending the government’s Department of Cinema. The goal for me isn’t to dismantle everything my producers and I have set in place, but to help them grow with the vision of the filmmakers here too. It’s a process that I believe needs to happen together. I went from having a film censored and rejected for being a ghost movie, to now having a film with ghosts, murder, and implied prostitution in it! Let’s see how they’ll take the third film I’m working on… it’s pretty nuts.

In an interview, you once said that the few films that people would have seen come out of Laos would have been made by travelers “who find poverty charming.” With that in mind, was it even more important for you to make sure Dearest Sister brought to light the class divide in Laos?

Mattie Do: I think I meant general images and media people see coming out of Lao would have been made by tourists, travelers, and foreigners. There are still so few films that actually come out of Laos! But yes, I really hate this general sentiment that poverty is so “charming”. Of course there’s a fine line between what is poverty porn and what is just reality, and it’s really hard to describe or put my finger on it. When does it become exploitative? When is it destitution for the sake of first world enjoyment and sympathy? Are people are just putting images of locals toiling in the dirt and suffering to the sound of birds and jungle animals for hours because it’s considered beautiful? Enlightening? What’s so enlightening or pretty about it? That it’s so sad that some people live like that and how fortunate I am for being able to order a soy-mocha-latte on ice, with no whipped cream at the snap of a finger or the swipe of an app? I don’t get it.

It was of utmost importance to me to show people what life is like here in Laos. Yes, we are impoverished, and Nok does come from a village where she lives in a hut on a dirt road, but does that make her some dumb redneck? No, she’s actually quite clever if not mislead, and does that make her a noble savage filled with purity and simple innocence? Definitely not. Neither does it mean that people like Ana who come from a working class family in the capital don’t exist, or social climbers. One of my favorite characters is Mimi, the ridiculously wealthy Vientiane socialite who drives a $100,000 USD Lexus to pick up her friend for a coffee date, and who drinks champagne and eats at a restaurant that happens to have a leg of Parma ham being carved by an Italian chef on display. That’s what a slice of life in our country can be like, and I think it’s a lot more interesting to show that than to show 2 hours of a sad, impoverished villager looking out into the distance of the untamed wilderness with a longing 1,000 yard stare, muttering things that sound exotic and “authentic” for a Western audience to feel enlightened by.

Since you were raised abroad, what have some of your influences been, and how have you tried to emulate or pay homage or learn from them while making films in Laos?

Mattie Do: My upbringing has been a key part of being able to become a filmmaker. I come from a mixed background, my mother is Lao, my father is Vietnamese who immigrated to Laos, and our family immigrated during the war in 1975 to America. I’ve never really fit in anywhere, and my mother’s work was very international, so my mixed background always made me an outsider but always an insider too. Lao kids would say, “Oh, she’s Lao yeah, kind of, but she’s more Vietnamese.” Vietnamese kids would say, “Yeah, I guess she’s Vietnamese, but really she’s more Lao.” Then some Americans would say, “Well… you’re not exactly like us because you’re Asian.” Instead of having an identity crisis, my parents just said, “Well they’re all correct. So what? You’re a little bit of everything.”

That’s been a huge motivator for me to be able to see what the inside of a Lao family is really like, and for me to be able to move back to Laos without much difficulty or culture shock, but at the same time, be able to portray what is truthful in our country and culture in a way that can be understood to other cultures. It also gave me the opportunity to see what misconceptions other cultures have about my background, and it has been an excellent part of me being able to tackle and address my subject matter head on without resorting to just exoticism.

My main influences are still determined by the vocation and career I dreamt of being in, and that’s ballet. When I think of a film, or when I direct a film, I approach it like I approach ballet. I don’t know if I could have been a filmmaker at all if it weren’t for the work ethic and discipline I picked up from my ballet background. Having no film schooling, having never been to a higher institution of learning, and not even really knowing much about cinema at all, I really didn’t know where to start. I had no point to launch from but ballet, so now when I block on set, it’s still like rehearsing choreography, when I approach a storyboard, I think of it as staging, and when I speak to my actors, I speak to them about the emotions and decisions we are trying to convey to each other more like a dancer… because, well… I wouldn’t know the first thing about acting technique at all! Now that I am officially a filmmaker, I’ve gotten to see a lot of amazing works from other directors at festivals, and I realize that I have so much more I have to push to achieve myself. It’s been nice not knowing anything though, because it made me fearless. I hope that now that I know and look up to great filmmakers like Aronofsky, Del Toro, and Brad Bird that it doesn’t make me afraid to try something that I previously didn’t know was difficult before.

As one of still a small handful of Lao filmmakers, what have you noticed about how the movie making industry has been changing, specifically since you started making films?

Mattie Do: I notice that our movie industry here is changing because we finally have real distribution here! It poses a few interesting issues – making a cinema quality projection has boosted our costs and standards because we have to be able to make something that can be played on the standardized equipment at a real cinema now. Also, I find that people are becoming more motivated to create something that is more uniquely Lao versus trying to imitate what everyone in our neighboring countries are doing. I really love that. I think we should hold on to the qualities that set us apart. For myself, I’ve just started opening the door of the vast world of co-productions. I never knew that film could be such a team effort from all different parts of the world! Since I started making film, I’ve been able to create Dearest Sister with my co-producers who are from France (Screen Division) and even Estonia (Oree Films). What an experience to work with brilliant technicians and interesting people from all different backgrounds. Also, I was able to co-produce Bangkok Nites with a Japanese, Thai, and French team, as well as RIVER which was Canadian. All the different experiences have been very memorable and unique.

Dearest Sister is now streaming exclusively on Shudder.

Andrew Parker
Andrew Parker fell in love with film growing up across the street from a movie theatre. He began writing professionally about film at the age of fourteen, and has been following his passions ever since. His writing has been showcased at various online outlets, as well as in The Globe and Mail, BeatRoute, and NOW Magazine. If he's not watching something or reading something, he's probably sleeping.