Ka Xiong: This film will be a homage to our grandma
大学毕业后，我本该是一名英语教师。但我确信我真正要做的是拍摄电影和照片。我选择了这个职业。我参加了所有能让我参加的老挝和国外的工作坊，并作为荷兰专业电影制作人兼摄影师阿德里•伯杰（Adri Berger）的学徒兼助理工作了两年。后来，我和我非常钦佩的保罗·韦格（Paul Wager）合作了很多。
我最喜欢的纪录片之一是露西·沃克（Lucy Walker）的《垃圾场（Waste Land）》。那是一部很感人的电影。让我可以与主人公产生连接，我也认为我可以与导演自己连接起来，理解为什么这部电影必须被制作出来，以及怎么制作。
By Moon Ja
Ka Xiong is a photographer and emerging filmmaker in Luang Prabang, Laos. His
work SPIRIT WORLD is shown in 2nd Biennale Internationale de l’image de Luang Prabang 2010 and Photoquai 2011 in Paris, 3rd Biennale des Images du Monde. He was selected as one of the five young photographers in five countries along the Mekong River to exhibit
at Phnom Penh Photo Festival in December 2012. As a filmmaker, Ka Xiong has attended PSA workshops in Vientiane, Film Festival workshops in Luang Prabang, and a workshop for SEA documentary filmmakers in Hanoi, Vietnam, in June 2015. He was funded by the Lao Film Fund and Luang Prabang Film Festival to produce his short fiction film Melody of Change. Ka Xiong is also the founder of MALAO Studios in Luang Prabang, Laos. The studio tries to support young Laos people who are interested in photography, film, contemporary art, and music.
In 2020, Ka Xiong joined Lancang-Mekong Vision: Minority Anthropological Video Fusion media Production program (LMV program), in which he made a documentary Grandma’s World. By recording his grandma's life and memory, he tries to show the cultural profile of Hmong villages in northern Laos.
“In the old days, the villagers in villages lived in the countryside far from the city, schools, and hospitals. The community had to fend for itself and used traditional herbs against illness and pain. Nowadays things are changing. Nearly every village has a primary school and much easier access to roads and hospitals. Herbs are still used, but are losing their importance.” For Ka Xiong, a Miao nationality, this traditional herbal medicine treatment is a precious wealth of life. It also reflects the relationship between the Hmong people and the natural environment, as well as the changes in their lifestyle.
Nowadays, Ka Xiong’s 87-year-old grandma is living with his uncle in Longlan village, one of the few nearly unchanged Hmong villages in Luang Prabang Province. She always has been the warm and caring mother, who is important in her family and in the villages she has lived in. She has a great knowledge of local herbs and passes that on to the community and her family. She learned it from her grandparents and her parents. But she is getting old and starts to forget things now.
Ka Xiong thinks this film will not be about the Hmong, it will be about a special and individual Hmong lady, who happens to be his own grandma. He said, “This film will be an homage to our grandma who meant so much in our lives. We want to seize time and make a small portrait of her now she is still with us and able to talk. The film is also a memento for the Hmong way of life that has stayed unchanged for many generations but is disappearing now.”
How did you start to work on images and documentaries?
I became fond of taking photos when I was in secondary school. I got my first analog camera at 14 years old. It was very expensive to take photos. I had to be very careful with the films I bought. I will take one shot only if I wanted to take a picture. I had been a kind of professional already then. People paid me to have their photos taken. Though nearly always portraits and family photos, it brought me some money to make the pictures I wanted to make.
In 2006, I moved to the city for high school and later went to the University of Luang Prabang. At the library, it offers students training sessions and loans of a digital camera for a few days for free. That was a very, very amazing experience. I could press the shutter whenever I wanted and if I didn’t like I just delete it. I could review all my photos on the computer in the library. Professional photographers from abroad often volunteered to share their knowledge about photography at the Library. I never missed any chance.
In 2010, I discovered the joy of video making, also at my Library. It was even more exciting to learn the basics of how to tell a story, how to play with movement, and how to create sound...
After I graduated from university, I was meant to become an English teacher. But I was sure that what I really needed to do is to make films and photos. So I chose that profession. I attended all workshops in Laos and abroad that let me in, and I worked for two years full time as an apprentice/assistant to Adri Berger, who is a dutch professional filmmaker/photographer. Later, I have worked a lot with Paul Wager, an Australian photographer who now lives in Luang Prabang. He inspired me the most.
What do you think a good documentary should look like? Please give some examples of your favorite documentaries and tell us why.
I think a good documentary should be as simple as possible. It should tell what it has to tell. People must be able to relate to the documentary. It also should reach their feelings. The images in the film should keep you interested even when you do not know the language you hear or read.
One of my favorite documentaries is Waste Land directed by Lucy Walker. It’s a very touching film. I can relate to the protagonists and I think I can relate to the filmmaker herself about why and how this film had to be made.
What do you think of the documentary industry in Laos?
There are documentaries made in Laos, also fiction films. But that is not enough to call it an industry. I am sure there are a lot of talents in the country and a lot of untold stories. For now, if you want to produce it is hard to finance it. But we are working on it and you will see more every year.
Lao people are interested in Lao fiction films, but there is only a small capacity and money to produce them.
Why did you choose to make a film about your grandma during the LMV program? How did the process of filmmaking this time affect you?
The first reason is grandma deserves a portrait. There was sadness, drama, stress, and disappointment in her life, but also warm love, good fun, and musical moments. Many of us in the Hmong community can relate to it. Her knowledge of Hmong traditional herbs is fascinating.
Our grandma was and still is an important person in my life and that of my cousin Bounsoo Thor. We work together on the project. Sometimes filming, sometimes interviewing. The film is about her but also about her relationship with her children and us—her grandchildren. For me, it is the first time I am not only the observing and directing filmmaker but also a participant, a visible person in my film.
It is a project that takes time and much improvisation. I am grateful that we could start within the LMV framework. It is a work in progress. There is still a lot to come. Different from other projects I did not have to get acquainted with the people I film. We know our grandma very well and she also knows us very well. I think the material we shot and edited until now shows that.
I learned that if you know your protagonists, the people, and the community you will film, meanwhile, if they know you and your life as a filmmaker, they trust you. The process will go a lot faster and smoother. That keeps our budget low and gives us space to film and add new material.
Did you encounter any difficulties during the production of this documentary? How did you solve the difficulties in the end?
Grandma had an accident just one week before we started to film. We had to wait until she recovered. She fell again and it got worse. I had made some plans but had to change a lot.
We followed the situation closely to see when the best time would be to sneak in and film her. Her illness made her ask for a ceremony to help her recover. The early morning preparation of that ceremony proved to be wonderful material for the film. Sometimes in situations like this unexpected things happen that fit well in the story that you want to tell.
Can you share some of your memories about traditional herbs?
Sure, I have a lot of memories. My mom learned from my grandma and I got a lot of herbal treatment during my childhood. When my children get a fever, I know which herbs I should give to them. I have baskets of herbs plants around my house. I know also very well when to bring them to the hospital.
Why is there no translation of the words said by the wizard in the film?
Most of those words from the shaman I didn’t understand either. It’s not the language of our world. Only shamans, people who spend their time to learn and communicate with the spiritual world, understand what the words mean.