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Envisioning the Mekong's Future Through the Eyes of 5 Regional Filmmakers

The future of the Mekong Delta is uncertain. The river and the people that rely on it are facing the impact of climate change, extreme weather conditions, rising sea levels, saline intrusion, hydropower, over-fishing, pollution and mainstream dam construction upstream.

But that’s just an overview. It doesn’t tell you who lives there or the problems they’re facing. It doesn’t tell you the stories of the people who have lost their homes as dams collapse, or what happens to their livelihoods when the river becomes barren.

This is an issue that the Mekong 2030 project, created by the team behind the Luang Prabang Film Festival in Laos, aims to address through a series of five short films envisioning the Mekong River in a decades’ time.

“We wanted to embark on a production project that could showcase diverse perspectives on a common issue,” said Gabriel Kuperman, the festival's founder and director of artist development. The project was initially conceived of in May 2019, with the first screening taking place in February this year.

“Instead of asking our participating filmmakers to make documentaries about the current state of the river, we challenged them to imagine what the river could look like ten years from now," he explained. "In doing so, they were able to make their own statements regarding where they see the river flowing.”

Kuperman, along with co-producer Alex Curran-Cardarelli, commissioned five filmmakers from the Greater Mekong Subregion to craft their visions of the future. Those chosen were Kulikar Sotho from Cambodia, Anysay Keola from Laos, Sai Naw Kham from Myanmar, Anocha Suwichakornpong from Thailand, and Phạm Ngọc Lân from Vietnam.

Lân has been something of a breakout star on the project. His film The Unseen River, shot entirely in Vietnam, was nominated in early August for the renowned Pardi di domani award at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland.

A still from The Unseen River provided by the production team.

In Vietnam, the river represents two juxtaposing elements: Buddhism and hydroelectric dams. Rarely do the two comfortably intertwine, with hydroelectricity gathering media attention due to its environmental impact.

Accurate statistics on how many hydropower plants there are in Vietnam are hard to come by (2016 estimates say 306), but the ones that do exist have been linked to droughts, forest destruction, and the displacement of ethnic minority groups. VnExpress reported an instance of families in Dak Nen Commune in the Central Highlands living in temporary camps in 2013 having had their land taken over for a hydroelectric dam. Four years later, 195 households were still there, waiting to be relocated.

Lân said that he aimed to present the hydroelectricity issue “abstractly and pleasantly” to introduce the issues surrounding the Mekong to Vietnam’s masses. The Unseen River follows two narratives, one, a middle-aged woman traveling upstream to find her long-lost love, the other, a young couple going downstream to a temple, in search of a cure for chronic insomnia.

With this broad appeal, Lân found international recognition. Curran-Cardarelli believes that storytellers are the ideal people to spread the Mekong’s message, and with 1,500 people watching The Unseen River from August 5 to 15 through the festival in Locarno, she could be right.

“Storytellers are the most successful informants and influencers, and should be the first step in an endeavor to raise awareness,” she added.

Luang Prabang is a city in northern Laos that coexists with the Mekong. Sand stupas are built on the river’s edge during New Year celebrations, and huge candlelit paper and bamboo boats sail downstream, alongside banana leaf offerings at the end of Buddhist lent.

But life along the river in Laos is changing. Kuperman, who has lived in Luang Prabang since 2008, explained why.

“So often, the water level is either too low or too high, which affects nearby irrigation systems and transportation via boat,” he said. “Fish are harder to come by, leaving dependent communities hungry or without the steady income they used to have. These problems aren’t just affecting Luang Prabang — they are affecting every village, town, and city that relies on the river.”

A photo from the filming of The Unseen River provided by the production team.

Behind the scenes, multiple directors found the changes in the river impacting their filmmaking.

Kulikar Sotho, director of Soul River in Cambodia, had to delay production of her short for months. She’d planned to shoot in the rainy season when the Tonle Sap Lae is usually at its most expansive but had to stop as the river was too low. Seeing the impact of climate change first-hand left a mark on Sotho, who began practicing climate change activism as a result.

Lân dealt with the more ambiguous problem of growing distrust of the media in the region when shooting The Unseen River.

“When I was surveying and writing the script, the Vietnamese media had a buzz about Chùa Ba Vàng [temple]. As a result, the monks in An Giang — one of the locations we filmed — became much more suspicious of strangers. The abbot is elderly and doesn’t — or doesn’t want — to distinguish between journalists and filmmakers,” he said.

“He refused and sent me away three times, until the fourth time, he reluctantly accepted the crew to come film. I was sad. About 10 years ago people in Vietnam were very welcoming and excited about people creating new work. That’s different now.”

Lân didn’t want to overstate the power that Mekong 2030 might have in making a difference to the river, but he hoped that, with the coordination between the film activities and many other activities from the sponsors of the film, the phrase "Mekong River" will be mentioned more in 2020.

The next stops on the tour for Mekong 2030 will include Poland (twice) and Malaysia (once). In one of the few positive consequences of the ongoing pandemic, if you’re not in Poland or Malaysia, you’ll be able to catch screenings of all five films online. The tour will eventually land back in the festival’s hometown, Luang Prabang, in December.

“It’s our hope that viewers will understand that any impact on the river flows downward,” said Curran-Cardarelli. “Causing literal ripple effects along the way.”

This article originally appeared on Southeast Asia Globe and has been republished with permission as part of a collaboration between Saigoneer and Southeast Asia Globe.