|VIFF '09 Interview - Today is Better Than Two Tomorrows director Anna Rodgers
by Jason Whyte
Today is Better Than Two Tomorrows - At VIFF 09
“Today is Better Than Two Tomorrows” is an observational documentary following the lives of two village boys in Laos who leave behind their innocent days on the banks of the Mekong river to move to the city of Luang Prabang. The film is a simple story of friendship that captures the universal theme of the end of childhood and innocence. It’s a very atmospheric film which transports the viewer into the Lao way of life, which many people haven’t seen before since few documentaries are made there.” Director Anna Rodgers on the film “Today is Better Than Two Tomorrows” which screens at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival.
Is this your first film in the VIFF? Do you have any other festival experience? Do you plan to attend VIFF for the screenings?
This is my debut feature documentary, so it’s my first time having a film at an international event which makes this very exciting. “Today is Better Than Two Tomorrows” has shown at three major festivals in Ireland, and also as part of a monthly event in the Irish Film Institute, but the screening at VIFF is an international premiere. I’m planning to attend the screenings, and I’m traveling from Dublin to be there. I’ve good friends in Vancouver but I’ve never been and it’s a great excuse to visit!
Could you give me a little look into your and what led you to the desire to want to make film?
I first visited Laos in 2002 as a backpacker. I had been traveling in Thailand, and whilst in Chiang Mai, visited Wat U Mong, a forest temple in the outskirts of town. There were different Buddhist contemplations written on signs on the trees, and one said “Today is Better Than Two Tomorrows”. I took the title for the film from that.
For me it meant that you should always cherish the present moment, always live for today. That the past and the future are something you should not worry about. I think this is how children live. In this temple I met a monk named Bounmy, who is the uncle of the two boys in my film, Leh and Bo. Bounmy took me on a local boat down the Mekong River to Laos to meet his family. At this stage I didn’t know a single word of Lao, and his village was 12 hours from the city, had neither electricity nor running water. Since Bounmy had to stay in the village temple, I stayed with the family.
Leh took me everywhere, as did the other children, and taught me words in Lao, how to use the village communal shower, and to swim in the river. After six months in Asia I went home and spent the following two years thinking constantly about my return to see this family, and finally in 2004 made my first filming trip to Laos with no money, no commission and no one to help me out there except the local people. It’s difficult to explain but I had to make this film. I literally dreamt about it for years. I have heard people say you can never really leave Laos, and I think for me that are true. The people and the country are never far from my mind, even in the midst of Dublin traffic! The film was only finally completed in 2009, which is quite a gestation period for a documentary.
Growing up, you were no doubt asked the eternal question “When I grow up I want to be a …” Finish this sentence, please!
An artist. I was always drawing. I thought I’d never get a job but I found a way to make art and a living at the same time through working in film.
How did this project come to fruition? If you could, please provide me with a rundown, start to finish, from your involvement.
For the first two years I filmed this documentary with no commission, crew, or translator and suffice to say, it was a great challenge. I had help from my Lao friends but otherwise, was quite alone. If it weren’t for The Irish Film Board I think the tapes might have languished in a drawer, but Alan Maher in there, and my producer and best friend Siobhan Ward believed in the film and helped me finish it.
The completion funding allowed me to go back and shoot key final scenes, and also to work with the very creative and talented editor Emer Reynolds who helped me realize this story to its full potential. Although she’d never been to Laos, she really had a wonderful grasp of the pace of life, and their subtle understated emotions.
What was the biggest challenge in the production of the movie, be it principal photography or post-production?
I think I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was the language and the cultural differences, even though I put in huge efforts to understand as much as I could. At the end of the day I made this film as an Irish woman, and a foreigner… but perhaps that brought something to it. Due to my background of many years as a researcher, it was very natural for me to spend a long period of time working ‘imbedded’ within another world. I think I have a natural curiosity about other people’s lives, and in Laos I was very passionate about the language and trying to understand the way of life there. When working in reality, you often have to be gentle and allow things to happen as they would naturally.
I spent a lot of time with the boys, living with them and their families, and they were very comfortable with me. There are always cultural taboos that you have to learn in a new country. You’re not supposed to touch a person on the head in Laos, enter a house with your shoes on, stand up straight when walking past an elderly person who is sitting, be higher than a monk, sit on the roof of boats, raise your voice or get angry… the list goes on. The one which probably effected me most being a woman filming in Laos was the rule about touching monks or being higher than them. If the boys were sitting in their room on the floor and I was filming on tripod, I often had to kneel on the floor and just angle the LCD screen downwards so I could see what I was doing! I could never get too close to them, and also had to train them to put on their own radio mics! I always wore the local skirt, Lao Sin, when I was filming anything in the temple or schools, and in general tried to dress like women did in Luang Prabang.
Tell me about the technical side of the film; your relation to the film’s cinematographer, what the film was shot on and why it was decided to be photographed this way.
I shot the film on a Sony PD170, a DV camera. I chose that because I had no other choice! I couldn’t afford a crew, and that camera was very user friendly for a person filming alone; although it’s somewhat obsolete now, the format held up very well. I tried to apply an approach of mindfulness and meditation to my camera work – to approach things from a point of view of respectful curiosity, to be patient, to hold shots. I think you can feel the presence of the camera – it is a character as such – but it does not dictate how things occur or interfere.
Talk a bit about the experiences (festival or non-festival) that you have had with the film. Have you had any interesting audience stories or questions that have arisen at screenings?
As far as I knew there were no Lao people in Ireland. I had to fly my translator Anan in from Paris. However, at a recent screening in Dublin a woman put up her hand and said “I am from Laos”. I was delighted, but also nervous of her response. However, she said I managed to capture the special atmosphere of Laos, and really liked it. Afterwards, she invited me to come to her house when her mother comes to Ireland to have Lao food together. This was the sort of hospitality and openness I experienced all the time in Laos.
People always want to know how I communicated since none of my participants spoke English. You have to learn the language but also, get very good at communicating with your facial expressions and hands!
Who would you say your biggest inspirations are in the film world (directors, actors, cinematographers, etc)? Did you have inspirations from filmmakers for this film in particular?
I am very influenced by the British filmmaker Kim Longinotto. I love her unobtrusive yet powerful observational approach. She works in other cultures in very interesting ways. I watch a lot of documentaries… I’m a bit of a documentary festival nerd as it’s my favorite thing to do! So I draw inspiration from so many different sources.
If you weren’t in this profession, what other career do you think you would be interested in?
Honestly, I can’t imagine doing anything else now. I’ve been doing this since I was 18. I spent the last 5 years working for Ireland’s top documentary director Alan Gilsenan, originally as his researcher and now producer. If the recession hits the arts hard, I don’t know what I’ll do… Move home and still make films!
Please tell me some filmmakers or talent that you would love to work with, even if money was no object.
I dream of one day having Zbigniew Preisner score a film for me. He is a polish composer and did the soundtrack for the three colours trilogy amongst others. I’m sure I’ll never have the budget!
How important do you think the critical/media response is to film these days, be it a large production, independent film or festival title?
I think it’s become less important in a way because of the democratization of the media via the internet. I think named critics are less powerful in that they don’t necessarily make or break a film these days. The way we promote films is really changing. However, getting press response is still very important because it creates awareness.
If your film could play in any movie theatre in the world, which one would you choose?
Showing my film in the Irish Film Institute was a bit of a dream. As a film student I always attended there to see other people’s films, so it felt amazing to have my own work there. I’d love to show the film in the cinema in Vientiane in Laos. You never know, it might happen!
What would you say to someone on the street to see your film instead of the latest blockbuster playing at the local megaplex?
You can see blockbusters any day of the week in the cinema, on your TV, on DVD, Blu Ray, whatever… but you very rarely get a chance to see international documentaries, especially on the big screen. This is probably the only time you’ll ever get to see my film so in a way, it’s a unique event, and you never know; the film might stay with you and encourage you to slow down and take notice of the little things around you. Films I saw in film festivals 10 years ago are still vivid in my mind, although I’ve never been able to find copies of them anywhere since.
No doubt there are a lot of aspiring filmmakers at film festivals who are out there curious about making a film of their own. Do you have any advice that you could provide for those looking to get a start?
Believe in your own ideas, and be prepared to fight for them (and put time and money into them) to bring them to life. Making a documentary with very little funding means you have to keep pushing for quite a long time to finish them so make sure it’s a subject you’re deeply passionate about, that will hold your interest long after the rejection letters have rolled in. If you believe in it, you can convince others too… and that acceptance letter will come eventually.
And finally…what is your all time favourite motion picture, and why?
That is such a difficult question. I’m going to say my favorite filmmakers instead which are a mix of fiction and documentary makers are Krzysztof Kieslowski, Kim Longinotto, Rithy Panh, and Terrence Malick.
Be sure to follow instant happenings of VIFF on my Twitter at twitter.com/jasonwhyte!
This is one of the many films playing at this year’s Vancouver International Film Festival. For more information on the film’s screenings, showtimes and update information, point your browser to viff.org. – Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2856
originally posted: 10/12/09 18:11:22