Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship - Oudomxay, Laos

Facade from the right side

Facade from the left side. The two wings off the central hall serve as the offices for the provincial branch of the Ministry of Culture.

The Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship was an instant personal favorite. I've come across numerous and sometimes architecturally attractive movie theaters while doing this research here in Southeast Asia. A handful of the old stand-alones that I've encountered have some pretty fascinating histories and interesting circumstances behind their inception. But this one was on another level. What makes the Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship such a noteworthy movie theater for me? Simple: it was a gift from the communist Vietnamese government to their Lao comrades in the city of Oudomxay. Much like the French giving the Statue of Liberty to the Americans, this was an act of political diplomacy, only in movie theater form. Could their possibly be a kinder act of friendship?

This testament to late Soviet era functionalist design was built in 1981, 6 years after the triumph of the Lao communists over the American-backed royalist government. Had the latter emerged victorious, Hollywood films would have rolled through Lao projectors and graced Lao silver screens. Instead, Russian propaganda dubbed in Lao, along with Indian and occasionally Vietnamese films were the primary features in the Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship. All theaters across the country followed this standard.

The banner above where the screen used to be says:
Long Live the Lao People's Democratic Republic!

Glory to the People's Revolutionary Party Forever!

Looking across the tile stage, where the screen was positioned behind the proscenium.

Old reels of film and rusting projection equipment. I'd love to see what's on those reels.

The town of Oudomxay is currently undergoing a sort of commercial and industrial renaissance thanks to an influx of mainland Chinese entrepreneurs. More than any place in peninsular Southeast Asia I've been to (besides a few towns on the Chinese border), Oudomxay feels like small Chinese trading center, not the Theravada domains typical of this part of the world. The lush mountains surrounding it, dotted with ethnic Khmu and Hmong villages, tower over this gritty little city, bustling with new denizens and new life. Sadly, however, the town's sole remaining movie theater has been dormant since 1988. The Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship now hosts a youth activities center, run by the Ministry of Culture.

Local kids from the youth activities center pose in front of the Lao-Viet Cultural Hall of Friendship. If only they had the chance to experience the joys of film!

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