Laos is fast becoming a fixture on the Southeast Asia tourist track. Although neighbouring Thailand has long been a favoured destination for Western backpackers, until very recently, Laos had been widely overlooked. In 1990, tourists in the country numbered only 14,400 but by 2005, cheap international flights and high profile marketing campaigns had boosted this figure to 1.1 million.
New feature-length documentary Camera, Camera explores this phenomenon by focusing on interactions between the country’s locals and tourists from far-flung places. The film combines interviews of travellers and photographs both of and taken by them during their time in Laos. Lacking any commentary and without an explicit message,it’s left to viewers to interpret it however they wish. Its creators claim that Camera, Camera was made not to pass judgement or set forward a theory, but to provoke questions surrounding tourism in the country.
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Directed by Malcolm Murray, the documentary premiered at the LA Film Festival in early summer, and has so far been positively received by audiences. One reviewer calls it ‘a bold, ambitious, slightly academic project from a young first-time filmmaker,’ that manages to ‘provoke thought and feeling,’ while another suggests it’s an ‘an abstract travelogue that gets under your skin.’
But regardless of whether Camera, Camera ends up being deemed a cinematic success, judging by the reactions of audiences and reviewers so far, it's thought-provoking, raising the important question of the impact Westerners might be having on Laos’ people and society.
In a future post we’ll be touching on the issues the film raises again with some commentary from the author of some of the first travel books written on Laos.
But for now, these are very real, very important questions that need to be asked about Western tourism and its impact worldwide. Being amongst the wealthiest people in the world, these travellers hold considerable power over the countries they visit, particularly in regions economically dependent on tourism. However, I also think that for a truly balanced picture, we should also be asking questions about the affects on the tourists themselves while they travel, and the lessons and experiences they take home to their societies. To ignore the reciprocal impact of travel in such regions seems a little short-sighted.
Amy Green is an editorial assistant with The Diplomat. She begins studying for her MA in East Asian studies at the London School of Economics this fall.