I am often asked how Akha people like the film, so I summarize my experience of the first screenings I was part of.

January 2004. I'm in a pickup truck making its way up the dusty road to Saen Charoen, an Akha village in the North of Thailand. The plan is to show VIRTUAL BORDERS, the documentary project about the Akha that I completed only recently, there. This village was the first to welcome me to participate in the Akha way of life during their Swing Festival ten years ago, when I spent an exchange year at Chiang Mai University's Faculty of Fine Arts. This is also the village where I made friends with the Jupoh family, whose Abaw Buseuv is the protagonist of the film.

stage with daisy-chained TV sets and speakers

Abaw's son Aju (author of many of the Akha songs in the film) is driving the pickup, which also carries Noriko Higashide, charismatic Japanese director of an Akha NGO and fluent Akha speaker, Anja Kirschner, my friend from London who was the driving force during the difficult rough cut of the film, and Aju's kids, who grew up in the city and are having fun imitating their grandfather's distinctive eating noises. On the way, Aju suggests a detour for the required celebration. We stop by a dog dealer, and eventually arrive in the village with a 15 kilo dog in a bag and plenty of red dust in our lungs.

Abaw Buseu and Aju on stage
After the feast (that Anja preferred to miss out on) and never-ending rounds of fresh home-brewed rice whisky, we start setting up for the film screening. A candle and the full moon cast light onto our cable spaghetti. We manage to wire up a set of speakers and a VCD player to two daisy-chained TV sets on the stage in the village square. The previous day, Abaw had announced the event through the village megaphone, so many villagers had already gathered, bringing chairs, making a bonfire, and offering cans of beer around.

the cinema audience

I'm very excited but also quite nervous about this evening. It took many years to complete this film in its uncompromised version, and the villagers are the first audience to judge it. Abaw Buseuv and Aju introduce the project, and we start the screening. I wait for reactions. Rather unexpectedly, the whole village bursts into laughter during the opening dinner sequence, in which Abaw Buseuv indelibly marks his presence by a prolonged bout of throat-clearing.
Children and the older audience memebers alike stay glued to the TV sets and visibly entertained for the entire 90 minutes, while the teenage boys take the occasion to get drunk near the bonfire. The response is generally greatly encouraging, but there is an unforgettable moment when a collective sigh of disappointment goes up as the reply of Pima from China to Abaw's recital of his genealogy fades out. Anxious about the length of the film, I cut Pima's recitation short after only a few names (the chain of ancestors is over 50 names long) - a mistake I was to review in the final reedit a few months later...
While the villagers express much appreciation of the fact that I did come back to their village to show the film, and are interested in VCDs, the discussion following the screening for the Chiang Mai based Akha community raises a more diverse range of issues.

During the break, a boy recites his genealogy on Aju's request
In Chiang Mai, the screening takes place in the new, velvet-seated cinema of the CMU Art Museum. The film screening was organised by the SWITCH team, and promoted by Noriko (MPCD organisation). She handed out flyers in Akha language at the night bazaar, explaining the event to every Akha person she encountered. Announcements were also made on the Akha radio programme.

screens, a bon fire and the moon lit the place
However, this being many Akha people's first invitation to a cinema, and with people not quite catching the address properly on the radio, we learn that many eager viewers couldn't locate the venue. For the second screening, Anja and Nok (from SWITCH) respond by drawing huge posters depicting an Akha woman with traditional headdress and a movie camera, to indicate the site to literate and non-literate visitors alike.
Noriko chairs the event. There are many questions to Asseu Somsri Dzuebaw, the radio presenter who was involved in all three phases of VIRTUAL BORDERS: film, radio and internet.
Asseu joined us during our film trip to China, where we attended the international Akha meeting (TICHAC). She conducted many interviews with Akha people from different countries, while the VIRTUAL BORDERS team set up an internet link with the radio station in Thailand, which broadcast these reports live into the mountain villages in Burma, Laos and Thailand. The TICHAC gathering was an ideal place to demonstrate the potential of the internet to serve as an affordable two-way medium for a society that relies heavily on oral tradition.
As part of the VIRTUAL BORDERS project, and in collaboration with MPCDE, the website Hani-Akha.org was initiated. This was the first website put together by the Akha people themselves, in both Akha and English language. Much additional material associated with the film, such as full-length interviews and music, is available online here, and free for download.
The voice of Asseu, who has worked as radio presenter for over 40 years, is very prominent amongst the Akha, and the film audience enjoyed seeing the face behind it, as well as watching her at work.
Some audience members commented on the many levels of collaboration between Akha and non-Akha seen in the film - the internet radio transmission, the hybrid soundtrack, the film project as a whole - and suggested such approaches as a way to develop future perspectives. An Akha woman said that the film reminded her of just how many issues affect the situation of the Akha, regarding it as a helpful summary from where to pick up discussions and develop active approaches.
One Akha man remarked that films showing traditional life in more detail should be made as educational materials for Akha and non-Akha. A young visitor asked if there would be more occasions to see the film, because he wanted to bring his friends.
Delighted by the overwhelming and inspired feedback, I was particularly happy about the way that VIRTUAL BORDERS brought together people from two of my points of focus over the past decade - ethnic minorities and new media. I hope the project serves as one timber in the bridge that is slowly being built between these cultures.
Manu Luksch (2004)