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IFFR2015: Appetites and Aspirations – Banana Pancakes and the Children of Sticky Rice

Banana Pancakes and the Children of Sticky Rice (Daan Veldhuizen, 2015)


Backpacking through Laos in search of adventure and authenticity, director Daan Veldhuizen was intrigued by the relationship between the local people and the increasing influx of tourists. The idea for his second feature-length documentary was thus born. Banana Pancakes and the Children of Sticky Rice premieres in IFFR’s Bright Future section.

The isolated Buddhist village of Muang Ngoi in northern Laos proved to be an ideal microcosm. Solely accessible by river, tourists only flood the village during the dry season. Moreover, electricity was just about to arrive in this tiny town. These elements allowed the crew to capture the place in its several different stages.

During preparation, Veldhuizen met the son of the owners of his guesthouse, Shai, who later introduced him to his childhood friend, Khao. The first is an educated entrepreneur who returned from the city but is struggling with himself and the new possibilities, the other a traditional farmer and steady family man. They eventually became the protagonists of the film.

The title depicts the film’s central confrontation in culinary terms. Banana pancakes are a menu item adapted to western backpackers, often served by a generation of Lao who – because of tourism – no longer have to live from the production of sticky rice alone. The locals discover the taste of western customs, while the travelers hunger for tradition and authenticity.

Veldhuizen intended to make the film feel like a journey and he sets up the documentary like a three-stage rocket. What comes first is an observation of the village and its inhabitants in an almost anthropological manner. Then tourism arrives, and eventually friction arises between the protagonists and the filmmaker himself. The documentary slowly shifts from an observational to a more participatory mode.

On a couple of occasions the invisible wall between the locals and the filmmaker is broken. He only reacts when they acknowledge his presence by looking into the camera, offering him a drink or by taking his picture. “In a certain sense, a documentary and tourism are the same: we want to see something, but hope not to influence it”, Veldhuizen explains. “That’s impossible!”

This gradual journey is also translated in the alluring visual style of the film. Veldhuizen creates a candid feel by including objects in the foreground of the frame. Carefully constructed compositions evolve towards a more dynamic way of filming.

We know curry and spaghetti westerns. Is this a kind of sticky rice western where invaders, armed with their Lonely Planet guides, face traditional civilization in the village’s dusty main street? No, it was essential for Veldhuizen to show that the changes brought about by tourism are mostly welcomed by the locals. “I wanted to make a documentary where the tourist is the one who’s being watched by the local instead of the other way around”, Veldhuizen explains. “Now, I can’t wait to invite Khao and Shai back and serve them hutspot and Dutch cheese”, he smiles.