Fathers, sons and fireworks sit at the centre of The Rocket, the tale of a seemingly cursed Laotian youngster beset by misfortune at every turn. Only his sheer determination in the face of danger can light the path to a new life, as he endeavours to save his family by figuratively and literally shooting for the sky – with the help of a James Brown impersonator!
Australian documentarian Kim Mordaunt shot The Rocket, his first feature film, in war-ravaged Laos, and went on to win three awards – Best First Feature, the Amnesty International Film Prize and the Crystal Bear for Best Film in the Generation Kplus program – at the Berlin International Film Festival.
He answered some questions for MIFF:
How did you get the idea to shoot a film in Laos?
It goes back about 10 years ago. Myself and the producer, Sylvia Wilczynski, were living in Hanoi and we used to travel to Laos. There the people are really nice and we fell in love with the country. One night, we met a couple of bomb-disposure specialists in a bar and they started telling us about the Secret War in Laos. We had no idea about this. The more we found out about it the more we thought that we needed to make a film. The bottom line of this story is that Laos is a beautiful country but it has been bombed more than anywhere on the planet and we don’t know about this war.
So we made a film called Bomb Harvest that was about an Australian bomb specialist. Part of that film was working with the Laotian children who collect the bomb metal. Working with the kids was incredible: they had such an sense of self. As a director, I really wanted to expend this process of working with children. Some people from the Laotian community then said to us: “Next time, you should do it from a Laotian perspective.”
So it was quite a scary project to take on as we are not Laotian, but that was really where our heart was, where our imagination was, and we then tried to write the screenplay of The Rocket.
Was it difficult to direct the film in a foreign language?
It was difficult, yes, but because we had this long relationship with the country, we found our way. I spent so much time with the Laotian people that I was able to understand how they spoke, their humor and what was important to them. Having said that, even though I understood a bit of Lao, I had to have a translator working with me. But what I found as a director is that when you’re not working through dialogues, you’re looking much more at what is happening in the eyes of the actors and their body language, and if the relationship is happening between them. It was actually a very good way to work. I gave to my actors the dialogue in a second step, but I worked firstly on the emotions with them.
Also I have a Mauritian Indian mother, and during my whole life I’ve worked on multicultural stories with characters who come from marginalised places. In a funny way, I feel at home in this gap of communication.
What was the process of finding the cast for your film?
Sylvia and I had to make a promo to convince funding partners so we travelled around Laos and in Isan in Thailand, just over the border where a lot of Lao war migrants live, to find the little boy in the film. Through a casting agent in Thailand, we met a kid who lived in the streets for a couple of years. I had seen a lot of kids before, but maybe because of his time spent in the street, where he had to become an adult very quickly, he had a very strong sense of self and was willing to work very hard. When I first met him, he was quite showy, and though it was quite fun to watch, he was kind of closed emotionally. I did a lot of improvisations and work with music with him, and he started opening himself, sharing his life with us.
We found the little girl in Vientiane, the capital of Laos. She was tough, independent, and with her it was all about her eyes. As I started telling her the story, I could see it living through her eyes.
Funnily enough, the boy and the girl were the opposite of what I had written. I had made him more soulful and her the big talker. But when I met them both, I rewrote the parts so that they would fit with who they were.
One of the film's lead characters is a James Brown impersonator. Are impersonators quite common in Laos?
I don’t know if there are a lot of impersonators in Laos but karaoke is a very important and vibrant part of the culture. People who might have nothing – no fridge, no cooker – have a karaoke machine and they sing!
The character is based on a real person we met in a very remote village while making a documentary. As we were interviewing amputees (from bomb injuries), we heard music and suddenly this man with his purple suit appeared. We didn’t think too much of him at the time but after we left that village, we couldn’t stop talking about him. We realised what an interesting contradiction and metaphor for the country he was. He was a part of the Hmong people, who fought on the side of the CIA during the Secret War and absorbed a lot of American culture and popular references.
As with the boy, they are both on the edge of society and form this dysfunctional friendship.
Your previous experiencing is in documentary filmmaking. Do you think this background influenced your artistic choices in this first feature?
I started as an actor, then life took me into documentary filmmaking and I definitely took a lot of my documentary filmmaking into my fictional direction. The main thing is to remain in the moment. What documentary filmmaking teaches you is that it’s all changing in front of you, that it can go in any direction. I think that’s a good thing to keep as a drama director because in a way you never stop writing.
Documentary filmmaking also taught me to remember that even if you work with an actor, they are also a person in real life, with all their history, baggage, love and hate, and that should be taken into consideration when building the characters.
The Rocket screens:
Pictured above: scenes from the film