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Interview: "Laos is the most bombed place on the planet...but why don't we know about this little country?" Director Kim Mordaunt on his award winning film

Award winning film director talks to Supajam

“People said to us, ‘don’t work with kids, don’t work with animals, don’t work within a communist government and don’t work with actors no one knows about’. Well, we did all of that and added explosives to it”

Tribeca and Berlin festival winning film, The Rocket, is about a boy believed to bring everyone bad luck. Marked as a pariah, he leads his family and two new friends through the war-ravaged lands of Laos before entering the most exciting, albeit dangerous, festival around; the Rocket festival.

At the helm is the director, Kim Mordaunt. He sat down to talk to us about the making of this film.

It is an unusual story. How did the idea come about?

Yeah, it is kind of unusual. I would say, go back 10 years, when Sylvia (Wilczynski - producer) and myself were living in Hanoi, in North Vietnam. We were just picking up whatever jobs we could find. We were working as teachers – I was teaching a bit of drama and working in propaganda newspapers. I even worked a job as a game show host. We just kind-of saying yes to everything. We just wanted to go on an adventure.

We started travelling to Laos a lot, which borders Vietnam. It was really lovely. It was like going back in time. People were very friendly, very gentle and very nice. Then we found out that Laos is the most bombed place on the planet per capita. We thought, ‘bloody hell, we’re educated people but we have no idea!’ We know about the Vietnam War, but why don’t we know about this little country that’s been hammered more than Vietnam and more than anywhere in the Second World War? Out of that we made a film called Bomb Harvest (2007 documentary).

We thought about the fact that even though we are Westerners, people were incredibly kind to us. They were open and there was a lot of positive energy. There was a great spirit about the country. The Laos people are very funny. They have this great sense of humour, but yet they’ve been through hell.

We thought that this is really interesting, if we can bring these two things together, we might be able to entice an audience who might not usually watch something about the atrocities and just pose some of these questions about what happened to this place.  

Was it a conscious decision to show explosives shooting out of Laos rather than being on the receiving end?

You’ve hit on something there that is pretty much the essence of the tone of the film. We thought that we’re in this country that’s been pounded but the Rocket festival is a great catharsis; a purging of history - letting it all out, shooting it back at the sky and turning it into something really positive and beautiful. For us, we thought that this is what is most cinematic about this story. It’s kind of fresh too because we didn’t want to fall into that terrible cliché of post-war reality being completely grim. It is grim, yes, but human beings generally want to survive.

In Laos, and it might be the Buddhism, but part of that belief system is that you have to move forward and break cycles of hatred. Not just retaliate, retaliate, retaliate, but somehow make things better.

For us, during the last 10 years, this planet has just been in terrible wars. In wars of ongoing retaliation and having witnessed what we did in Laos, we found it really inspiring that they were trying to break this cycle. I think the Laos people are extraordinary.

Infographic on bomb saturation in Laos since 1965

Please can you tell me about the character, ‘Purple’ and his mimicry of James Brown? How much of his similarity was a happy accident and how much was manipulated?

It’s a mixture of the two. Everything in that film is based on real observations. With ‘Purple’, whilst we were filming Bomb Harvest, we were on the Ho Chi Minh trail about 6 hours from nowhere and we were doing these interviews with bomb accident victims.

Every time we turned on the camera there would be this rock music coming out of a hut. Suddenly, out stumbles this guy in a purple suit. He walks down his little ladder from his hut and he’s pissed on rice wine and he’s getting in the back of all of our shots. He’s hassling and teasing everybody.

We then find out that this guy hasn’t taken off his purple suit for years. So, it was kind-of based on the real person. We enhanced it a little bit but, having said that, when we were scripting, we kept coming back to him.

In the film, for the young lad, Ahlo, Purple represents some sort of mythical piece of magic. He’s irreverent and he’s having a go at the world, and that’s what the kid feels like doing too. He’s saying, ‘the world has done me wrong, so I am going to have a go at the world too and curse them back’.

We just thought that we need to pull these two characters together and send them on a journey.

This appears to be a film about divisions, whether it be between Ahlo and his family, Purple and the community, the relocation and displacement of all of the characters and their lack of acceptance from others. How aware of divisions are you in your own life? Is this something that fed into your writing?

Yes, absolutely. I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this, but my mother is actually Mauritian-Indian and my dad is English. I actually grew up in England. I’m English by birth. I was born in Bishops Stortford and lived in London. Then my dad met an Australian woman and we ended up migrating to Australia. However, I grew up with a Mauritian-Indian mother when I was young and English wasn’t her first language. She was very much a migrant in the country. Basically, a visitor.

I guess, in all the work I do, it’s about people who are a bit displaced; people who are in a place that isn’t really their home and yet they’re trying to make it their home.

I think all that has come from divisions in my own life. Seeing things in my family that went wrong and then of course we are still migrants in Australia. I was a pommie boy in Australia! I think that between my mum’s experience and then my experience of migrating, most of my adult working life, I’ve worked in marginalised, migrant areas, working as a mentor to young migrant kids. I think that definitely, that film is the sum of a bit of my childhood, a bit of my family and a bit of my journey.

You must be happy with how warmly the film has received across the board?

Absolutely. It’s been a surprise after surprise. You always hope that the film will connect but you never actually know. When you finish a film you’re having test screenings in your own country and everyone’s very cynical and very critical. In the end, you run out of money, you worry, but you’ve got to stop.

Then you put it out into the world and you just don’t know. So, at the Berlin festival, we were just happy to be there. It’s probably the number 1 festival for foreign language films. Well, for ones that don’t have flashy stars – they tend to go to Cannes. Then you go to Berlin for these types of films. Anyway, we were just happy to be there. We had no idea that we’d win 3 prizes and then go on to win at De Niro’s festival, Tribeca. The Laos community are really proud and taken great ownership in it. We just had no idea that any of this would happen.

Kim Mordaunt, second from right, with De Niro (centre) and Mordaunt's wife/producer Sylvia Wilczynski on De Niro's left.

The child performers in the film are fantastic. What sort of outlet is there for them from here? What foundations are there for them?

When the film finished, we set up an education fund, because from where they’re from, if you want an education, you have to pay for it. So straight away we committed to the next 8 years of their education. If they want to go further, we will find a way to help them. The little girl (Loungnam Kaosainam) wanted to do English lessons, so she’s on an English credited course in Laos. We see quite a lot of them actually. The little boy (Sitthiphon Disamoe) was a street kid for a couple of years. When the film started, his life improved greatly because suddenly there was a support group for the first time in his life and he wasn’t a street kid anymore.

We were trying to get him through some schools in Bangkok. He had a foster mother there. We were getting a little bit worried because it was Bangkok and he was dipping out on to the streets a bit, so we started putting the feelers out in Thailand but also Australia as to whether or not anyone would want to foster him.

In the end, Pauline Phoumindr, who is the associate producer on The Rocket, she said, ‘look, my husband and I will give it a go’. We asked the boy if he would like to go to Australia and he said, ‘yes, yes, yes!’, so he’s actually here now. He has his first bedroom now with his own bed. He has this great community around him who adore him, including us. We took him swimming with my son, but we’re really just trying to get him through to a school here and through the migration process.

You appear to have bitten quite a lot off in one go by making a film that was, by your own admission, hard to fund and also in a language that wasn’t your own. It can surely only get easier for you now?

I know! People said to us, ‘don’t work with kids, don’t work with animals, don’t work within a communist government and don’t work with actors no one knows about’. Well, we did all of that and added explosives to it!

Having said that, I think I learnt a really interesting directing lesson through this whole process, which is not to rely on your words or your dialogue, because I think that what happens all-too-often is that as a writer-director, you hear your own dialogue and you go, ‘wow, there’s my dialogue. It sounds great, that’s a take. It’s in the can, let’s move on’.

When I was an actor, I used to see that all the time. All they wanted to hear was their own dialogue. Once you gave it to them, they were happy. Whereas you felt, ‘that was shit. I wasn’t in the moment. It didn’t feel honest. I didn’t feel anything coming from the other actor. There was nothing truthful in that’.

So, in this process, what was interesting was that I tended to work with a lot of improvisation. I used a lot of music and a lot of playing; I gave the kids a lot physicality. I tried to work the scene from the internal and then start playing the physicality out of that. From there, then I’d drop in dialogue. I think that’s the best way to work.

What’s next?

Sylvia (Wilczynski – not only his regular producer but his wife too) and I have just returned from Africa and our next story is told between Australia and Africa. There are two narratives and they come together. It’s something that we’re working on whilst we continue the promotion of The Rocket, which is taking up nearly all day and every day at the moment. For example, we’re just heading out with the Sundance Film Forward mob, who take films out to remote places and screen them there. I’m grateful for all of that. It’s exciting, as we’re just pleased to know that this film is getting out there, no matter how small the releases might be.

The Rocket is in selected cinemas now.

You can find our review of the film here.

Interview by Greg Wetherall (@gregwetherall)

Here is the trailer for the film: 

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