Filmmaker seeks opimism in downtrodden Laos |

Filmmaker seeks opimism in downtrodden Laos

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
The Laotian film "The Rocket" shows today at Aspen Filmfest.
Tom Greenwood |

Aspen Filmfest

“The Rocket”

Thursday at 2:30 p.m.

Isis Theater

As an Australian who lived for a decade in Vietnam, Kim Mordaunt cultivated a keen interest in the relationship between Australia and Asia. “Constantly hearing the Australian government say, ‘Asia’s our neighbor; we need to work with Asia,’ was unusual,” he said. Mordaunt added that in the time, he and his partner Sylvia Wilczynski lived in Hanoi, “One thing we noticed was a lot of industry moving into the country — gold, copper, hydro. A lot of the business relationships were ethical. And a lot were not — they were opportunists.”

Mordaunt, whose father is Anglo and whose mother is from Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean, wanted to be a different kind of neighbor to Asia — more cooperative, more understanding of issues that are important to Asians. A graduate of the film program at the University of Technology Sydney, Mordaunt made the 2007 documentary “Bomb Harvest,” about the disposal of bombs that had been dropped by the U.S. military on Laos. A segment of the film focused on the local children who seek out the bombs so they can sell them for scrap metal.

“Everyone talked about that one bit about the kids collecting the bomb scrap metal. The reaction was: That was the most emotive part of the film,” said Mordaunt, who grew up on a banana and avocado farm in New South Wales and now lives in Sydney. “But it was very much an Anglo perspective. Pauline Phoumindr, our translator and cultural consultant, said we should do something from a Lao perspective.”

“The Rocket,” which shows at 2:30 today at Aspen Filmfest, takes a thoroughly Lao point of view. At its debut at the Berlin Film Festival — where it won three awards, including best debut and the Crystal Bear — a member of the German consulate was stunned to learn that the filmmaker was not from Laos.

“We feel like its theirs to own and share,” Mordaunt said of Laotians, adding that 400 people from Laos were in attendance at the film’s premiere. “We made a decision right from the beginning — we’re going to show the good, the bad and the ugly, and give it all a lot of respect.”

“The Rocket” opens with a Laotian superstition — that when twins are born, one of them comes with a bad-luck curse. Ahlo’s childhood thus plays out under a dark cloud: When his village is uprooted to make way for a dam project, when family tragedy strikes, Ahlo’s shrill grandmother is there to remind the community that Ahlo is the source of the misfortune. The boy refuses to buy into the myth and believes he has contributions to make in improving his family’s situation. On the path to the new village, Ahlo picks up some comrades who bolster his belief in himself: Kia, a little girl with a huge spirit, and her eccentric relative, Uncle Purple, a devout James Brown fan. Their travels end at a village rocket festival, where Ahlo is determined to have his ultimate triumph.

Mordaunt, who earned two top honors at Tribeca, gets all facets of rural Lao life into “The Rocket.” There is the downside — poverty, government indifference, squabbling among the villagers. But Mordaunt was determined to portray the optimism that he found in Laotians while he was making “Bomb Harvest” and doing research for “The Rocket.”

“The country has experienced huge adversity — its poor, its war history,” he said. “But probably because of the Buddhism it’s filled with a lot of positive energy. People want to break cycles and move forward. We’d see the poverty, but people invited us into their homes, played music. We wanted to inject that into the storytelling. Ethnography sometimes focuses only on the grim. But what makes people real is the ability to survive. In Laos, there’s always festivals happening. Festivals about fertility and death, but they’re not always these pious and grim events. They’re fun and terrifying.”

Mordaunt felt pressure to make the film less specifically Lao. Backers of “The Rocket” suggested he cast well-known Asian actors. Mordaunt resisted; the only established name he used was Thep Phongam, an experienced Thai actor who plays Uncle Purple. The rest of the cast were people with minimal acting experience.

“You’re always looking for something raw, real,” Mordaunt said. “We’re just trying to cast the right people for the role.”

Mordaunt’s instincts have been validated. Sitthiphon Disamoe, an orphaned street performer who stars as Ahlo, earned the best actor award at the Tribeca Film Festival. Another find was Loungnam Kaosainam, who lights up the screen as Kia. Mordaunt discovered her in a drama group in Vientiane, the capital of Laos.

“All the excitement, the sadness, the humor, the grief, you see pass through her eyes,” Mordaunt said. “Watching her eyes was like watching the whole movie. She was still at that age where she’s totally unself-conscious, very unaffected, very much herself, living in her imagination. That’s the kind of thing a director is looking for.”

The rocket festival that closes the film is a touch of genuine Laotian culture. Mordaunt said such festivals are everywhere in the country, held at the end of the dry season. Laotians believe that sending rockets as high into the sky as possible, and exploding them in spectacular fashion, will bring the rain.

“It’s ancient. It’s a necessity,” Mordaunt said of the festivals. “Most of Laos is subsistence-based. They need the rain.

“But it’s also metaphorical. Because of their war history, the shooting rockets into the sky.”

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