A conversation with filmmakers Kim Mordaunt and Sylvia Wilczynski about their acclaimed coming-of-age drama set in the heart of Laos.
The Rocket has proven to be an absolute audience hit following successful runs at the Berlin International Film Festival (where it was awarded Best Debut Feature) and Tribeca Film Festival (winner of the audience prize). The easy-going film wears its heart on its sleeve in showing a young Laotian boy (Sitthiphon Disamoe) overcoming marginalisation by his family and community, and having to deal with the horrible legacy of Laos’ unasked for role in the Vietnam War. I talk to the delightful filmmakers (and real-life partners), writer/director Kim Mordaunt and producer Sylvia Wilczynski.
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BRANNAVAN GNANALINGAM: I thought I’d start off with a basic question, why film?
KIM MORDAUNT: You go first.
SYLVIA WILCZYNSKI: No, you’re the director.
KM: [laughs]. Why film. I’ve always loved painting and visual arts and storytelling and the world, and I’m interested in the world, and somehow you put them all together. I’m very interested in people and places and mysticism and religion, writing, history and visual arts, and the sensory field.
SW: I think for me, helping people enter another reality or experience that they’d never ordinarily experience. You can do that with any kind of art, but with film, you’ve got sound, vision, light, music. It’s probably the most emotive, and the most immersive of the art forms.
KM: And also because you bring it to a popular audience but at the same time dig deep. There’s a subconscious and weight that you can edge into a theatre.
BG: And why Laos?
KM: That goes back a long way. We lived and worked in Hanoi. Vietnam is quite intense, so we’d zip over to Laos which is the quiet neighbour. It’s really beautiful and [we] got on really well with the people, which led us into finding out about the place. We found out about the history of the Secret War, and we thought, “we’re educated people, how come we don’t know about it?” The most bombed place in the planet, a huge part of the Vietnam War, and we do not know. It was a mixture of liking the people and the place and finding out about its history, which made us even more interested in the people. These people have been through Armageddon and out the other end. There are festivals and spirit, and the people are as funny as hell, and there’s all of this kind of history. That led us to make a documentary called Bomb Harvest (2007), about an Australian bomb disposal specialist. He, as a character, led us into this post-apocalyptic war kind of place. He also was hilarious and he cracked jokes over 500 pound bombs. You could all die any minute.
SW: We spent a lot of time there researching, and building the relationships and getting permission because Laos is still a Communist country. There were a lot of challenges filming there. And then after all of that preparation, we spent two months on the ground with bomb disposal teams.
KM: It was very intimate. I was directing and shooting, and Sylvia was doing just about everything else and sound recording.
SW: We went into very remote areas, met a lot of local people living very traditional lives who still getting injured on a weekly basis from the bombs that remain. And another story thread in the film was the children who collect the bombs to sell the scrap metal. Because it’s so poor from the war, there’s an awful irony in that people will take the risk to collect the bomb scrap metal because it’s such high quality metal. Good strong American metal. We spent a lot of time with the kids in the remote areas and we were really struck by how resourceful they are. They’re earning a living from an early age. [However] we could not film children collecting bomb material. Ethically you cannot do that. So we met a lot of children who were doing that, and then dramatised areas of their lives. And found a safe area of ground, had it checked out by the bomb disposal team.
KM: They completely entered into their own imaginations, into their own emotional memories, and they were reliving it beautifully and naturalistically. You’d put a little narrative and detail into it. It was so exciting for us.
SW: For Kim, he’s been a documentary maker—we both have—but he’s also been an actor. So for him, as someone with a drama background, as well as documentary, it was a really exciting way to bring an amazingly affecting personal story to the screen.
KM: It actually taught me a lot. The kids were teaching me, “shouldn’t you be directing in this way?” They were making you work in a particular way that I’ll probably carry with me in all of my work.
SW: And another thing was we went to a number of rocket festivals in Laos.
BG: So it’s a big thing in Laos?
SW: It is. Our final scenes in Bomb Harvest were actually filmed at a rocket festival.
KM: A few of the explosions in The Rocket are real-life ones we got from Bomb Harvest.
BG: I figured it’d be hard to fake those.
SW: It’s an intriguing festival. We went to about five or six of these, which are held at the end of the dry season in the villages to provoke the rain gods. We thought this is an amazing metaphor for the most bombed country in the planet shooting rockets back into the sky. We had to convince our bomb disposal specialist to go. He was like, “I’m not going to that crazy festival. It’s too unpredictable. I’d rather defuse a thousand tonne bomb than go to that festival.” But he did come and it was a really powerful scene. We finished the film and it did really well and screened all over the world.
KM: And raised a lot of money for bomb disposal.
SW: We obviously had a lot to do with the Laos community both in Laos and in Australia (and all over the world). One of the main responses from the Laos community was, “this film is great but the thing that is most powerful is those kids. Make another film, but make it about the kids.”
KM: “Have a kid protagonist.”
SW: And the Laos community said, “we don’t have a film industry yet.”
KM: “We don’t want to be invisible.”
BG: Was there a worry you’d be seen simply as these Australians going over to Laos?
KM: We were much more worried about it than they were.
SW: I generally think a film about a place or country should be made by people who have lived in that country, and who are from that country. I worked for SBS for many years, and the whole ethos of everything you do is having people tell their own stories. If there isn’t an industry, the world doesn’t know about that country.
KM: I’m also a believer. There might be someone who might want to go make a film in Mauritius [Mordaunt is half-Mauritian], and if they’ve been living there and working there for the last five years, they’d probably make a better film than I would, even though I’m Mauritian. Because you can go and engage with the place. As much as your blood, you need to actually engage with a place. It’s an interesting question.
SW: I don’t think you should go, “that’s an exotic country, why don’t I go and make a film there.’”
BG: Only God Forgives?
SW: We won’t go there. Where were we, we took that request seriously and collaborated with Pauline Phoumindr, who was born in Laos and who left as a war refugee and came to Australia in the ’70s.
KM: By the way, everybody told us we were mad too. We had all of these scripts that are English speaking because we had been developing them through Screen Australia. “You’ve got an English speaking script, you can put a star in it, this should be your first feature. What the hell are you doing?”
SW: We were making something in the Laos language, with no stars, when the funding you can access from Australia is limited because it’s tied to Australian spend. Everyone said it was a mad thing to do. But we felt driven to do it. There were so many elements, the legacy of war theme… also the other thing we started witnessing over the many years there [was how] the traditional people were being kicked off their land by multinational hydroelectric projects or mines—gold mines, copper mines, sapphire mines.
KM: Australia’s got their hands in the lot. Very quietly.
SW: Australia’s involved in a lot of good projects, but also somewhere it’s not being done ethically. We thought for a start, we were allies with the country that bombed Laos, so it’s our responsibility to learn more about it. Australia is making billions from all of these resources in this very poor country, where most of the money leaves the country and goes to multinational interests.
KM: Going beyond economic opportunism, you can get an understanding a little bit deeper than that. We put up all of those arguments.
BG: It’s a forgotten war, isn’t it [Laos was not formally involved in the Vietnam War]?
KM: It really is.
BG: More bombs than World War II.
KM: Or Vietnam.
SW: Most bombed country per capita in history. Two million tonnes of bombs, three million people. That’s over half a tonne of bombs for every person in the country. It’s insane.
KM: It would have been Armageddon.
BG: I just saw [Rithy Panh’s] The Missing Picture, and Cambodia had half a million tonnes of bombs [by the Americans]. The scale of that war…
KM: No wonder people just dug into the ground for obvious reasons. You try and bury yourself.
BG: You treat the bomb stuff quite blackly, e.g. when they’re hiding in the bomb truck.
SW: That was something from spending two months with the bomb disposal team, the Aussies and the locals.
KM: The locals are bloody hilarious.
SW: The locals have a hilarious sense of humour. The Australians and the New Zealanders in Laos all get along with them really well. They love a drink, they love to tell a joke, and laugh in the face of death.
KM: We pulled it back a little bit. We could have put in fart gags. In Bomb Squad, they’re all carrying a thousand pounder and someone farts. “Who dropped the bomb? You dropped the bomb.” We’re carrying a live bomb here.
SW: For us, that was another thing that was very enticing. Of course, there are all of these background issues, but most people don’t want to see an issue film. People want to enter another reality, laugh, and care about characters, and that’s how they’ll come to care about the bigger picture as well.
KM: Laotian humour, funnily enough, kind of has a popular edge to it. Even though they haven’t seen a lot of popular cinema. There was a scene in Bomb Harvest when the specialist said “do you know Brad Pitt.” And they all go, “no.” They don’t even know who Brad Pitt is, and yet they have a type of populist black humour.
SW: That could help a Western audience see an Asian language film.
KM: It’s tricky as hell to put all of that together.
SW: We collaborated with Pauline Phoumindr. She’s Laotian-Australian, and was a translator and consultant on Bomb Harvest. We all knew we wanted to make another film together after Bomb Harvest. So she became an associate producer on The Rocket and was very involved right through the scripting and development, and on the shoot she was tied to Kim on the hip. As we speak, she’s showing the film to the Laotian government.
BG: Do you know how it’s going?
SW: We don’t know yet. It has been invited by the Luang Prabang Film Festival, which is pretty much the only film festival in Laos. But of course, now it has to go through a censorship process. We also hope it will screen in the two cinemas.
KM: They might want to chop a little bit out, which in this case, doesn’t matter. The main thing is the people take some ownership over it, which they were doing when we showed it in New York, and Berlin, and Sydney. In Sydney, we had 300 Laotians come to the screening, and the Ambassador, and they loved it.
SW: They all feel it’s a very honest representation. That has been the biggest compliment—the Laotian community feels very proud of it.
KM: That was our biggest worry. If they hadn’t, it would have been terrifying. I was sweating profusely thinking, “are they going to or are they not.” They are, which is a huge weight off our shoulders.
SW: We had a lot of involvement with the Laos community right through the whole process. A Laotian crew and cast. Thailand borders Laos and they speak almost the same language, and we had a lot of Thai crew there. There were more Thai and Laos crew than there were Australian by far.
BG: Obviously the film wouldn’t have been a success without Sitthiphon. How did you find him?
SW: He was extraordinary.
KM: It was a long process. We looked and we looked and we looked at people. We actually heard about him through a Thai casting agent called Raweeporn Srimonju, and she’s someone who spends a lot of time with traditional people in the mountains of Laos, Burma, and Thailand.
SW: As well as being an extremely experienced casting agent, she does a lot of big films, but her personal passion is finding people who aren’t stars.
KM: She had heard about this street kid. We met and he was just this ball of life. He was resourceful and could do anything. He was a great talker. He would wheel and deal on every level.
SW: Nothing fazes him. An amazing spirit.
BG: Like in the market scene?
KM: All of that was scripted, but only after I met him. We met Sitthiphon, and the big thing was whether he could carry the internal parts of the story. The emotional journey. There was really intense screen-testing. There was even one point, where I wasn’t sure he was right. Being a street kid for that long, he has a guard. He has to guard himself.
SW: He doesn’t really show his vulnerable side.
KM: After the first week I was really sure, but it was almost like he had read my unsureness. And as soon as he did, he started sharing and opening and started doing some really beautiful, intimate work. We’ve got two things going here: we’ve got the survival external, and the deeply emotional, which really aligns well with the character of Ahlo. Sitthiphon in his own personal life was essentially abandoned, and very alone in himself before he found a community on the street. That’s kind of the story of Ahlo. He gets abandoned. All of that seemed to align well in the end. It was a long process.
SW: Because of the life he led, it took a while for him to let his guard down, and feel safe and protected. That was very much a priority. It would be anyway if you’ve got two children in your cast. You need to create a warm, nurturing environment, because it can be quite overwhelming. Apart from being the right thing to do, it enables the kids to feel comfortable and to share what they really feel. They were just extraordinary those two kids.
KM: Even the Mum, the grandma, and Purple [Thep Phongam], we always had that mind; that these people would have to become mentors [and] their family. If you create that safe environment, you get much braver work because you can recover in a place of trust. For example, Thep, he’s such a sweet man. After the first time we met, we just held hands. He’s the sweetest person. His instinct with the boy was to always be very gentle with him. I said to him, “I need to get the GI into you. You hung out with the GIs and held an AK-47.” In order for him to be a bit more rough and tumble, we had to get Sitthiphon to really trust him.
They all come from a tradition of soap opera. We had a three week period of just trying to bring people into a more internal place.
SW: Most of their experience of being in Thai movies and soaps—Thai people are hilarious, but their TV is seriously “bing”, “pop.”
KM: There’ll be a fifteen minute scene of serious emotion, but then a “zzzzip.”
SW: Sitthiphon, bless him, is really over-acting and playing to everybody, so it was all about pulling that back. I think the cast astonished themselves, by doing a kind of performance they’d never done before. Kim had seen that in the auditions, so he knew they’d be able to go there. They were all just amazing.
KM: There were all of these parallels to their own lives. Once you discover that as a director, you go, “okay, no matter what they’re doing in their performance, if we can tap into who they really are, and what they’ve experienced, they can live quietly in those moments, they’ve got it.” They were up for the challenge and it was great. Not easy, though. There were plenty of times I was thinking, on a low budget, there isn’t time. You either get it on the day [or not at all]. There might be a chance for a small pick-up at the end of the shoot, but basically if you don’t get it, you don’t get it.
BG: The camerawork looks amazing. I understand there’s a Kiwi connection [Andrew Commis] there.
SW: He’s kind of an honorary Kiwi. He was born in Australia, but he moved between Australia and New Zealand. He owns a house just outside of Auckland, and he’s done a lot of work here.
KM: He’s an amazing DP. We looked at a lot of DPs’ work. With not a lot of features, you can pick whoever you want ultimately. What Andrew had, we looked at a lot of his documentary work because I knew we wanted to do a lot of on the shoulder work, just to have that synergy happen. He’s very strong on the shoulder. And then his light is beautiful. He paints light beautifully.
BG: Did you use the mountains?
KM: Some of it is natural light, so we were going back and forth chasing.
SW: Which added another challenge. Because we were low-budget, we had to rely on natural light. We had to shoot a scene here to get morning light, and then go right over on the other side of the valley to get the afternoon light.
KM: It made it even tighter for the actual directing, ultimately. By the time we got to the actors, there was very little time left. He was extraordinary with light.
BG: The conclusion, the rocket festival, is pretty remarkable. Was it scary?
KM: We had filmed quite a lot of rocket festivals for Bomb Harvest. For this one, we knew we couldn’t take kids and a crew into a real one.
SW: People die all of the time at those things. They’re just mental.
KM: A rocket just slips on its side and fires through the crowd. The way we thought we could do it, which was kind of nuts, was Andrew and I went over to Laos and went to a real rocket festival and filmed it, and I looked at it afterwards and storyboarded and looked at the script and looked for engaging moments and what we could add into the footage. We came up with a plan six months later with our crew, with the same location, rebuilt the towers, a bit smaller but you’d never know, and with just fewer people as extras. You just film the mini-beats of the drama and put them into the documentary footage.
SW: It meant you had that real frenzied madness you get in a real rocket festival that you can’t recreate with extras, let alone extras who had never acted before, so it was constantly moving back and forth between the real and the fictional, which gives it that energy. It also enabled us to do something that was pretty huge on a small budget. We couldn’t have recreated that with visual effects.
KM: What we ended up with was quite epic there, through the documentary. It was tricky, but definitely the way to go. I’d do it again. It was quite fun.
SW: I don’t want to name [it] because I don’t want to bag anyone out, but there was film that was set not in America, but funded by an American studio. It had a lot of money, it had a big budget, and was based on a well-known novel. But everything was recreated. They built sets and it just felt sterile. The street scenes, you could see they were actors walking down the street. People weren’t selling things on the side of the street. There isn’t that chaos.
KM: Not that you can smell it, but you need to be able to smell it on the screen. Then you get in there.
SW: That film would probably have been a better film if it had a lower budget, so that it would have had to go into real existing places. You can still construct certain elements.
KM: We filmed in real places in The Rocket, but we also filmed foregrounds, so that we could have real work areas. That’s a really good way to work.
SW: It is harder, you don’t have control. There’s always some mug at the back of a market scene waving, but you can always find a way around it. It’s more challenging, but you get much better results.
BG: Have you been amazed by the reaction?
KM: God, yeah. You never know. Berlin was our first big screening. We had the kids there. The kids had come from Laos. A lot of the cast—
SW: And people were cheering and crying and laughing all of the way through it. First of all, getting the audience reaction was great, and then you start hearing a bit of a buzz around and word of mouth, and you realise people really like the film. It’s fantastic. And then the second last day of the festival, we got the Amnesty Prize in the morning, the Crystal Bear in the afternoon, and then the Best Debut Feature that night.
KM: We nearly fell over. We just thought we were being invited to the ceremony because we had won the Crystal Bear. We were just sitting there grinning being there.
SW: The debut feature prize is in the main big awards. The Crystal Bear is in a smaller ceremony in the afternoon. All of our heroes of cinema were sitting there in the Palast, and then they came on to present the Best Debut Feature and said, “one film rocketed to the top.” Kim, Pauline, and I were looking at each other thinking, “what, there’s another film?” And then they played the clip and it was amazing.
KM: A special moment in life.
BG: And then it continued on.
SW: Tribeca was astonishing actually.
KM: I had no idea Tribeca was so powerful.
SW: We had been a bit concerned about the response we’d get in America, because there’s a lot of sensitivity around the Secret War. There are some people who say it didn’t happen or that those bombs aren’t really from America. We had had that reaction with Bomb Harvest. One person stood up and said, “how do you know all of these bombs are really there and are American?” Well, we stepped over hundreds of them, and it says US Airforce on them.
KM: It’s a pretty big fabrication.
SW: We were nervous about it. But audiences loved it. They loved Grandma. She’s like a New York Jewish grandma, people loved her every time she was on screen. They cheered. It was astonishing.
KM: New York, it’s a really interesting time and place. America has been at war, they’re exhausted by war. So they really embraced a film that had a kind of reconciliation at heart. Somehow it fell in nicely there. Total surprise.