Australian filmmaker Kim Morduant’s debut feature The Rocket opens with the birth of twins in a Laotian village.
While Mordaunt’s protagonist, Ahlo survives, his twin brother is stillborn. According to Laotian culture, twins bring both luck and misfortune. While one brings luck, the other brings misfortune and so they are abandoned or killed on birth. But Ahlo’s mother pleads with his grandmother to let him live and keep the birth and death of his twin brother a secret.
Mordaunt follows Ahlo as he bears the brunt of the villagers’ superstition that he is responsible for all the bad luck that descends upon the place. How 10-year-old Ahlo fights back by making a rocket to compete in the village Rocket Festival and prove that he is the lucky twin forms the crux of the film.
The Rocket (click here to watch the trailer of the film) won 3 major awards at the Berlin International Film Festival (Crystal Bear, Best First Feature and the Amnesty International Film Prize) and also at the Tribeca International Film Festival (Best Feature, Best Actor and the Audience Award) and is also Australia’s official entry to this year’s foreign film category of the Academy Awards.
Born and raised in Australia, Mordaunt has an Indian connection. “My mother is Mauritian-Indian,” says the good-looking Mordaunt, with a twinkle in his light brown eyes. “Her ancestors are based out of Mumbai and Kolkata. I look a lot like my dad, but my sister looks very Indian.” His six-year-old son, Rowan, has “very Indian eyes”, he says.
Happy to be in Mumbai, where his first film is competing in the international competitions section of the 15th Mumbai International Film Festival, Mordaunt talks to THE WEEK about the inspiration behind his first film, the challenges of filming it and about the dynamics of working with children.
How is Mumbai treating you?
(laughs) Fantastic. I am so happy to be here [in Mumbai] which incidentally is home to a large part of my mom’s family. And the festival has been so kind. When the film was being screened for the first time here, I went in feeling really sick in the stomach. I was very nervous, but when I saw that the hall was full, I was overwhelmed. They had to send some people back because it was housefull. I am really happy with this kind of response.
How did the idea of The Rocket come about?
I have spent almost 10 years in Laos because I was working on a documentary called Bomb Harvest, which was on an Australian bomb disposal specialist, who was working in Laos, which is the world’s most bombed area. Living among the Laotian people gave me a lot of stories, which were so interesting that we thought we should make a movie on them. But everyone I knew discouraged me saying that I was being impulsive and even mad. They said, ‘you ought to be crazy to make a film in Lao language about Laos, which no one cares about’. This was exactly why I was making the movie, so that the stories of this place be known to others around the world.
The protagonist of the film is a 10-year-old boy, who deals with a sense of loss and is out to prove to the world that is not unlucky. This is a complex emotion for a child.
How hard was it to extract those wonderful performances from the children?
The main thing about working with children is that you should be flexible and you should be ready to play along. We searched a lot to find our Ahlo and finally found him in a 10-year-old Thai street kid, Sitthiphon Disamoe (Ki). When we met the children, both Ki and Loungnam Kaosainam, who plays his friend in the film, we were pleasantly surprised that both of them had a strong sense of self. Kaosainam was only eight, but she had such a strong imagination. Both of them knew who they were and that helped us a lot. The main thing is to channel their unlimited energy in the right way, be ready to play along with them and be ready to change or replan according to their mood.
How hard was it to work on a film in a language you are not proficient in?
I am familiar with the Lao language as I have been around for 10 years. But yes, I am not proficient in it. But as a filmmaker I feel that it is never about words. Although I did work with an interpreter, I never felt crippled because I couldn’t understand the language. In films, I believe that it is all about the emotions, the eyes, the body language that does all the talking. Good cinema has a universal visual language. I would be happiest if someone watches my movie with no subtitles and can get exactly what I intend to say with just the acting, the emotions and the music.
What were the challenges you faced while filming The Rocket?
While we were shooting, my biggest concern was the safety of my cast and crew. In fact, my team used to say jokingly that I am not the director, but the safety officer (laughs). Funding was also not easy for a film that stars non-actors and is in a language very few people in the world understands. Also, shooting in Laos was not all that easy because of the Communist government. But because my documentary was quite known to the government, that made up for a lot of support from them. Also, capturing the Rocket Festival was a hard task. It was impossible to take the children to the real festival. So we took footage of it and recreated it. Some parts of the film were shot in Thailand.
The film is narrated from Ahlo’s perspective. Was it difficult to write from a 10-year-old’s state of mind?
When I write I try and become that part. While writing this film, I spent a lot of time with my 6-year-old child and my sister’s three children. I played with them and interacted with them to understand their perspective to the most mundane things. Also, things that happen to us as children stay with us for a long time. For instance, I had lost my parents at the age of 10, and in the film Ahlo loses his mother. So I drew a lot on my experiences as a young 10-year-old trying to deal with the loss of my parents. Loss is a universal emotion, so it was not that tough.
What has been you personal learning from The Rocket?
I believe that it is best to surrender and remain an eternal student. While filming this movie, I learnt a lot about the people, their history, my country’s relationship with Laos, their spiritual beliefs, culture and so many things. Creatively, I would say, I learnt to stay in the moment.
A feature film set is a huge machine with a whole lot of people involved. While filming, we tend to get carried away by the script and text in hand or the technique and forget to see what is in front of us. I have learnt to let the technique be and use whatever is available to me in its entire spontaneity.
What are your upcoming projects?
The response to The Rocket was so overwhelming that the whole team is still in shock. We never expected it to travel all around the world and win such applause. I am extremely happy that the story about a little Lao family is connecting world over.
I have shown it to the Lao people and they are very proud of it. They feel they have been largely invisible to the rest of the world and my film is making them known.
As for the future, I am working with my producer Sylvia Wilczynski on a love story, which is also set in a war backdrop.