In the age of information and modern technology, it often feels there’s little that we don’t have access to. Western culture is one of privilege, and we often take it for granted. It’s hard to think of a world without education, modern healthcare, clean water, all of these things that we often deem as human rights. That’s why Kim Mordaunt’s The Rocket, a fiction film involving the people of Laos, is an eye-opening examination of their surprisingly untouched culture, a look at a land left behind by modern technology and industry.
In anticipation of The Rocket’s release, we were lucky enough to have a talk with Kim Mordaunt in the interview below, about his motivation behind the project, and his process whilst creating it.
Flickfeast: One of the many reasons The Rocket was a great experience for me, is that it explored a culture mostly ignored on film, it was very much a new experience in that regard. How did you go about achieving this?
Kim Mordaunt: I’m not the kind of person who would just jump into a place, and reveal everything about it. It came about from life taking me there 10 years ago, the only way you can do it is from that country’s perspective, from living that, so it all came from 10 years ago, living in Hanoi, Vietnam… we loved Lao in particular, spent a lot of time there when we were making Bomb Harvest, so we had to dip in and out. Making a film in Lao is a very long process, you need permission from the government, ress department… even getting access to the bomb disposal teams was a long haul. When we were making the film, which was a vérité documentary, we didn’t want to just shoot for a few days, we wanted to spend a lot of time with that bomb team, 3 and a half months in really remote locations, from morning til night. It was really about getting in there on the ground, and collaborating with the Lao community, both in Australia, and in Lao. It was about them looking at our work, honing our work, giving us feedback, until it felt truthful. It’s been a long process, but a wonderful education, both me and Sylvia feel very privileged and lucky, getting to spend so much time in that community, given the chance to get to know that community.
FF: The Rocket may not be a documentary, but as you previously stated, it’s very much based on your experiences around the people of Laos as you made your first film, Bomb Harvest. Was there at any point a consideration to make it a Documentary? What made you lean towards a fiction film?
KM: Personally, I’ve always been drawn to fiction. I went through a strange circle in life. Started as an actor, made shorts, trained in London, most of my head was in fiction, drama. Then I got a job teaching drama, in an indigenous art school, and at a university. So, I wanted to learn about Australia, learn what had happened to the indigenous people here, life took me into documentary. So, I don’t think we ever thought The Rocket was going to be a documentary. I like the freedom of fiction, I could bring together a really good story, add what’s happening socially, ancient and modern, pull something together that would be really meaningful, whilst reaching a larger audience. We knew we wanted to make a fiction film, and we’d already made a documentary in Lao. The other thing when making Bomb Harvest, is the kids who collect the bomb scrap, we actually couldn’t stand there and film a kid digging up a live bomb, so we dramatised a few of those scenes in the documentary, at that point we realised they really can act, we’d like to continue this experience, working with these Lao kids. So it was definitely an extension of the documentary, that made us want to do drama. But I think, documentary and drama, that have more like, than unlike.
FF: I’d definitely agree with that documentary point. The most successful documentaries seem tell stories, seem to be absorbed into a subject, as opposed to objectively telling the audience information, via exposition.
KM: For me, the way Documentary form was heading, at least in this country, it was becoming more information based, we even had people claiming that Bomb Harvest was an information piece, I was sure it was an emotive piece, I always tried to chase emotion. Thus I said next time, I need to follow it in terms of emotion, and I think things are changing again in documentary style. I want to make emotional, lyrical films more than anything. I was finding I couldn’t do that as much as I wanted to. I found that one thing documentary does other than fiction, is it keeps you in the moment. On a film set things can be very stylistic with not much substance, it’s all not very in the moment, and documentary can teach you involvement, it’s a necessity to be involved, shifting in what’s happening in front of you. I brought that to my fiction making. It does keep it more lively.
FF: Would you say that in most aspects, your actors highly reflect your characters due to the society that shaped them?
KM: I think I knew because we were working with new actors, with a few experienced ones, I just knew that the main thing was I’d need to find people whose lives could align with characters in the film, to draw upon real emotions, searching for truth that way. It wasn’t easy, from the first day of rehearsal. They came with that classic tradition of slapstick, soap opera, that wasn’t what we were trying to do. I attempted to teach them method acting, everything I knew about acting, they embraced it, worked in a different manner, more intimacy in their voice, from the internal, whilst retaining who they were. That was a long process, there wasn’t a bad bone in a body of anyone in the cast. Straight away, the two children felt in a very safe place, when you create a safe place for young actors or any actors, they will really delve into the best that they can do. Everyone worked hard, to delve into a type of acting they’d never known before, the whole thing was a huge gamble, a giant experiment, you never know what the result will be. There was so much good will in the cast, it all came together so remarkably well.
FF: One concept that your film approaches quite well, is this idea that Laos is quite an untouched culture, left behind by 21st century modernisations. Do you think to essentially live in a different era, is a good thing for the people of Laos?
KM: Well, like in the film, I think there are pros and cons, like in the film, grandma doesn’t want to go, but the mum clearly thinks there’s opportunities. And there are opportunities, modern healthcare, education, clean water, all of those things are progressively good things. The trouble is, a lot of the time, it doesn’t bring those things. It also brings poverty, ghettos, a decaying environment, it’s different in every situation. It’s different for every generation, mum and dad kind of believe half of what grandma believes, or half the other way. The film isn’t trying to say that the big business will never happen, it will, it’s just when it’ll happen. To give little back to the society you’re taking materials from, is not a hard thing to do. When I was doing my research for the film, I’d talked to ex-employees at hydro-dams, the biggest problem is that there’s little to no compensation given. We’re talking people who have lived a certain way for centuries, thousands of years, if you’re going change that, it can be very hurtful, damaging, displacing for those people. You need to consider that societies welfare for at least 5 years, if you don’t want something to turn into a ghetto, where people aren’t unemployed, drinking, engaged in domestic violence, classic ghetto situations. These things occur too frequently in all modern societies, I know that’s the case for Australia, and I’m sure your homeland of the UK is no different.
FF: How would you sell your film to an audience in one sentence? What can viewers look for in The Rocket?
KM: I’d look for the great determination of a child, in a country that’s been deeply hurt, that wants to find positivity again.
I’d like to thank Kim Mordaunt for his time, in what was a truly engaging, and informative chat on the state of the people of Laos, and on his incredibly emotive and insightful film, The Rocket. The Rocket is due for release in the UK on the 14th of March.