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Suzanne Lynch

Festival reporter with coverage from Festivals in New york and Northern America
Next on the list will be Tribeca: watch out for the dailies.


Alchemy in Invisible Worlds: Interview with “The Rocket” director Kim Mordaunt

Both “The Rocket” director Kim Mordaunt and his 10-year old protagonist – Ahlo – have a gift for turning the rarely-seen countryside of Laos into a playground for the imagination. The film is a visually engaging, triumph-of-the-underdog piece, where ingenuity can summon beauty and power from a land littered with military debris.

As the film opens, we witness the birth of young Ahlo and his twin brother, who is stillborn. According to Laotian superstition, twins are said to bring luck and misfortune to a family --with one twin carrying luck, the other misfortune. Ahlo’s mother adamantly refuses the pleas of his grandmother to kill the child, and Ahlo's dead twin is kept a secret.

Forced to leave their village and accept a settlement package (that somehow never materializes) from a corporation intent on building a dam, the family sets out for a new home. On this journey, which continues on towards a local Rocket Festival, many difficulties are encountered – and Ahlo must prove to himself and his family that he is indeed- the lucky twin.

Fest 21 (Suzanne Lynch) sat down with director Kim Mordaunt to speak about the origins of the film and its setting.

Fest 21 (Suzanne Lynch) What was your inspiration for The Rocket? How did the film come about?

KM: Well the producer’s and my relationship with Laos goes back ten years. We lived and worked in North Vietnam, in Hanoi and traveled to Laos a lot and sort of fell in the love with the people, the place… and felt, as educated people, quite ashamed that we did not know anything about this country, the war, its history, what was happening with the economics. Australia has a very opportunistic relationship with Asia and Laos – got a lot of industry there.

Anyhow years ago we ended up making a documentary called Bomb Harvest, which was about an Australian bomb disposal specialist. The sort of sub-narrative of that film was about the kids who collect the bombs for him.

The reaction to that film all around the world was really good. But what people were saying (especially in the Laos community in Australia, and we collaborate a lot with the Laos community in Australia as our associate producer is Laos –Pauline Phayvanh Phoumindr) was next time around can we not make this an Anglo film as it usually is but let’s make the film from both a Lao perspective and a child’s perspective. And so we collaborated with Pauline again and so seeded the idea for this film.

The other thing the Laos community said to us was there is no funded film industry in Laos and if you don’t make this film with us, no one else will at the moment, and we don’t want to be invisible. We are always invisible.

Fest 21: What did you learn in the process of making this film? What was your greatest discovery?

KM: I’d say my greatest discovery is that once you connect with people, with a human story, a family, people, what their needs are, real needs in terms of their relationships with each other,  it’s an amazing way to entice people into history, into politics, by telling a great human story.

Creatively that is what I learned most was the more I became interested in the people, then the backdrop to the film: the themes, the landscape, the history, became very powerful metaphors for personal stories – balancing this is the poetry of cinema.

For me, I’m probably a bit dyslexic – I see the world visually so it was also a great discovery for me to learn that I can tell stories visually that are deeply emotional and which have bigger global context. 

When would you say the film takes place? What is the time setting?

KS: The film is set now and the issues inside the human story are real and current.  We had an article by a fella named John Anderson who said that the remnants of war looked “too fresh” and we had made a “period piece.”  Wel,  I wish John would not make these grand statements based off some quick Google session and actually go and clamber around those bombs like the producer Sylvia Wilczynski and I did for many months at a time over several years when researching and shooting our feature documentary “Bomb Harvest”. Bombs are like fossils  - they can sit underground for many generations then a flood or a farmer uncovers the bomb and, apart from some rust, some look like they could have been dropped yesterday – body and tail intact and still full explosive and many still live – metal used for bombs is excellent which is why it is collected and sold as scrap.  A third of the 2 million tons of bombs that were dropped didn’t detonate – this isn’t something that won’t go away quickly.  Its estimated that of the 80 million cluster bombs that remained after the war, only 500,000 have been cleared – that still leaves 79.5 million to clear. There is nothing “period” about that or people (mostly kids) that are maimed or killed right now in Laos from this remnants of war.  I’m addressing this comment by John Anderson as it really upset me and many others as there are so many good Americans, Australians, Brits and people from all around the world who are giving support to the cleaning up this mess.

And in terms of John’s comments on the twins.  He might want to spend some extended time on the ground researching this like we did. We went to at least 10 Akha villages, some very remote and also talked to key Akha consutlants who confirmed that at the time of the boys birth in the film the practice of getting rid of twins was still practiced by some of the more traditionally minded in remote villages.  And if he needs it on paper, John might want to also look at the 2010 UN report on religion in Laos which states that twins had to be removed from a village to avoid violence.  It’s no different to domestic violence in Australia or anywhere  - most cases are unreported – but that doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.  

The producer and my relationship with Laos goes back 10 years and our research is thorough, hands-on and on the ground.   Even all the characters in the rocket are based on real people, even Purple who we met in a remote village in Laos.

Fest 21: What is the political message of the film?

KS: First up it’s a personal journey of a boy, through his grief and his need for great courage to reconcile with his family and with himself.   But I guess the main political message of the film is for multinational corporations to be more ethical in their business relationships with Laos, and all of the developing world – that compensation to traditional people and to the environment needs to be long-term.  Traditional people, their histories, their stories are as precious as any and we have to help them not vanish into industrialization.

Fest 21: What role do you think superstition still plays in Laotian culture?

KS: From what I have observed over the last 10 years is that superstition is very alive in Laos, mostly Buddhist and Animist where there are good and bad sprits humming in everything that lives.  I guess when one relies on the natural world, day to day to survive it then takes on a whole new meaning, and when this parallels with such a turbulent violent history then superstition can find even greater potency.  I remember the Laos bomb disposal team that we followed for Bomb Harvest would always leave their shoes outside the huts  – this was to keep the bad spirits out.   And as you see in the film they refer to bombs as “sleeping tigers” as tigers are believed to have a spirit that can make people disappear, like big bombs can.   Another example that you see in The Rocket when they give the boy a nickname  (an undesirable name) – this is so the bad sprits won’t desire the baby and take it away – the real name is given later.  


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About Suzanne Lynch

Lynch Suzanne

Suzanne Lynch is a New-York based PR/Marketing consultant and actress who enjoys teaching private French lessons ( in her spare time.

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