When filmmaker Kim Mordaunt learned that the Asian nation of Laos is the most-bombed country in the world, per capita, he was determined to find out more. His investigation led him to a documentary film, Bomb Harvest, about the nation’s troubled history, and then to a feature film, The Rocket, that tells the story of Laos on a much more intimate scale.
The Rocket, Mordaunt’s debut feature, is about a young boy’s journey across the country with an eccentric makeshift family in tow, in an attempt to find a new home after his village is razed by developers. The film’s title comes from the rocket festivals held at the start of the rainy season in Laos, and it was just such a festival that proved the seed of inspiration for the story.
“Rocket festivals are pretty wild,” Mordaunt says. “We went to quite a few of them while we were making the documentary Bomb Harvest. In fact, we went to one of them with a bomb-disposal expert named Laith Stevens, and he was terrified – he said he’d rather be opening bombs, because these festivals are just too unpredictable!” The festivals, he says, are joyous and spiritual events. Participants create their own rockets – huge beasts that can weigh up to a tonne – and then shoot them up into the air to ask for rain. “You’re seeing a whole country’s history in this cathartic event,” he says. “It’s hugely exciting and fun and terrifying all in one, and straight away, we knew that we had to use this in our story.”
The majority of actors in The Rocket are first timers, discovered on the streets. The young Sitthiphon Disamoe had lived on the streets before being cast in the lead role of Ahlo. “We were just wowed by this kid,” Mordaunt says. “He’s a survivor, and he aligned a lot with the qualities of the character I’d written. After talking to him for a while, I realised I wanted to go back and rewrite the script to make the character a bit closer to who this boy really was. It was a long process, once again – there were a lot of screen tests, and we needed to make sure that he’d be able to handle the journey we were going on, while not wearing him out.”
Loungnam Kaosainam, who plays Ahlo’s young friend Kia, was discovered in a drama group on the outskirts of Vientiane. “We’d searched all over, in temples and on the streets, trying to find the right person,” Mordaunt says. “We’d already seen a lot of people, quite experienced actors, but she stood out in terms of her very strong sense of self. Also, her eyes – when you’re making cinema, you’re always looking to see how thought reads in people’s eyes, what you can tell through expression. She was very strong in those terms, and also, she was just a strong, cheeky, gutsy presence.”
Given the troubled relationship between Laos and the West, I ask Mordaunt how he was treated as a filmmaker in the country, and indeed, if people were suspicious of his motivations. “Laos is still very closed to the media, and doing things there can take a long time,” he says. “Some people go and take a guerrilla approach, but I wouldn’t necessarily advise that. I mean, if you go in with the government’s permission, they’ve talked to local authorities and village chiefs, there’s a whole line of communication, but you’re trusted, so it’s well worth it. We spent a long time building those relationships when we were making Bomb Harvest, so by the time it came to make The Rocket, we were set.”
BY ALASDAIR DUNCAN
The Rocketopens in cinemas on Thursday August 29.