Tribeca Talks: ‘The Rocket’s Kim Mordaunt Talks Bringing a Cinematic Voice to Laos
In 2007, Australian director Kim Mordaunt, with a camera and crew in tow, trekked through the rough terrain of Laos for months to document the efforts of a bomb disposal specialist who works to rid the war-torn, poverty-stricken country of the undetonated explosives of its past. Over the course of filming, Mordaunt fell in love with the Laotian people and the exotic places he encountered. Since then, the country has been calling him back, and recently, he listened.
This week, Mordaunt brought his new film, The Rocket, to the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. However, for his return trip to Laos, he decided to take the narrative route and write a film that blends personal tales of loss and perseverance with that of the Laotian culture in an effort to highlight the country and the inhabitants with which he has grown close. At the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year, Mordaunt and his film took home the award for the Best First Feature Film and earned the international Crystal Bear award.
While attending Tribeca, Mordaunt talked with GALO about his unique connection with Laos, what big plans he has for the country’s film presence, and why he chose a very personal subject for his feature debut.
GALO: Before moving behind that camera, you were initially an actor who then transitioned into filmmaking. Does starting as an actor provide you with any particular insight into capturing unique stories such as The Rocket?
KM: Having an acting background is useful because acting is really about finding truth. It’s about storytelling and trying to find truths in a moment. Whether it’s through games, role-play, music or art to ignite imagination, all these things you can do as an actor to interpret stories and find truth and yourself in that story. And those things are useful [for a director], in terms of working with actors, because it just helps with igniting imagination. Also, trying to source on emotional memories and trying to share with people their experiences and find places where you can dig deeper into who we all are.
GALO: The Rocket marks the second time you have filmed a movie in Laos — a locale that gives your film such vibrantly beautiful landscapes to shoot against. Why return to Laos? What makes it such a meaningful place for you as a filmmaker?
KM: The producer, Sylvia Wilczynski, and myself have a relationship with Laos that goes back 10 years, and we’ve lived and worked in the region. The first time we went to Laos we just fell in love with the people, with the spirit of the place and the humor, and we thought, “My god these people are filled with such positivity and are just trying to move forward and break cycles of hatred. And us, as allies to that war, know nothing about this and we want to find out more about this beautiful and forgiving place.”
That was the beginning, when we made a documentary called Bomb Harvest, which was about an Australian bomb disposal specialist and the Laos kids who collect the bomb scrap metal. We clamored over bombs for months and it took years of research for the film, so we spent a lot of time on the ground in Laos. Just seeing how brave people are on the ground was a huge personal inspiration for us both. Once you’ve been in a post-war situation and you are near the poor who are just trying to survive, and they’re so full of spirit [that] it never leaves you, it just doesn’t leave you. We had a whole bunch of other screenplays at the time that we were developing that even had funding, but just pushed them all to the side and we thought that we can’t let this relationship with this country go. Laos doesn’t have a funded film industry. They’ve got a few fledging filmmakers but they haven’t got a film industry. And the Laos community basically says, “Unless you make the film, it isn’t going to happen.” (Laughs) “And we don’t want to be invisible.” So, that was the beginning of The Rocket.
GALO: Now that you have finished The Rocket, do you plan on returning to Laos in the near future to film another feature?
KM: I don’t know if we will do another movie in the near future. One thing we are trying to do at the moment is start a film school there. We took on quite a lot of Laos trainees while making the film who really want to develop a film industry there. There are so many good stories to be told, and they are very artistic people with a history of oral storytelling. So, we know there is the potential for a lot of good filmmaking by the local Laos people; it just needs to be developed.
GALO: You briefly talked about the amount of research that went into Bomb Harvest, your first film in Laos. What kind of research did you do in preparation for The Rocket and do you feel it gives the film a level of authenticity?
KM: The press for the film has been amazing, but there was one thing that really upset me, which was a piece that said the film was a period film because the bombs [that you see in the film] were too fresh and there was too much relic of war there. But the entire film was planned and researched by being on the ground and working and living with people. Those bombs are everywhere, and there are a lot of good Americans, Australians and people from all around the world who are trying to support cleaning up that mess. So, it kind of discredits their work by saying this is a period piece, when it is still an issue now, and there are so many people working hard there.
(Interview continued on next page)