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And The Rocket’s Red Glare, Gives Proof of Its Oscar Might.

By • Dec 30th, 2013 •

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And The Rocket’s Red Glare, Gives Proof of Its Oscar Might.
THE ROCKET, Possibly Australia’s Oscar Foreign Language Submission

Tucked away from tourism beneath the canopy of palms, the jungle floor is scattered with metal, while a vast resource of richness beneath the soil remains largely untapped. The people of this land suffer the ravages of war, children scavenge for scraps, and the population risks life and limb simply by living the day to day.

Welcome to Laos, the world’s most bombed country. Director Kim Mordaunt presents an account of a frighteningly real plight as the monolith that is big business uses heavy machinery to uproot the masses in a dismantling of family, community, and tradition. The people of Laos must endure privations, even though, by “normal” standards, they already survive on the barest of necessities.
The first onscreen image is of a woman on her hands and knees giving birth to a child – Ahlo – whose life will be overshadowed with the stigma of superstition due to the circumstances surrounding his birth. His grandmother, a village elder, shields this secret but points a finger of blame and shame unto the child for any misfortune that befalls their existence. In this family dynamic, tradition clashes with the modern, wit and humor offer a reprieve from the daily burdens, and the young valiantly attempt to outdo and prove their worth to the old.

Ahlo’s grandmother’s self-fulfilling prophecy of impending death and doom comes to fruition. The village is designated to relocate to a beautiful modern floor plan complete with electricity and amenities courtesy of a foreign company that is flooding the valley to build a dam. However, the transplants find themselves in what amounts to a refugee camp. A billboard depicts what eventually, further down-the-line, quite possibly will be in grasp – a house. Rather than finding refuge, they find that they are a people without their best interests at hand.

An aura of trouble veils Ahlo as his mischievousness hits like a typhoon, stirring an irreversible backlash. It is here where he meets a girl, Kia, of similar age, and her uncle, the eccentric Purple.

Purple is a representation of the CIA’s influence upon the Lao Hmong tribes. During the Vietnam War, these people were recruited by the CIA to fight for them. This character is steep in Lao culture with his outwardly demeanor and humor. For Purple, his love of James Brown and good cheer from a bottle deems him an outcast. As with all of the characters in this film, they are based on real people that Kim Mordaunt met while shooting his prior documentary, BOMB HARVEST.

Mordaunt and producer Sylvia Wilczynski previously spent time in Laos documenting an Australian bomb disposal specialist and the Lao children who collect bombs to sell as scrap metal. Instrumental in both of these productions is Pauline Phayvanh Phoumindr. As the Lao translator on BOMB HARVEST, she teamed with the director and producer to see THE ROCKET become Lao’s first internationally released film.

The film’s third act takes place at a Rocket Festival. This is the annual event held at the end of the dry season. Groups and individuals compete against one another for a big monetary prize as they launch handmade rockets into the sky as provocation to the rain gods. This Lao tradition is ironic in a land that is strewn with U.S. and its allied partners’ unwanted weapons of destruction from the Vietnam era. Laos served as the dumping ground for all the unused bombs. Also ironic is water, a vast Laos resource, which will soon be controlled by non-Lao companies.

The scenes of the real rocket festival were shot six months prior to the recreated festival, to which the earlier footage is combined. This allows for an authentic feel to the film. The director had to wrestle with new and non-actors to make the scenes work. This involved re-scripting as shooting took place. Allowing the children to interact on their own,, a sense of truth evolved which never felt false.

Sitthiphon Disamoe plays Ahlo. Born near the Laos/Thai border, the ten year old ended up on the streets selling sweets and begging. Armed with qualities similar to the character Ahlo, the director engaged the young boy in imagination and memory to stir up feelings that he could draw upon as Ahlo.

Loungnam Kaosainam is from Vientiane, The Laos capitol. She was involved in a local drama group and was quick to find the character Kia in herself. In front of the camera she was always honest, with a lack of inhibition.

Both of the children came from different backgrounds. Sitthiphon’s distrust and distance was overcome by the director’s honesty about his own childhood and when common ground was found, a trust developed. The initial phases of production saw the two children fight with one another, but during the course of the shoot, a bond was formed which seeps into the onscreen relationship.
As a result of the film, a trust has been set so that the children will be able to attend school. Loungnam is committed to her studies while Sitthiphon attends on an irregular basis. Mordaunt has taught in aboriginal communities and understands Sitthiphon’s attitude towards a formal education.

Kim Mordaunt’s, THE ROCKET, gives the world outside of Laos a glimpse into a people marred by a war that wasn’t their own, who struggle to simply exist, and once again are infringed upon by outside forces, as they carry forth their proud traditions with hope and humor.

The Academy should recognize THE ROCKET for its film merit and for it serving as a humanitarian effort. Hollywood loves to give out little ribbons for people to wear to champion a cause such as the end of a disease, staunchly support gay rights, or to shed light on a people in need. Here is a just cause to undertake for a people in need. Laos is a country of people that have the right to their limbs not being blown off and the right to their land and water.

THE ROCKET opens January 10th in New York. For now, to fully understand the atrocity, watch BOMB HARVEST. Also, find Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” television series. In the Laos episode, Bourdain is on the verge of tears as he sits among a family where arms and legs are an odd match. The family opens their door to a visitor from the very country that has disfigured them and finds humor a key ingredient in their daily lives.

To read about the logistics of filming THE ROCKET and director Kim Mordaunt’s journey through the Thai/Laos region, Films In Review is presenting an in-depth article next month.

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