A lad from a Wilsons Creek banana farm, who has traveled the world as a filmmaker, will come back to home turf this weekend for a special screening and Q&A event for his latest film, which is winning awards hand over fist.
The Rocket, written and directed by Mullum boy Kim Mordaunt, is the story of ten-year-old Ahlo, who is believed to bring bad luck. In the aftermath of two terrible tragedies – one in his community and one personal – Ahlo leads his family and a couple of ragged misfits through Laos to find a new home. After a calamity-filled journey through a land scarred by war, to try to prove he’s not cursed he builds a giant rocket to enter the most lucrative but dangerous competition of the year: the Rocket Festival.
We are really excited about seeing the film and Echonetdaily caught up with Kim and got in our own little Q&A before the event at the Palace Cinema next Tuesday.
How long ago where you a Mullum High boy?
KM: I finished Mullum High (year 12) in 1984.
Do you still have ties to the area?
KM: We had an avocado and banana farm up Wilsons Creek behind Mullum. Then after I left home my parents moved to Suffolk Park in the mid-nineties, where they still live.
KM: I live in Sydney but still think of the north coast where I grew up as home. When I go back it always takes me by surprise how beautiful it is and of course it’s full of memories. Most of my time at Mullum High we lived in a banana shed (shared with the snakes and rats) and we converted the shed into this great knock-around social place. It was such a magical place to grow up – my closest friend now, Cameron Stewart, was a Mullum person too – I still remember when we’d watch those huge storms come rumbling up the valley as we dreamed away (think there is some of that in my films).
How long have you been a filmmaker?
KM: It was about 20 years ago when I made my first short film. But I have also been an actor and a teacher during that period.
Was this work your boyhood dream or were there other ideas?
KM: I had lots of dreams, probably a new one every day. But my mother is a painter and father a documentary filmmaker so I was very lucky that I was constantly surrounded by great books, paintings and films. But my first love was music – played a lot piano and guitar and wrote a lot with friends at Mullum (Maui Stevenson, whom I used to jam with, is now a full-time muso, and Cameron is an actor). But I only became interested in school when I had a great art teacher called Kerry Woods at Mullum High. She really inspired us all and was a good friend too. Then I used to read a lot of art history, mythology and draw a lot (forest, faces, friends, light, what ever was around me). And if you put a bit of all the above together it kind of turns into filmmaking.
KM: People throughout southeast Asia have always been very kind and welcoming to us, in our many years of travelling and working in the region. And the more you learn about the war history, especially in Laos (the most bombed country on the planet per capita) it becomes incredibly inspiring that people are so forgiving and want to move forward breaking cycles of hatred and constant retaliation. Also Lao people are generally full of life and love to laugh finding Muan (fun) in everything. This has always been a huge attraction to producer, Sylvia Wilczynski, and me – the sheer courage of people in this part of the world to rise above adversity. I guess that is the Buddhism too, which always tries to look forward. We in the West can learn a lot from this.
Also many people in rural areas are Animists, and have this very strong and spiritual connection to the land (the forests, rivers and sky are literally humming with life, with good and bad spirits) and this mysticism is very enticing, especially as a writer and filmmaker – and one who grew up in those mystical valleys of Wilsons Creek.
You have taught filmmaking and drama in Asian, Arabic and Australian Aboriginal communities, and been a filmmaking mentor in refugee centres and prisons. Can you tell us a bit about that?
KM: When I finished my Arts degree at UTS of course I was flat broke. I went to the job centre to hopefully find some work that wasn’t labouring and cleaning, which I had done since I left school. I was interviewed by an Indigenous woman who told me she had a job for me. It was as a teacher of video at the Eora Centre in Redfern. This was the beginning of my Australian Indigenous education and for the next 10 years I taught or made films with Indigenous communities, and worked a lot with the migrant community too. It really opened my mind and of course the injustice of the world started to become more apparent. That led to more teaching, mentoring with programs that operated in remote communities (Indigenous or new migrant communities) as well as holding workshops in prison or with people who had just been released from long-term confinement. I also was a drama teacher at ADTR (Aboriginal Dance Theatre Redfern) for about five years. Big learning curve for me.
KM: I didn’t make a conscious decision to immerse myself in multicultural situations/stories, but I was kind of pulled into it and felt very at home there. I guess this might be because I have an Indian-Mauritian mother who was a migrant in England at a very difficult and brutal time – and I certainly witnessed how much she struggled and a few terrible incidents of racism. And as a son that digs pretty deep, seeing your mother in those situations. I think that will be a theme inside all of the films I make.
From a creative point of view – how does making a feature-length documentary differ from a feature-length movie?
KM: Both are storytelling so there is so much that is alike and that both media can learn from each other. Documentary has a wonderful intimacy in the form and your relationship with the character you are following. Not knowing where the story will lead is exciting, but also incredibly frustrating at times – you can suddenly realise nothing very interesting is going to happen for a long time and you are following the wrong character weeks into the shoot. But when the magic comes it’s wonderful.
A feature film is such a massive machine and I guess one is always trying to bring the intimacy and spontaneity back into the moment (that is the main skill I have brought from documentary into my fiction – to be in the moment). But I do love in fiction how one can guide the story to wherever you feel is most effective, and to have actors who are ready to delve deeply into their souls to tell that story. It’s so open in the way it can go any way you want it to. It’s also great to have so much support where you can really strive for production value and detail that enhances story. But I really respect both forms and love to watch both drama and documentary and I’m sure I will continue to make both.
KM: It’s a big bloody surprise. We were happy just to be selected for Berlin, which is so prestigious, one of the top few film festivals in the world. We had no real idea how it would be received by critics, juries or international audiences. But to see in its first-ever public screening at Berlin that audiences were responding to it – laughing, crying, cheering – was the best feeling. And then to win three awards at Berlin left us truly stunned. And then another three at Tribeca (presented by Robert De Niro) and the Audience Award at Sydney. We still pinch ourselves. But it has been so lovely to see that this little Lao family in the story of The Rocket is connecting to people all around the world. And of course for the Australian, Thai and Lao crew, who worked incredibly hard, these awards are very meaningful and can help build careers. The stars don’t always align but somehow this time round they did. We feel very lucky.
Can you tell us about Sitthiphon Disamoe who plays Ahlo?
KM: Sitthiphon is just an amazing person. Sylvia and I had been looking for a long time before we met him. We heard about Ki (Sitthiphon’s nickname) through a Thai casting agent, Non Jungemeier, who seems to know everyone in the region. Ki had a foster mother who had met him after he had lived for two years on the street. His foster mother had done some extras work and then introduced Ki to Non, and that is where we met him – but it wasn’t long after life on the street.
I remember the first time I met him; he couldn’t stop eating. He was this skinny hungry kid and he said he could do anything – it was all about surviving, and this aligned really well with the character of Ahlo in The Rocket – especially when he started to share his life, his pain and his dreams with me. I knew we had someone really special. We have now set up a long-term education fund with Child Fund which will take Ki and the little girl in the film, Loungnam, through their education for the next seven to eight years, till the end of high school. And if further education doesn’t suit them that support can become about helping learn a vocation. But we are in close contact with their families and foster families.
Are there any projects you are working on while you are here?
KM: Sylvia and I are working on a number of projects. There is one which is set in the valleys behind Mt Warning, but in terms of what finds its feet first, and what finds interest and funding, I don’t know which one that will be. We are a little stuck on the theme of the legacy of war – once you have been inside it, it’s life changing and hard to shake.
Palace Cinema and Screenworks will be hosting with a preview and Q&A of The Rocket on Tuesday August 13. For more information visit: www.therocket-movie.com.