Thursday, August 15, 2013

Set fire to the rain

As traditional Asian festivals go, there are few more exciting - and dangerous - than the yearly rocket festival in Laos.

Stemming from an ancient tradition of calling up the rains from the heavens each May, Bun Bang Fai is a surreal blend of partying, praying, dancing and drinking, all culminating into the ritual of launching bamboo rockets into the sky to kick-start the rain. There's some serious competition, with locals vying to outdo each other with how high they can propel their rockets.

The locals look forward to it for months, and backpackers can't believe their luck when they find themselves caught up in one. But for filmmaker Kim Mordaunt, the festival has so many symbolic layers that it stayed in his imagination for months.

He and his wife, producer Sylvia Wilczynski, had already made several documentaries together, including an award-winning film set in Laos, Bomb Harvest, about a team of bomb disposal specialists dealing with unexploded ordnance left over from the US ''secret war''. The couple had fallen in love with the tiny, landlocked and war-ravaged country, one that's filled with breathtaking landscapes and age-old traditions, ethnic rituals, battle scars and steadily creeping modernity.

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It is, Mordaunt says, a country that's changing before your eyes. The film he and Wilczynski decided to make - their first feature - would be a love letter, of a kind, to the Laos that exists today, and all the things that have made it what it is.

The story has all the elements of a modern fable, with the inescapable shadow of an ancient curse played out against the backdrop of a country that is marching relentlessly towards modernity while still recovering from a war waged three decades before. Valleys are being flooded to make way for dams, young people are rejecting the traditions of their elders, but some rituals are beyond progress in a country still clinging to religion and obscure superstitions. The May rocket festival, Mordaunt says, seemed to be the perfect metaphor to tie a story together.

The Rocket is the story of a young boy, Ahlo, believed to bring bad luck, who takes his family and a couple of ragged hangers-on on a journey through the war-scarred landscape of northern Laos. The film culminates at a rocket festival, where Ahlo builds a giant rocket to try and prove he's not cursed.

It's already been a hit on the festival circuit, taking out several awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival earlier this year. Crowds at the Sydney Film Festival loved it, and a recent press screening in Canberra saw dozens of people turned away from a full theatre.

Mordaunt says it's the country itself, as much as the actors and the storyline, that had drawn people in.

''When we were making Bomb Harvest, we thought, well, this country is extraordinary, it's beautiful, it's rich in culture, and then it's got this wild history that no one knows about, the war,'' he says.

''But then we thought, the Lao have got a popular tongue. Their humour is kind of popular - it could be an American comedy, or an English movie, and Australians find it very funny. So we thought that's a way of drawing an audience into this.''

He says casting the film was an adventure in itself; he and Wilczynski were required to make a promo for the film before they could get any funding, and travelled to countless schools, markets and villages looking for actors.

They eventually heard, through their casting agent, about Sitthiphon ''Ki'' Disamoe, a street kid who would end up playing the lead role. ''He'd been deserted by his family, and had two years on the streets in Bangkok,'' he says.

''When I met him, he kind of walked in with all this attitude and all this fight for everything, he could do anything, and we just thought, this kid is really great. And there was even this great moment where I said to him, 'Can you swim, Ahlo?', because there's that scene in the dam, and he said, 'I can hold my breath underwater for half an hour'. And I thought okay, but we actually found out he couldn't swim at all, so for the next three months leading up to the shoot we gave him swimming lessons.''

He said one of the greatest challenges in making the film was getting Ki to open up to the story. While he could do anything he put his mind to - learn to swim, for example - and talk his way out of any situation, it was hard to get to the emotion within.

Eventually, he began to share his own life story with the boy - hopes, dreams, family life - and found Ki opening up in response. He found the other child actor in the film, Loungnam Kaosainam, after combing the country, and happening across a small drama group on the outskirts of the capital Vientiane.

''Even though he's the lead character, she was the one that I most concerned about,'' he says. ''She's kind of the soul of the film, that's the way I see her.''

With huge eyes and missing front teeth, the eight-year-old - on the edge of heartbreaking beauty - was perfect.

Another key character is Ahlo's mother, Mali, played by Lao-Australian Alice Keohavong. The Sydney-based actor, who works by day as a puppeteer for a children's charity, had only scored bit parts on Australian television shows and commercials, before landing the role of Mali.

Although she has grown up deeply immersed in the Australian Lao community - she auditioned for the role at a casting session in the Bonnyrigg temple she had gone to all her life - this was only the second time she had visited Laos. Speaking from Sydney, she says she discovered, through making the film, that there were many things she hadn't known about her own heritage. ''It also actually has made me realise I don't want to lose these stories.''

''Because I live in Australia, a lot of my generation of Lao-Australian or even Lao-American, there are a lot of stories we don't know about. A lot of these will get lost because a lot of Lao people don't document things, and it gets lost in translation,'' she says.

''It has inspired me to collect all these stories and record them as much as I can, because unfortunately, they will disappear.''

It's this sense of an ending, Mordaunt says, that propels the narrative, as much as the appealing premise of a rocket festival, one that blends tradition and superstition - the locals really do believe, on some level, that the festival will help to bring in the much-needed rainy season - with breath-takingly dangerous amateur pyrotechnics.

Mordaunt recalls taking one of the professional bomb disposal experts he met through making Bomb Harvest to a rocket festival, and watching him shudder with horror.

''He said, 'I hate this festival, it's too out of control, it's too unpredictable - take me back to a 500-pound bomb any time!' '' he says.

The festival is also a useful allegory for the resilience of a country that is at once so vulnerable - cash-poor but resource-rich - and so steeped in history and storytelling.

''It's fairytale and it's fun, and it's kind of evolved again with the war into something else. There's a story of how, after the communists got back in power, they banned Bun Bang Fai. They said, 'We don't any of this weird, religious stuff, we're going to get rid of it all', so they got rid of it. It didn't rain that year, so they brought it back.''

There will be a special screening of The Rocket at Palace Electric at 6.30pm on August 19, followed by a Q&A session with Kim Mordaunt and Sylvia Wilczynski.

The Rocket opens nationally on August 29.


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