An Ethnographic Exercise in Laos: An Analysis of The Rocket (Australia/Laos/Thailand, 2013)
Hailing from Australia, writer and director Kim Mordaunt rose to fame in 2013 with his first narrative feature, The Rocket. The film is set in rural Laos where its protagonist Ahlo (Sitthiphon Disamoe) is given a chance to redeem himself and his broken and displaced family when they stumble upon a rocket building competition. Before attaining international acclaim, Mordaunt was known for making documentaries. In fact, The Rocket was inspired by Bomb Harvest (2007), his documentary exploring the legacy of war in Laos as it centers around an Australian bomb disposal specialist who educates the locals in detonating bombs and stops children from using them as scrap metal. The Rocket can therefore be read as a repurposing of Bomb Harvest through the dramatization of the legacy of war in Laos. For his Western audience, the credibility Mordaunt gained from making Bomb Harvest translates automatically into authenticity for his feature. It is not surprising then, that behind its visual pleasure, The Rocket reads subtly like an educational humanitarian film made to instruct “first worlders” of the consequences of American/Australian imperialism while empowering and giving voice to the less privileged. I say subtle because Mordaunt’s film is by no means straightforward propaganda, rather, it uses tools to manipulate the audience’s emotions.
The entire film is shot with an ethnographic gaze. A gaze which actively frames the subjectivities of Lao people displaced by war and development in an objective manner. Since the film is not a documentary, Mordaunt aestheticizes this objectivity with music and spectacle. In both ways, Mordaunt places himself at the center of knowledge production, becoming the expert and authority in the telling of this story. One of Mordaunt’s most explicit uses of an ethnographic shot happens early into the film. During a scene when the villagers are told that their homes will be flooded by the construction of a dam, the camera first shoots the villagers watching the PowerPoint projection and then turns to their individual faces. By making us look at the faces of the villagers, Mordaunt is objectifying them as less privileged, while he garners our inferiorizing sympathies. On the other hand, Mordaunt uses wide angle shots coupled with nostalgic instrumental music to capture the “whole”. By shooting the misty and mountainous backdrop, Mordaunt is giving us context at the same time that he is paralyzing us with wonder. Implicit in this gesture is the question of how such a beautiful place can become so wretched at the same time? Even during moments of play and laughter, this ethnographic gaze is present. The camera takes its time following Ahlo and his new-found friend Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) into a field of green. Leaves bigger than their faces tower them as they run deeper into the tall green field to find black fertile soil. As the children wander into an untouched and unharmed space, they find an opportunity for new life. Behind this symbolism of fertility and hope, Mordaunt is fetishizing Laos as a fertile ground and reimagining it as feminine, submised, and exploited by the West. In capturing Laos as an object, Mordaunt commodifies it as knowledge for the West and reproduces the mainstream ideology of Western dominance and Third World poverty as Truth.
Although Mordaunt appears to centre Lao characters in his film, they serve merely as the vehicle of his ideas, which do not escape the limitations of binaries. Life and Death. Young and Old. Tradition and Modernity. Suffering and Emancipation. Lucky and Cursed. Even the main soundtrack of the film is divided between a major and minor key instrumental music to signal positive or negative events. By creating characters who embody the opposite binaries, Mordaunt stages conflicts in which he subsequently resolves. Moments after the characters learn that they have to leave their village, Mali tries to convince her mother-in-law about the move, “We’ll have electricity, running water…” while her mother-in-law counters by saying “And leave our traditions behind?” Grandmother Taitok (Bunsri Yindi), in her traditional garb, embodies the pinnacle of traditions, her strict adherence to her beliefs simultaneously oppresses her grandson and moves the plot forward since every conflict leads to another event. In a way, the camera antagonizes her as it constantly points to her scoffing at yet another “unlucky” incident created by the “cursed” child. The “traditional”/”modern” binary not only serves to limit subjectivities, it renders them as behind time. Such an essentialist reading only serves to justify the privileged position of the “modern” subject, in this case, the director of the film and his intended “first-world” audience. Thus, Mordaunt creates a character, who is impressionable and precocious young as he is, to embody the hope for his family and his people. Because he was so determined to subvert his “curse”, he builds a rocket so powerful that it explodes in fireworks and brings about a miracle rain. While the crowd is fooled to believe that Ahlo is actually lucky not cursed, the audience thinks they do know better. Ahlo succeeded because he was determined, so much so that he brought about a miracle. At the same time that he is finally accepted by his family and his people, he is emancipated as the “modern” subject in the eyes of the viewers. In the final scene where every character cheers and basks in rain, we cannot help but celebrate but for a different reason: the triumph of reason over emotions, young over old, determination over fate, modernity over traditions.
The closure of these dualistic conflicts absolves the director and his audience of any complicity. By crafting an overly emotional and happy ending, Mordaunt assures us that all will be well, that despite the suffering of these people, there is hope and the resilience of a people. But, who exactly is hopeful? This moment of celebration is more so delectable given that we had to earn it by first witnessing the unrightful oppression of Ahlo and his near death encounters with undetonated bombs. In a scene where Ahlo and his new-found friend Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) are playing makeshift baseball with a stick and mangoes picked from the ground, the camera swings and focuses on a bomb to foreboding music for an excruciating three times before Kia unknowingly picks it up. What is the point of over-milking the coming of danger besides terrorizing the audience in order to drive home the destruction of war, specifically how the Americans dropped more than 580,000 million tons of weapons during Laos’ secret war.
As Trinh T. Minh-ha so clearly puts it, “Films made about the common people are, furthermore, naturally promoted as films made for the same people, and only for them. In the desire to service the needs of the un-expressed, there is, commonly enough, the urge to define them and their needs.” In order words, Mordaunt makes this film to serve the internal Laotian community but for the viewing of the outside world. In an interview, Mordaunt talks about the difficulty of filming in Laos as compared to Thailand: “Whereas in Laos, because it’s still a Communist country, there’s still censorship, there’s still a lot of red tape.” Note the use of the word “still” to denounce Laos as backward and insulated. Evident in the film’s formulaic structure, the definition and appropriation of the other is self-serving. By focusing on a family from an unnamed tribe in somewhere titled as “Northern Laos”, Mordaunt informs us of their rituals and taboo, and their hopes and fears. By starting the film with the birth of Ahlo, Mordaunt creates a blank slate to define and redefine. In the midst of intimate and frantic shots of Mali (Alice Keohavong) giving birth, her mother-in-law, Taitok turns from elation to disgust the moment she realizes that the baby boy delivered is a twin. Mordaunt’s didactic tendencies reveals itself in moments of inserted cultural explanations, such as when Taitok explicitly tells us, “But… it’s still a twin, one is blessed, one carries a curse. Could be this one”. Not only that, the staging of the villager’s eviction is in itself telling of Mordaunt’s intentions. Mordaunt goes as far as creating a powerpoint to instruct the villagers to leave, highlighting the collaboration of Nam Dee and an Australian-Lao company. Que First World complicity. Mordaunt might as well be instructing the audience.
However, Mordaunt shows us that the definition of others do not always have to take formalistic methods by scattering abstract scenes of Ahlo to define his hopes and fear. When Ahlo visits the dam for the first time, he wonders around and ends up swimming in it. In the calming underwater shots, we follow Ahlo as he swims in green-bluish cloudy water with sunken monuments. There is a moment of revelation as he discovers the face of a sunken Buddha statue. This peaceful moment is contrasted with Ahlo, again wandering alone, after he glimpses his dead mother in the woods. He follows her and ends up in a death ritual by another tribe. This time he is haunted by the death of his mother as symbolized by an intimidating masked woman (mistaken as his mother) and a beheaded black buffalo. These abstract moments momentarily take us away from the narrative flow to witness Ahlo’s introspection. However, these tangents are pretentious and ornamental as they only reduce Ahlo’s internal world into one-dimensional abstractions.
In his quest to uncover the Truth of Laos, Mordaunt reproduces the discourses of Western hegemony. It is worth quoting Trinh T. Minh-ha again here, “Truth can only be approached indirectly if one does not want to lose it and find oneself hanging on to a dead, empty skin.” While the film circulates around the world in disguise as a film about Laos, it wins accolades and earns money. It goes without saying that the director gets most of the credit. In order words, “the socially oriented filmmaker is thus the almighty voice-giver (here, in a vocalizing context that is all-male), whose position of authority in the production of meaning continues to go unchallenged, skillfully masked as it is by its righteous mission.” As if the righteous mission isn’t loud enough, the film was banned in Laos, and soon after its release, the government released a law to further restrict filming in public.
 Trinh T. Minh-ha, Documentary Is/Not a Name, The MIT Press, October, Vol. 52, Spring, 1990, p. 84
 Nancy N. Chen, “Speaking Nearby:” A Conversation With Trinh T. Minh-ha, Visual Anthropology Review, Volume 8, Number 1, Spring 1992, p. 87
 Trinh T. Minh-ha, Documentary Is/Not a Name, The MIT Press, October, Vol. 52, Spring, 1990, p. 83-4