The Australian Film, The Rocket, Banned in Laos


The Rocket, an Australian film, is banned in Laos—the country in which the film takes place. This sheds an odd light on the story that is depicted.

Throughout The Rocket, the CIAs 1960s mysterious war spans the country side. The land is riddled with unexploded bombs serving as a constant reminder of wars of old. The bombs seem to prove the claim that Laos is the most bombed country ever on Earth.

The bombs were dropped by the Americans during the Vietnam War and have claimed countless civilian lives. During the war, the Laos campaign was mostly kept a secret from the American public.

Now there is a film that uncovers the truth about the country’s history and it is now regarded as unsuitable for the public—this time by the government if Laos; however, it isn’t because of the bombing.

The Rocket follows the trials and tribulations of a family relocated from their traditional village to allow for the construction of a hydro-electric dam in a joint venture with Australia.

There is already a sense of ill-at-ease that follows the family’s only son, Ahlo, who is played by Sitthiphon Disamoe. Ahlo must prove that the bad luck that follows is not his fault.

Kim Mordaunt, the Australian director, says the film has been embraced by Laotian audiences around the globe… Except for in Laos, itself. That is as a result because the government has decided not to show the film.

”It is quite tricky because dams are incredibly political in Laos at the moment,” Mordaunt explains to Otago Daily Times.

”They are worth hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars. Even though Laos people have seen the film all around the world … the Laos Government on the other hand have banned the film from Laos as too political. We half expected that would happen.”

The director says the family’s experience in the film of being moved from their home to make room for development wasn’t uncommon for residents of Laos. In an earlier documentary, Bomb Harvest, he depicted the efforts taken to clear out the American bombs. He and his partner, Sylvia Wilczynski, discovered entire villages that were abandoned in order to make room for the dams.

People were left to wander around like lost souls—or they had simply been dumped somewhere else. Sometimes, Australia was complicit.

”Laos has hydro, it has gold, it has copper, it has rubber, it has timber, and it is poor.

“So, what happens to poor countries, especially countries made poor by war, which is usually the way it goes, they are open for business because they need business and they are very vulnerable. And we saw multinational corporations just reaping the country. Raping and reaping the country and its resources and Australia was part of that.”

The two directors secretly spoke to employees of the dam. They confirmed the suspicion that the compensation packages given to the displaced people was not enough.

”As we have seen in Australia with indigenous people, just throwing someone a handout and saying `she’ll be right’ is not good enough,” he says.

”It is something that is happening globally. Our story is just a microcosm of what’s happening all around the whole globe in terms of first world countries’ relationships with the Third World.”

The pair was inspired to make The Rocket during the creation of Bomb Harvest in 2007, which followed an Australian bomb disposal expert’s efforts to remove the unexploded weapons.

There is believed to be two million tons of bombs that were dropped on Laos. An estimated third of those munitions did not detonate.

On average, there was a B-52 unloading their bombs every eight minutes, all day every day from 1964 to 1973. The amount of munitions dropped on the small country was more than what was dropped during the entire length of the Second World War.

By the time Vietnam War had ended, there were 80 million cluster bombs left unexploded across Laos. Only 500,000 have been cleared away.

”It gives you an idea of what the legacy of war really means,” Mordaunt says.

”That war very much was a secret war. It went for nine years and a lot of the American public and a lot of the Australian public, we were allies in the war, had no idea that … Laos, while the Vietnam War was happening, was being bombed more than any other place on the planet.”

Because of the geography of the country, those bombs sometimes remain hidden, sometimes rise to the surface like a bad memory.

”In a place like Laos it is mainly rice paddy, so the ground is soft. Bombs would literally embed themselves into the ground and a lot of them under the ground.

“Then it is a tropical country, you have monsoons there, incredible floods that literally take the top surface off the soil and then guess what you have sitting there. It is something like a fossil.

“You have this bomb that looks like it was dropped yesterday, apart from a bit of rust and there it is alive and full of explosive and sitting there.

”There are some villages we went to while making the documentary where 65 bombs would be found, big bombs.

“Then you would walk to another village and two weeks later you would hear that same village, because of the rains or what people had found trying to garden and grow vegetables, another 15 had been found.”

The shoestring Laotian efforts to clean up provide some hairy moments in The Rocket. One scene finds our family sharing a cart with a load of enormous shells.

Again, Mordaunt says there was no dramatic license taken. That is exactly as it is done.

”Those carts are just full of bombs and a lot of time, the unfortunate thing is, that especially for people born after the war, they just see it as metal. Big slabs of metal and it is good metal.

“It is terrible that these killing machines were made out of excellent metal. So they literally throw them all into a cart and away they go. And to be honest, those carts blow up sometimes.”

Some of the victims of this dread trade are children, as Mordaunt discovered when making the earlier documentary.

”There was a sub narrative in it which was about the kids who collect the bomb scrap metal and that really was our connection to the kids in Laos and very much the inspiration to want to keep working with them.”

An unexploded cluster bomb looks like an old piece of fruit or a ball, just the sort of thing a child might pick up and play with, he says.

The Rocket is Ahlo’s story and Disamoe picked up a best-actor award at the Tribeca Film Festival as a result, but a second Laotian youngster also steals a good many scenes.

Loungnam Kaosainam (9) plays the part of Kia, who becomes an important companion for Ahlo. Together they create some of The Rocket’s most magical scenes.

The film’s story is resolved in an orgy of gunpowder, a traditional Laotian rocket festival, which includes documentary footage to lend authenticity.

The festivals are something of a national celebration to break the dry season, Mordaunt explains.

”But at the same time it is kind of like this hotpot of crazy ex-military who are kind of shooting back at the sky.

”As well as being an ancient Buddhist festival about bringing rain, bringing the rain which will help grow things and keep everyone alive, it is also this incredible metaphor for its recent war history, where you have people shooting back at the sky, all this dark history being reinvented into something that is very positive, which is the rain. That’s what we really loved about it.

”Laos has this ability, and it might be the Buddhism, to sort of break cycles of hatred, to let history go and turn it into something positive.”

Evette Champion

Evette Champion is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE