The Foreign Language Oscar category is rarely devoid of controversy – from the moment individual countries start putting forth their films, straight through to the final nominations cut (and sometimes beyond). Australia’s entry this year, The Rocket, has joined the fray, albeit in a particular manner. The Rocket is in the Lao language, the key element that makes it eligible for the category, and is set in Laos. But that country has banned the film. This doesn’t affect its Oscar eligibility, yet it’s another twist in the world of worldwide filmmaking. The Rocket won three prizes in Berlin including Best Debut Feature, and further prizes in Tribeca including Best Narrative Feature, as well as taking the World Cinema Audience Award at AFI Fest this week. And, yet, it won’t be shown in the country it’s about. Director Kim Mordaunt’s film tells the plight of a 10-year-old boy (Tribeca Best Actor Sitthiphon Disamoe) who is blamed for a string of disasters that kill his mother and deeply affect his community. When his family is forced to move, he leads them through war-scarred land to find a new home. Kino Lorber has U.S. distribution. Mordaunt was in Bangkok today for the film’s Thai premiere and told me over the phone that the ban in Laos “doesn’t reflect the broad Lao response to the film… We’ve seen Lao audiences all over the world embrace The Rocket.” He learned of the ban after the movie was invited to Laos’ Luang Prabang Film Festival, but failed to pass the censorship board. Laos is a Communist regime, and the film deals with the sensitive subject of the relocation of traditional people to make way for the building of hydroelectric dams along the Mekong River which are “big business mostly driven by multinational companies from outside of Laos, turning over hundreds of millions of dollars annually,” Mordaunt tells me. He wasn’t surprised by the ban, “I know how much the industry is worth and how political it is… We understand it’s not antagonistic… Anything that is political and high conflict doesn’t get through.” (continued)
What’s odd, however, is that Mordaunt has been embedded in Laos for a decade. He previously made documentary Bomb Harvest there about kids who collect scrap metal. The government “wasn’t keen” at first, but after Bomb Harvest raised money for awareness, it was embraced. It’s now been shown twice a day for six years in Laos visitor centers. Following Bomb Harvest, Mordaunt says his team had a good relationship with the powers that be when readying The Rocket. Shooting permission requires approval from the press office, the government, the police and the local village chief. “The press department was hugely helpful. They knew the story,” Mordaunt says. He’s hopeful that the ban may lift one day. “I’ve written emails trying to point out that the main antagonist of the film is an Australian dam owner and tried to say all films must have conflict and that talking about conflict and the issues of the place and corporate greed can only bring good in the end.” He allows, “I could have cut it… but that’s not the sort of film we want to make.” Even if the ban isn’t abolished, “The Lao people will find a way to see it,” he says. Academy members, he hopes, will too.