Lion (Garth Davis, Australia/USA/UK, 2016)

American cinema, Australian Cinema, Blogpost, British cinema, Film reviews, Transnational Cinema, Uncategorized

There is a sequence in Lion where Saroo (Dev Patel) and his soon-to-be girlfriend Lucy (Rooney Mara) walk to a party on opposite sides of the street.

Lucy does a wee dance, and Saroo then copies her – the pair thus doing some cute romance as they swap dance moves from across the road that separates them.

The moment is an uncredited homage to Spike Jonze’s short film, How They Get There (USA, 1997), which you can see in full below (for as long as it remains on YouTube).

Given that Lion is a film about a young boy who by accident becomes separated from his family and who ends up being adopted by Australians, and given that the film is based upon a true story, it seems strange to have this extended reference to Jonze’s film included.

For, while Jonze’s is a playful and witty short, Lion seems to be in the business of taking itself very seriously – as perhaps it should do given that it is a film about a topic as weighty as transnational identity, and which is seeking to pick up various awards during this year’s season. The homage, therefore, shifts the film tonally from serious to playful in a way that jars with the what the film otherwise seems to set out to achieve.

So let us say that Saroo and Lucy had seen How They Get There (these characters do supposedly live in the real world, after all, meaning that they may well have done). Surely the inclusion in the film is therefore justified – a kind of audiovisual exchange that could just as easily be the characters bonding via conversation over, say, their love of Aravind Adiga or Powderfinger (also real world figures)?

Well, maybe. But since Lion so clearly adopts this scene from Jonze, it simply feels tired, unimaginative and unoriginal – as if the filmmakers could not themselves come up with anything better than nicking someone else’s idea in order to convey romance. One’s confidence in the rest of the film is undermined: how much more of this film is entirely derivative?

More than this. There is a cinema in the world where such shifts in tone are in fact commonplace, such that they become perhaps even the defining feature of that cinema.

I am of course talking in quite a general sense about Indian cinema, with the Mumbai-based industry known as Bollywood generally functioning as its metonymic figurehead.

Lion is a transnational co-production, as the stated involvement of Australian, American and British monies makes clear above. And yet the film is also largely set in India, with locations including Kolkata and Khandwa, which lies close to Saroo’s home town of Ganesh Talai. What is more, the film also features numerous performances by Indian actors. So, one asks oneself, where is the Indian economic involvement in the film?

Or does the tonal shift marked by the adoption of Jonze’s idea also mark the adoption of ideas (tonal shifts themselves) from Indian cinema, which in turn marks the adoption of Indian cinematic resources for this film – which is a film about the adoption of Indian boys by white Australians?

There are plenty more things to say about Lion, but I would like to limit myself to three things – the first of which relates to How They Get There.

For, in Jonze’s film, things end badly as the male dancer gets run over, with the driver of the car perhaps also dying – and the male dancer’s shoe ending up in a gutter by the side of the road.

Does the reference to this film in Lion, therefore, signal a similar pessimism with regard to Saroo? While the film clearly is about ‘How They Get There,’ are we to believe that Saroo is, as it were, a shoe in a gutter – looking up at the stars that might help him in the developed world? There seems to be no clear analogy, but any way that one looks at it is never far from offensive.

Indeed – to move on to my second point – there is another strange sequence in the film where Saroo’s adoptive mother, Sue (Nicole Kidman), explains that when she was 12 she had a vision whereby she saw herself with a ‘brown boy’ – and that this is what drove her not to want to have birth children, but to want to adopt kids herself.

The daughter of an alcoholic, Sue in some senses seems to declare here that Saroo is partially an object that helps her to get over her own traumatic childhood. Which I guess is fair enough, except that this again reduces Saroo to simply a brown boy who may not want to be, but who is indeed the plaything of sorts of white Australians. No wonder that Saroo’s adopted brother, Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), is himself so troubled.

In this way, it seems oddly fitting that Saroo is not, in fact, Saroo’s real name. His infantile tongue could not properly pronounce his name (nor the name of his home town), and so Saroo is the result of the boy (played by Sunny Pawar) trying to say Sheru (meaning lion), and Ganestalay his attempt to say Ganesh Talai – a town that no one could find as a result of this difference.

What a thin thread possibly prevented Saroo from being able to find his way home. Nonetheless, the erasure of his Hindi roots through this ‘error’ does, as mentioned, seem oddly apt through its occultation of Saroo’s origins.

Of course, Saroo is haunted by his past and he does finally discover his origins – so at least we see that he cares for truth and is haunted by his privilege knowing that his mother is a labourer who carries rocks for a living while he enjoys boats and aeroplanes (and visions of his past from a drone – with his discovery of his past enabled in large part by the surveillance technology of Google Earth).

In other words, Lion clearly is a film about worlds separated by technology and in particular transport as a means of defining humans according to their different abilities to travel/move (even if true, it is oddly apt, then, that Saroo’s destiny is changed by his inadvertently being on the wrong train – the great distance that it covers from Khandwa to Kolkata signalling his destiny to be catapulted into a new, more mobile world).

And we are glad that Saroo is saved from this world, even if we see him running and laughing and loving his family in Ganesh Talai. For it is also a world defined by manual labour, paedophilia, child abuse and uncaring authorities. Saroo really is better off, it would seem, in Australia – and his rescue is thus in some senses justified, even if his adoptive mother has dimensions of the would-be White Saviour.

Dev Patel gives an excellent performance as Saroo. The film as a whole is powerful. But as the film ultimately endorses the fast pace of modernity at the expense of the slow pace of those pedestrian labourers who function as the very props upon which this modernity is based (it is the labour of his birth mother that brought Sheru into the world, even if Sue takes credit for raising Saroo), so, too, is the film constructed according to the fast pace of western films.

That is, the film has rapid scenes, often cutting into action and getting the viewer to infer what has happened – rather than allowing the viewer to see events unfold for themselves.

In this sense, we regularly see Saroo/Patel at points of high emotion – but the film in this regard does not show us ‘how they get there.’ That is, we do not see the onset of emotion, the change that takes place – we just see the emotion itself, with the emotion itself thus becoming symbolic, a symbol of emotion, rather than an emotion grounded in the real world of change and becoming.

The film’s decision to rush emotions in this way – to be too busy/in the business of business to want to take us through the complexity of emotion – reflects the privileged speed of the highly technologised First World, where emotions become empty because of their own speed, rather than real because slow and enworlded.

In its form, then, the film undermines what it otherwise would seemingly want to achieve: we want to connect with people across boundaries, but really what we are seeing are power games and the use of other people and their real lives for the purposes of our own entertainment, edification and comfort. This makes for troubling viewing, even if I also was swept up personally in the story that I was seeing.

While Patel seems excellent as Saroo, then, it also seems a shame that he is edited in such a way that we do not really get to see him act. Or rather, his performance is reduced to acting as a result of the editing: here is Saroo unhappy, here is Saroo sad, and so on. To get beyond acting exposed as acting, to get to acting as an embodied performance, we need to see the transitions; we need to see how they get there.

Oddly, such a transition is shown in the film – but by Sheru’s mother, Kamla, when they are reunited. I believe that this moment is performed by Priyanka Bose (she plays Saroo’s mother when he is young; it is unclear whether it is still her but aged via make-up when they finally meet again).

In a few brief moments of screen time, we see Bose carry out an extraordinary performance of recognition and then emotion as she recognises her boy. And yet what plaudits for Bose in the celebration of the film at awards season?

Furthermore, in a few brief instants we here sense a story that we never otherwise got to see – the story of an illiterate labourer whose son has been taken from her in rural India. How much more interesting might that film have been, rather than the troubles that a boy had in discovering his hometown through the use of Google Earth?

That we see a film that privileges the privileged masculine perspective is perhaps profoundly western. If, we wanted to watch a film featuring the female perspective, then we likely have to discover a different cinema – perhaps even the cinema of a place like India, where a masterpiece like Mother India (Mehboob Khan, India, 1957) dares to tell precisely the story of a female labourer struggling to bring up her children in the Indian countryside.

(Much as I tend to enjoy the performances of Casey Affleck, the performance from Bose in Lion reminds me of how Michelle Williams acts Affleck off the screen in Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan, USA, 2016, even though she has minimal screen time and even though her big scene is scripted basically to suggest that she still is in love with the man who is largely responsible for the death of her children – i.e. it is a male fantasy-fulfilment.)

(This in turn reminds me that both Lion and Manchester by the Sea continue the trend of films about dead, lost, and otherwise problematised babies and children – as I have written about elsewhere. It is the preoccupying theme of contemporary western cinema.)

Forasmuch as it is well made and enjoyable, then, Lion seems to have adopted various things from various other places not in order to present us with any changed vision of the world, but to replicate the vision of a superior western, technologised, cinematic world – even if this world is built upon the labour of people like Kamla, whose plight remains invisible.

How we got here – to such a world that seemingly is made up of different worlds – is hidden.

And yet it might be the most important (hi)story for us all to learn.

52 Tuesdays (Sophie Hyde, Australia, 2013)

Australian Cinema, Blogpost, Film reviews

This is a brief blog post about 52 Tuesdays, which I am introducing this evening (18 August 2015) at the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, London.

The film tells the story of Billie (Tilda Cobham-Hervey), a gamine sixteen-year old who arrives home one day to find that her mum, Jane (Del Herbert-Jane), is about to undergo the process of gender reassignment, and to become a man, James.

Initially seeming to take the news in her stride, Billie moves in with her father, Tom (Beau Travis Williams), since Jane/James decides that he needs space in order for to concentrate on the sex change. She will see James every Tuesday. And so the film follows the story of Billie and her family over the course of a year, hence the film’s title.

However, as the year wears on, Billie, James and Tom all seem to experience various issues. For example, James’ testosterone treatment does not work as intended, and he suffers from various side effects of his treatment. Tom, meanwhile, falls from his motorbike (not for the first time).

Finally, Billie ends up playing truant at school as she falls in with Josh (Sam Althuizen) and Jasmine (Imogen Archer), two students with whom she begins to experiment sexually – initially in a backstage room near her school’s theatre, and then in a space looked after by Billie’s queer father-of-one uncle, Harry (Mario Späte), a freewheeling libertine who lives with James and who seems to be in a rock band.

Not only does Billie push the boundaries of her relationship with her friends and family, then, but she also begins quite compulsively to record many of her sexual encounters with Josh and Jasmine – something that eventually is discovered by their parents, and which might fall foul of the law since the participants in the sex tapes are underage.

Billie’s motivation for recording her experiences are not necessarily narcissistic, though. That is, while there are elements of (well captured and certainly well performed) teenage navel-gazing in her footage, especially in her to-camera video diary confessions, there are two other reasons as to why this is happening.

Firstly, as Billie explains, she is no different from James, who similarly is recording his own transition from woman to man for the sake of posterity. That is, the act of recording is a bid to help one to understand the changes that one experiences and also perhaps to record for posterity a life that is otherwise all too fleeting.

Secondly, though, Billie might be recording herself in a bid to make sense of the world more generally. As the film flips from Tuesday to Tuesday, we regularly see television news footage of what at the time of the film’s making were current affairs: for example, the indictment of Julian Assange, footage from the civil war in Syria and the sinking of the Costa Concordia.

It is not that these clips ground the film in some specific political reality. On the contrary, the footage flashes past us with the effect that it is often hard to recognise what is going on. In other words, the world is a confusing and constantly changing place – and it is easy to feel lost therein.

More than this: one of the reasons why the world is so confusing is because it is so highly mediated; we are bombarded by images from all over the world, and the images themselves do not make that much sense unless we construct a narrative out of them, for example by adding a voice over in order to explain the images away.

That is, our confusion regarding the world is partially increased by information overload and by the technologies that humans have in principle created not only to bring order to that world but also precisely to help us make sense of it.

What do we make of Billie’s (and James’) almost pathological desire to record her/their experiences? Well, as mentioned, it is in part in order to make sense of their lives as they struggle to understand who they are.

But in particular, it is also about struggling who one is in terms of desire: what one wants. And what is interesting here, then, is the fact that the technology itself becomes the object of our desires.

Steven Soderbergh saw this at the start of his career and at the dawn of the age of the digital camera, now exploded into the world of mobile phones and other recording devices, when he made sex, lies, and videotape (USA, 1989).

It is not so much the other person that we desire as a complex mix of the other and the technology itself. And given how strange this must be for a human – to realise that their sexuality extends beyond the human and into the technological realm – little wonder it is that humans feel compelled to record what happens.

That is, the technology produces the desire while at the same time offering the hope for an explanation of that desire. If I might proffer a controversial claim, the technology becomes like therapy: it clarifies the problems that it claims to solve in order to extend our own relationship with that very technology.

It is, in other words, as if the technology were alive – and as if it were acting like a parasite with us in order to assure its own existence. It is likely a logical consequence of the camera on the mobile phone, in conjunction with WhatsApp and SnapChat, that teenage images and videos of genitalia are almost certainly rife across most schools in the (Western) world.

The world is confusing. But more than that, the narratives that we used to use to make sense of the world are no longer tenable as technology allows for gender reassignment, as it allows for auto-recording, and as it allows for us permanently to be experimenting with who we are, removing a sense of stability from the world and replacing it with fragmentation and becoming.

What is true of the world that 52 Tuesdays depicts is true also of how it depicts it. This is not simply a case of the mix of media that we see – home videos, video messages, Skype conversations, video diaries, ‘normal’ footage – and the use of the footage from the news.

It is also true of the way that the film shows us only what happens on Tuesdays. Interestingly, director Sophie Hyde and her crew also only shot the film on Tuesdays over the course of a year. As a result, the film itself has a fragmented feel, in which it is hard for us as viewers to construct a narrative – certainly more hard than it is most easy-to-follow films.

And yet, this fragmentation is a powerful tool for putting us the in the shoes of Billie and James, for we end up, like them, trying to make sense of what it is that we see.

Time rushes by, but time also can drag. As there is no fixed gender in the film (Billie is a boy’s name, Harry is effeminate, James obviously is changing sex), so there is no fixed rhythm to the film either, as it jerks then slows. The fragmentation of the world is not just spatial, it is also temporal/rhythmic.

While Tuesday is a typically masculine day (mardi, then French word for Tuesday, is named after the Roman god of war, Mars; the English name is also after the Norse god of war, Tiw), it is also a day on which we celebrate the carnival of gender reassignment, mardi gras.

And yet, while carnival sees the typical roles that we normally play reversed – men become women, the poor become rich – this is a controlled festival that ultimately helps to maintain the status quo.

What is perhaps interesting at the last, then, is that as carnival has within it a strong conservative streak, so, too, does 52 Tuesdays. For, ultimately after Jasmine and Josh fall by the wayside (before a final reconciliation), family does come through as a final lens through which to make sense of the world.

What is pleasurable about 52 Tuesdays is the fact that there is little to no sensationalising of Jane/James’ transition – perhaps in part as a result of Herbert-Jane’s remarkable performance and his own gender non-conformity in real life.

But also Cobham-Hervey’s central performance as Billie is especially affecting. At times archly scripted, nonetheless, 52 Tuesdays also captures the arch thinking to which adolescents sometimes can be prone.

An experimental feature that is engaged precisely with experimentation in relation to the sense-making process of narrative, 52 Tuesdays is a mature film, even if sometimes about immaturity – and if one were interested in a double bill, it would make a nice companion piece to Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, USA, 2015).

The Rocket (Kim Mordaunt, Australia/Thailand/Laos, 2013)

Australian Cinema, Blogpost, Film education, Film reviews, Laotian Cinema, Uncategorized

I recently introduced The Rocket at the Ritzy Picturehouse in Brixton, London. The cinema has asked me to post my comments on the film online. While I was working from notes, and thus cannot reproduce fully what I said, this blog post nonetheless can convey some of my thoughts on the film.

So…

Set in Laos, The Rocket tells the story of Ahlo (Sittiphon Dissamoe), one of a pair of twins, but whose brother dies during childbirth. Ahlo is loved by his mother, Mali (Alice Keohavong), but twins are considered to be omens of bad luck according to local superstition. And since Ahlo’s brother died in childbirth, Ahlo must be a bringer of bad luck – or at least this is what his grandmother, Taitok (Bunsri Yindee), believes.

That Ahlo brings bad luck to the family is affirmed when the family is forced to migrate as a result of a dam being constructed in the region where they live. They are taken to a refugee camp, where their lives are affected by poverty. At the camp, Ahlo befriends fellow outsiders Kia (Loungnam Kaosainam) and her father Purple (Thep Phongam), who is obsessed with James Brown.

The family flees the camp, but endures more loss – affirming Ahlo’s status as the purveyor of bad luck, something that even Ahlo’s father, Toma (Sumrit Warin), begins to believe.

And so, in order to redeem himself, Ahlo decides to enter a rocket competition. This is a festival in which people build their own rockets and then fire them at the sky. Those rockets that fly highest, explode biggest and, if possible, which bring much-needed rain, will win a cash prize.

Ahlo enters, re-bonds with his father, and sets off a rocket that soars high, explodes mightily and forces the heavens to open. After tragedy, then, the film has a happy ending.

The Rocket is directed by Kim Mordaunt, a British-Australian who has lived extensively in Asia, and who has also taught filmmaking there.

Mordaunt has historically plied his trade most prominently as a documentary maker. Indeed, his earlier film, Bomb Harvest (Australia, 2007), has various similarities with The Rocket. Although the central character of that film is an Australian bomb disposal specialist, it nonetheless features Lao children who collect bombs to sell as scrap metal. This film no doubt informed The Rocket, since we also see Lao children playing around and working with unexploded bombs, including Ahlo.

The Rocket is Mordaunt’s first fiction feature, and it has won awards at the Berlin (Crystal Bear, Best First Feature, Amnesty International Film Prize), at the Sydney (Audience Award), and at the Tribeca (Best Film, Best Actor, Audience Award) Film Festivals.

Nonetheless, Mordaunt’s documentary sensibility remains in the film. This is made clear in the use of locations in the film (especially the stunning mountain scenery), but also, particularly, through the final rocket festival that is the film’s culminating point. Here, Mordaunt fuses documentary footage shot from an earlier, real rocket festival with footage shot at a recreation of that festival – and featuring his actors.

Furthermore, The Rocket has something of an ethnographic sensibility, charting rural Laotian life, including superstitions – as embodied in particular in Taitok and her belief that Ahlo is the bearer of bad luck.

Indeed, the clash of tradition with modernity is perhaps one of the key themes of the film, as I shall discuss presently.

According to Mordaunt, Laos is the most bombed nation on the planet, in part as a result of American bombing of the country during the so-called ‘Secret War.’ The ‘Secret War’ is another term for the Laotian Civil War that took place between 1953 and 1975, and which also involved those taking part in the Vietnam War. As a result, American and other forces dropped many bombs in/on Laos during this period.

Indeed, there are haunting scenes in The Rocket featuring unexploded bombs that have become an almost fixed part of the Laotian landscape – even 40 years after the end of the Secret War. The bombs, therefore, come to symbolise in the film both the precarious nature of life for the many people living in the Lao countryside (these devices could explode at any time, and lives can end suddenly, as the film shows us even from the outset with the death of Ahlo’s brother), but also the way in which Laos has perhaps been affected not by internal forces (how ‘civil’ was the Secret War?) but by external forces.

One senses, almost, that rural Laos might well continue to exist in a peaceful and bucolic fashion had it not been bombed into modernity. This forced entry into modernity continues today, but instead of bombs, the film shows to us the forced relocation of many Lao people as a result of dam construction (Mordaunt in interview reminds us that 60 million people have been relocated worldwide for dam construction – more than the entire population of the UK).

And, in an interview with the BFI, Mordaunt talks about how the film wants to reflect on Laos’ relationship with the wider world, suggesting how Australia plays a role in the dam-related relocations and the problem of robber barons (basically, people who bleed a country’s veins dry of its natural resources and get extremely rich in the process).

In Mordaunt’s own words: “There are a lot of cowboys about,” he says. “Our government is always saying we must relate to Asia. But the majority of that relationship is sheer economic opportunism. There are Australians making millions every year out of the place.”

In short, then, we see in The Rocket a Laos being forced into modernity by external factors that are not necessarily much to do with the country itself.

Nonetheless, the film does not simply suggest a romantic return to a pre-modern existence. Taitok’s superstitious belief that Ahlo means bad luck is ultimately proven wrong; Ahlo is not bad luck and, indeed, might be the bearer of good luck as he wins the rocket competition.

Indeed, that Ahlo wins the rocket competition by using materials from the unexploded bombs dropped during the Secret War suggests something quite stubborn, inventive and empowering. As Mordaunt says, the rocket competition allows the Laotians to ‘shoot back at the sky’.

That is, we see Laotians reappropriate the very bombs that brought them into modernity – even if, as Curtis LeMay might have put, the aerial onslaught of the time was also designed to bomb the Laotians back to the Stone Age. And in taking the remnants of foreign presence in Laos, in turning them into their rockets that help to maintain a Laotian tradition (the rocket festival), then we see an affirmative, potentially nationalistic, act of resistance taking place.

Perhaps we can read the character of Purple in this fashion as well. In impersonating James Brown, we see Purple take on an American icon who is associated with sex and libidinal release, suggesting that Laos, too, has desire for change.

However, the film is not without issues – and we can start to sort through those with a further consideration of the character of Purple.

On 5 April 1968, the day after the death of Martin Luther King, James Brown held a concert in Boston (the city where King had been assassinated) that was otherwise due to be cancelled, thus pacifying that city’s black community, which otherwise might have risen up in resistance and outrage in response to the events (as documented in The Night James Brown Saved Boston, David Leaf, USA, 2008).

With King as a noted civil rights activist who was vocal in his opposition to the Vietnam War, Purple would seem to use Brown also a means to speak out against the national trauma that has been the Secret War. Indeed, with Ahlo’s lost brother, with Purple’s alter ego as James Brown, and with the Secret War being the hidden other of the much more widely recognised and covered Vietnam War, The Rocket is in part about doubles – about missing doubles and overlooked histories that really ought to figure much more in our historical consciousness and in our understanding of the world today.

Nonetheless, Brown also caused controversy during the Vietnam War by travelling out to Asia in order to play to American troops. How ‘against’ the war was he such that he could do this? Brown insisted that soldiers are humans, too, but this makes the Purple-Brown analogy muddier and more problematic. And it becomes even more so when a source like this one suggests that Brown only agreed to play the concert if paid US$60,000 (of which he only allegedly received US$10,000). Did Brown take the money because one should not work for the Man for free, as it were? Or in going on stage and in asking Boston’s community not to react violently to the King assassination, did this make of Brown an ‘Uncle Tom’ figure – as various people accused him at the time?

In relation to Purple in The Rocket, that James Brown is such an unclear figure perhaps only reinforces the sense of trauma that Purple, with his military past, must have suffered. Somewhere here we have reworked Purple’s erased, real identity as the double of James Brown, as Ahlo is the double of Laos’ past, trying to work his perceived bad luck into some good luck by taking American bombs and firing them back into the sky.

The explosion might cause some rain to come down – with water being a key symbol of the film. A dam is being built – to use water for power, of course, but in an effort that might also privatise water, this most natural resource. The rural dwellers of the film are in a drought – and all that they have experienced in the past is a rain of bombs. And so they fire back into the sky and a new shower descends; perhaps the past will not so much be washed away, but allowed properly to appear and to be understood.

However, Purple is played by a well known Thai actor, Thep Phongam. In other words, if Purple as a character, and the film perhaps as a whole, are designed to make visible a ‘secret’ past that has for far too long remained invisible, it is ironic that a Thai star in fact only re-occults Laos; not even a Laotian actor can be found to play the part of a traumatised Laotian. That is, Laos continues to be invisible.

Perhaps the same is taking place through the casting of Bunsri Yindi as Taitok, Ahlo’s grandmother. Yindi is also a Thai actress, best known for playing the mother of Ting (Tony Jaa) in Ong-bak (Prachya Pinkaew, Thailand, 2003).

But most pertinent to this erasure-under-the-pretence-of-exposure is Mordaunt as director and the film itself.

 As the film’s website says, ‘The Rocket is one of the first feature films for international release set and shot in the intriguing and little-known country of Laos, rarely seen by the outside world since the end of the Vietnam War.’

(Air America, Roger Spottiswoode, USA, 1993, was set in Laos – but the film was in fact shot in Thailand and the USA. It stars Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr as pilots ‘recruited into a covert and corrupt CIA airlift organisation’.)

And yet, the film is made by an Australian-British filmmaker – and not by a Laotian.

In the film’s press kit, Mordaunt proudly declares that after Bomb Harvest, the ‘Lao and international response to the film was that we should make another film with a Lao child as the protagonist. And because Laos didn’t have a funded film industry we should be the team to endeavour to make Laos’ first internationally released feature film.’

It is in some ways fair enough that Mordaunt should make any film he chooses to, not least because, as he makes clear, Laos has no film industry to speak of. But on another level, since it is Mordaunt who is at the centre of the film’s publicity (rather than, say, Ki, the boy who plays Ahlo and whose performance is absolutely remarkable), we see Mordaunt himself becoming a quasi-robber baron of sorts – exploiting Laos and its history in order to make a career for himself.

Similarly, Australia put the film forward as its nomination for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2014 Academy Awards. Australia, therefore, is happy to reap the benefits of this film in a similar fashion that makes Australian a film that is supposed to be giving to Laos its own cinematic identity. Those amazing landscapes that help to sell the film are not Australian, but Laotian. They should be recognised as such.

In short, then, if the film is supposed to convey how Laos has been forced into modernity by foreign forces (Vietnam, the USA, Australia), then the film and Mordaunt in fact only continue this cycle. Laos itself gets re-buried after having exhumed for the benefit of Western audiences – something made clearer still when we learn that the film was banned in Laos itself (my thanks to Sonia P Barras and to Ben Dunant for bringing this to my attention).

Perhaps this also explains why, even though Mordaunt mentions that the film reflects on how Australia plays a role in shaping contemporary Laos, this is not actually particularly visible (if at all) in the film itself. In other words, while Mordaunt’s words do help to justify his film politically, one wonders that the film itself does not in fact have much political, but rather an economic sensibility.

This is made clear by the film’s final ambition for Ahlo to get rich quick via a rocket competition. As per the equally problematic Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle and Loveleen Tandan, UK, 2008), money – and money gained via luck/a lottery of sorts (it happens to start to rain when Ahlo fires his rocket) – is posited as the answer to all problems. In other words, Laos can only get on board in modernity if it adopts a policy of individual, rather than collective, enrichment via competition.

In short, The Rocket suggests that capitalism is the answer for Laos. No wonder the film got banned in the communist country that is Laos itself…

Slumdog is equally problematic in its British use of India – and in its tale of individual escape by competition-winning. That co-director Loveleen Tandan is barely given any credit for the film – Danny Boyle did not share his directing Oscar with her – demonstrates clearly the true erasure of India that the film in fact gives to us.

Perhaps, then, it is no coincidence that Western reimaginings of places like India and Laos can only be problematic – and perhaps we are in the midst of seeing a new, cinematic imperialism given how prominent it is becoming that Western filmmakers travel to the Third World in order to start their filmmaking careers.

(A short list of films might include Maria Full of Grace (Joshua Marston, Colombia/USA/Educador, 2004), Año bisiesto/Leap Year (Michael Rowe, Mexico, 2010), Soi Cowboy (Thomas Clay, Thailand/UK, 2008), Grand comme le baobab/Tall as the Baobab Tree (Jeremy Teicher, Senegal, 2012), Katalin Varga (Peter Strickland, Romania/UK, 2009) – but there are many, many more.)

Finally, then, cinema is itself a double of reality. As Ahlo hides his dead twin, so perhaps The Rocket hides the real (dead?) Laos that this film proclaims to reveal. The Rocket is a visually stunning and beautifully acted film, demonstrating the precarious nature of life in rural Laos and showing us – at least implicitly – a scarred and traumatic national past in a sensitive and affecting fashion.

The problem remains, however, that while Laotians should perhaps indeed shoot back at the sky, they are not (yet) shooting their own films. The deprivation of water, here understood as the flow of cinematic images, seems instead to continue…