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The Rocket

ATOM 2013

A STUDY GUIDE by Warren Prior
ISBN: 978-1-74295-298-7

The film has

subtitles in

personal story set amid the backdrop

of a country in transition, incorporating
great humour and the examination of a
number of human rights issues.

Background to
The Rocket

Curriculum Links

Synopsis of the film

The film is set in the enigmatic and little
known country of Laos. It is a heartwarming story of a ten-year old boy,
Ahlo, who from his very birth is seen to
bring bad luck to all who come in contact with him. Set in rural Laos, which is
still suffering from the vestiges of both
years of civil war and the Vietnam War
of the 196070s, the young boys family
and the local villagers have been told
by government officials that their village
has to be abandoned to make way for a
new dam, a commercial AustralianLao
project. Forced to move to a location
totally unsuitable for subsistence farmers, the young boy meets up with other
misfits a spirited orphan, Kia, and
her eccentric uncle Purple. As a group
they are ostracised by the other relocated villagers, but Ahlo initiates a dangerous but lucrative plan to save them
all and finally gain forgiveness. It is a

The Rocket sensitively captures a

country in a post-war context. While
the immediate setting is the warravaged South-East Asian country
of Laos, there are many issues in the
film that are of universal interest and
concern. Some immediate curriculum
connections that can be made to topics and issues examined by Australian
students include the role of Australian
soldiers in the Vietnam War, protection
of the environment, economic sustainability and human rights.
The Rocket is suitable for a wide range
of year levels, from upper primary
right through to upper secondary.
For younger students the film can
be seen just as a personal story of
a streetwise young boy who, after a
series of misadventures and disasters, finally triumphs, thus saving his
extended family. Investigations about
taking responsibility for your actions
and discussions about the common
good would be appropriate. For senior
students the film can also be seen in
the context of a war-ravaged country
where traditions, change, human rights
and multinational business exploitation
are all thrown up for discussion.


This 96-minute feature film

is written and directed by
Australian filmmaker Kim
Mordaunt, produced by Sylvia
Wilczynski of Red Lamp
Films and due for release
in Australia in 2013. The
film was shot in Laos and
Thailand in January 2012. Kim
Mordaunt is an experienced
Australian actor, teacher
and cinematographer who
is best known for his large
body of documentary work,
and has lived and worked
throughout South-East Asia.
The Rocket was selected
for the Berlin International
Film Festival 2013, where it
won Best First Feature, the
Crystal Bear for Best Feature
in the Generation KPlus youth
category and the Amnesty
International Award. It also
won Best Feature, Best Actor
(for ten-year-old Sitthiphon
Disamoe) and the Audience
Award at the 2013 Tribeca
Film Festival in New York.

The film has an M rating, but note that the

film was screened in the Generation KPlus
section of the Berlin International Film
Festival (which screens films about and
for children), which gave an age guide of
11 years and over.

The curriculum areas that that the

documentary could be related to

Media Studies
Civics and Citizenship
Environmental Studies
Business Studies

Australian National
The new Australian National
Curriculum (ANC) has so far released
curriculum frameworks for English,
History, Science and Mathematics.
The ANC is itself framed by the
Melbourne Declaration on Educational
Goals for Young Australians
(December 2008), that states in its

Goal 2 of the ANC states that students:

are creative, innovative and
resourceful, and are able to solve
problems in ways that draw upon
a range of learning areas and
are able to plan activities independently, collaborate, work in teams
and communicate ideas;
are able to make sense of their
world and think about how things
have become the way they are;
develop personal values and attributes such as honesty, resilience,
empathy and respect for others;
are able to relate to and communicate across cultures, especially the
cultures and countries of Asia;
work for the common good, in
particular sustaining and improving
natural and social environments;
are responsible global and local

Before even looking at the film and

before investigating if your students
can locate Laos on a world map, one
strategy to begin exploring the issues
raised in the film is to create a scenario in which students confront a similar values dilemma. This strategy is
useful for developing communication
skills, exploring values clarification and
enhancing students understandings
about strategising for social action.


Global integration and international

mobility have increased rapidly in
the past decade. As a consequence,
new and exciting opportunities for
Australians are emerging. This heightens the need to nurture an appreciation of and respect for social, cultural
and religious diversity, and a sense
of global citizenship. India, China
and other Asian nations are growing and their influence on the world

is increasing. Australians need to

become Asia literate, engaging and
building strong relationships with Asia.

The Rocket is an excellent teaching

and learning resource for developing
students capacity to contribute to a
socially just and sustainable world.
The film explores several issues
central to the human rights of all of
us: personal safety, shelter, individual
freedoms and the equitable distribution of food and other resources.
These are very pertinent to the goals
of the above Australian National
Curriculum, being linked to the development of problem-solving skills and
the clarification of personal values for
the common good. The setting of the
film in Laos provides a close locational
synergy to the many references to
the Asian region throughout the new
Australian National Curriculum and
the opportunities to explore issues of
social justice, human rights, cultural
diversity and ecological sustainability
can be pedagogically adjusted to suit
a wide range of year levels.


As a member of the family, list the

feelings you experienced when you
first heard about the proposed new
What are the facts about the

Are there any unknown facts or issues that need to be clarified?

Why do you think the State
Government might be building the
new highway?
Who might you and your family contact to seek further
Do you think it would be useful to
talk to your neighbours about the
situation? Why? Or is it better to
take action alone?
If you and your family are unhappy
about the proposed new highway
running through your house, what
actions might you take to oppose
the plan? List your actions in terms
of priorities and order of activity.
Develop an action plan. Are some
actions more likely to be effective
than others?
Are some actions easier to organise than others? Might some

actions be illegal? Is that okay?

Because it is a government action,
do you think it is simply not worth
the effort to take any opposing
action? Is it okay for governments
to take such action, even if a few
people will be inconvenienced?
John, a local hotel owner, strongly
supports the new highway, as he
believes it will be good for business. How might your action plan
be affected if a few people support
the proposed new highway?
A local community meeting has
been called to discuss the situation. Discuss the many participants
who might attend this meeting.
Allocate roles to students who
then prepare a brief speech for
the meeting outlining their opinions about the proposed highway.
Appoint a chairperson and run the
class meeting.


Scenario: You and your family have

been happily living in a house in a
small country town. You go to the local
school and have many good friends
in your class. Your Mum loves growing vegetables in the backyard. Then,
without any warning, your family and
your neighbours receive a letter from
the State Government saying that a
new highway is being planned to be
built through your town. Your house
is directly in the path of the proposed
highway. You notice that the new
highway also goes right through your
favourite bike track. You and all your
neighbours will have to move as your
houses will need to be demolished.
The Highway Authority has promised that you will receive suitable

Now, thinking back about this scenario, whose rights do you think
need to be protected? Can you
protect everyones rights?

Context of the Film

Where is

Although Australia has a sizeable Lao

population, largely as a result of our
participation in the Vietnam War in the
196070s, the country is little known
here. Laos is in the Asian region,
where the filmmakers have worked
and lived over the past ten years.

Is this a
dark film?

Most films begin with the title

being shown. This film, however,
begins with several scenes set
in a village, location unknown, in
darkness. Two babies are born in a
small village house. What evidence
is there in this very early part of the
film of local cultural customs?
The birth of twins is seen as bringing bad luck. Is this a superstition

or do you think there is some truth

in this belief? Why do you think
this superstition might have originally developed?
Why does the film begin in the
dark? Does it suggest that bad
luck is lurking all around?
Then we get the title of the film and
Ahlo is now a ten-year-old boy.
Does he appear to know of the
belief about twins?
What sort of boy is Ahlo? What
characteristics does he demonstrate early in the film? Find specific examples from the film.
Do you think Ahlo is cursed with
bad luck, being a twin?
Do we, in Australia, have any superstitions about birth and babies?

A Village in

What evidence is shown that

Ahlos village is in a period of transition from old to new?
Whenever a community is in such
a transition period, what impact
does this have on the local people? Can you think of examples in
Australia where communities are/
have been in transition? A few
examples you might consider are
urban suburbs that rapidly become


Using the Internet, atlases and

other resources, locate Laos. In
particular, note its location in relation to Vietnam, China, Cambodia
and Australia. Laos is sometimes
described as being landlocked.
What does this mean? What impact, if any might this have on the
cultural and economic lives of the
By undertaking some research
develop a thumbnail picture /
tourist brochure / poster of Laos,
incorporating its current total
population, capital city, religion(s),
currency, flag, language(s),
ethnic group(s), climate, type of

government, current major industries, occupation(s) of the majority

of Lao people. What impact might
the countrys (potentially) multiple
religions, languages, ethnic groups
and occupations have on the lives
of the people?
The popular tourist guide Lonely
Planet, describes Laos as being
of increasing interest to traveling
Australians, having a cult status
among travellers. What do you
think this means?
Investigate if an Australian airline
flies directly to Laos. How much is
the airfare?
Visit a local travel agent and get
a travel brochure about Laos.
Discuss in groups the images
shown in the brochures.

In what ways is the relocation of

people extremely complex?
Share your findings across the
whole class. Ask students to put
themselves in the place of a villager and then vote on the outcome.


The recent bushfire tragedies in

Australia showed us that sometimes people have very little time
to prepare to leave their homes.
Sometimes people have to leave
with just the clothes they are wearing. Others have time to pack their
car before leaving. List ten things
you would want to take with you.
How did you make this decision?
Why did Ahlo want to take his
boat? What did he finally have with
him on arrival in his new settlement? Why did he choose to take
When Ahlo swam in Nam Dee 1 he
discovered an underwater ghost
town. What do you think this discovery was meant to show about


gentrified, suburbs that rapidly

become the chosen locality of
a particular ethnic group, or the
displacement of Indigenous people
from their traditional communities.
Sometimes these transitional
periods can lead to community
tensions. Why? Can you find examples of tension in Ahlos village?
Think back to the first activity
about a proposed highway to be
built through a country town in
Australia. What is the proposal being made about Ahlos village?
Who is going to build the Nam Dee
2 dam that will force people to
move from their village?
Is there any evidence that there
has been community consultation and discussion about the new
dam? Should consultation always
take place in these situations?
In small groups, construct a twocolumn table of reasons why the
dam should be built and the villagers moved to another area and
reasons why the dam should not
be built in the proposed location.

what happens when people are

forced to move from their traditional homes?
How does the film show that arrangements were not ready for the
new settlers? Should a new village
have been completed? Why? Who
should have built it?
Think again about our recent tragic
bushfires where whole towns were
destroyed, many people died
and new towns had to be rebuilt.
What is the role of governments
in this rebuilding process? Should
individual people have a right to
decide about the nature of their
new homes or where they can live?
Sometimes we use the word spin
to describe how some people, often governments or organisations,
talk about promises that, in reality,
have little hope of being achieved.
They could be called false promises. How is spin evident in the
resettling of people in their new
village? Why was the spin spoken
by a local Lao person and not the
Australian male standing next to
her? Did all people believe her
What evidence is there of discrimination between those people
building the new dam and the
What social, cultural and economic
problems did the people face in
their new settlements?
Why do you think the villagers,
at first in their own villages and
later in the new settlement, oppose the building of the new dam
and show their opposition to the
What is a sleeping tiger?
Look up the meaning of refugee
in a dictionary. Can these people
be called refugees?


War in

The makers of this film, The

Rocket, had previously made a
documentary called Bomb Harvest,
about an Australian bomb-disposal
expert in Laos and the children
who collect bomb scrap metal to
sell. Much of Laos was bombed
during the Vietnam War. One third
of Laos population were killed,
injured or made homeless. Using
the internet and other resources,
investigate the extent of the bombing of Laos by the USA (and supported by Australia).
The war in Laos also greatly
increased the tensions between
ethnic groups in Laos. Look for

tensions the film highlighted, including wealth, traditions, and land

Do you think countries including Australia, who fought with the
USA in the Vietnam War have
a responsibility to clean up the
mess after the actual fighting
is over? What might be a useful


The terrible impact of unexploded

bombs is everywhere in Laos, as they
are still in many other war-torn countries. The film contains constant reminders of this tragedy, and the village
of Paradise proves to be as unsafe
as other abandoned and bombed-out


Describe how Uncle Purple is first

introduced in the film.
Uncle Purple is described by Ahlo
and others as an ex-soldier. In
whose army was he a member?
Why was he in this army?
Who is James Brown? Use the
Internet and other resources to
investigate the real James Brown.
Why do you think Uncle Purple
modelled himself on James
Why is Uncle Purple described as
an outsider and unconventional?
Do you think he is an outsider?
When Uncle Purple remarks that
all people want is food, water and
lots of land, is this the opinion of
an outsider?
In what ways might Uncle Purple
be a powerful metaphor (or symbol) for Laos history?
Why did the two families decide
to escape the new settlement?
How did their escape method show
the impact of past wars in Laos?

villages in Laos.
A building-a-rocket competition with a prize is a traditional
activity. What is the origin of this
event? Why does the building of
a rocket seem to be the way to
save the group from its constant
Discuss what appears to be a
contradiction between the building
of new dams and the hope that the
Rocket Festival will bring rain. Is it
a contradiction?
What prize did Ahlo and his family receive for winning the rocket




It is about forty years since the actual

fighting in Laos as part of the Vietnam
War has finished. So although the film
contains constant reminders of the
war, there is now another type of war
taking place. Perhaps you might like
to consider if war is the appropriate word to describe the rapid and
sometimes destructive exploitation of

the many natural resources in Laos by

foreign multinational companies.
Looking back over the film, what
natural resources were shown to
be in Laos?
To what extent is it fair to call Laos
an underdeveloped country?
In the film, the new dam was to
be built by a joint AustralianLao
partnership. Did you notice any
Australian actors?
What role did the Australian businessman play in the development
of the dam?
Australia is one of the main players
in the development of natural
resources in Laos, especially in
mining and the building of hydroelectric projects. What responsibilities, if any, do Australian
companies and/or the Australian
Government, have in establishing
business developments in Laos?
(or in any other country)?


The Rocket raises some global issues about so-called development

of Third-World countries. But it is
also a personal story that touches
daily human and personal issues.
Shown mainly through the eyes
and actions of ten-year-old Ahlo,
at times it shows the Lao sense of
humour. How would you describe
this humour? Is it funny?
What examples were there in the
film of the diversity of the Lao

Making a film in another cultural

setting is often challenging. To
what extent do you think the
filmmakers demonstrated cultural
empathy and a non-patronising attitude? Use examples from the film
to support your view.
Australia too can be described as
being culturally diverse. Thinking
about the film, what examples, if
any, are there of cultural, social
and personal characteristics common between Laos and Australia?

This study guide was produced by ATOM. ( ATOM 2013)

ISBN: 978-1-74295-298-7
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