On taking chances and following your heart in filmmaking
By Sarah Ward
“Everything was a surprise”, reflects Kim Mordaunt as he prepares for his keynote address at the 20th Sydney Film School Film Festival. From teaching filmmaking in indigenous communities, to making documentaries in Asia, to earning international acclaim with his first feature, the path his career has taken has continually defied his expectations. “I never imagined it,” he shares. “Never take anything for granted,” he advises.
Today, Mordaunt is best known as the writer and director of 2013’s The Rocket, a small film that parlayed its big heart and abundant enthusiasm into worldwide success. Screening at Berlinale, it won the Generation Kplus award for best film, as well as a nod for best debut. At TriBeCa, it took home the audience and festival awards for best narrative work, and earned young lead actor Sitthiphon Disamoe the best actor accolade. As the feature made its way around the festival circuit, from Beijing to Bombay, Calgary to Leeds, Seattle to Sao Paolo, the applause kept coming, including audience awards at both the Sydney and Melbourne film festivals. Recognition from a variety of awards bodies, the AACTAs, and the Australian writing, directing and screen editing guilds among them, also added to the growing pile of trophies.
In the early 1990s, when Mordaunt graduated from the University of Technology Sydney with “my film degree in my hand, which gave me no job,” he fell into a role that would spark his current path, including time spent teaching at Sydney Film School. Focusing on writing genre pieces, “I hadn’t planned to teach,” Mordaunt remembers. “I went down [to] the job centre on Parramatta Road, and I was interviewed by this lovely indigenous lady. She said “I’ve got a job for you”. It was teaching at Eora College, which is an indigenous arts college in Redfern and Chippendale. That was the beginning of my teaching career. I was immersed in indigenous culture, which I knew very little about, and it educated me about indigenous Australia. And then the first films that I made were working with indigenous filmmakers.”
The same sense of fate has followed Mordaunt since, as his experience with The Rocket clearly illustrates. As he recalls, “for the producer of the film, Sylvia Wilczynski, and I, when we made this film, it came from a connection with the country of Laos. We lived and worked in the region ten years ago, and that led us to making a documentary called Bomb Harvest. Out of that film, we had established a relationship with the Laos community in Sydney, and we said, “why don’t we make another film together?” Because Bomb Harvest was very much from an Anglo perspective around an Australian bomb disposal specialist – it was for ABC so it had to have a strong Anglo perspective, and it was fantastic – the Laos community said to us “next time around, why can’t it be a Laos perspective in Laos language, and can’t we make the lead characters Laos?” We said, “oh wow, okay.”
Perseverance and passion then filled in the gaps on a film Mordaunt and Wilczynski felt they had to make, albeit one riddled with challenges. “That was an absolutely terrifying prospect for Sylvia and myself, because it was our first dramatic feature. It meant that there’d be no stars, no Western stars, in this film. It would be in a foreign language. We were trying to make it out of Australia, and it is all shot overseas. So it was incredibly hard, and not something we came to lightly, but it was kind of burning in our hearts in a way. I think that happens once you have been inside a country a lot, which has been through war and we spent a lot of time when we were making Bomb Harvest with the children of Laos – the sub-narrative of that documentary is about them collecting the bomb scrap metal – so we spent months on the ground for that film. It was seven days a week, staying in camps, staying in remote areas, and that is kind of life changing in a way.”
Stemming from the serendipitous route The Rocket followed in coming to fruition, international appeal is important to Mordaunt, as is the need to think globally in storytelling and filmmaking. “I guess what you’re always looking for in a story is something that is first and foremost deeply personal and moving. Something that is very human, and, in a way, quite simple – something that is about human beings. And then, I guess the next thing I am looking for is a kind of context that opens the story out to the planet, something that becomes very important, that is actually very important for everyone across the planet. With The Rocket, part of the story is about a family who gets relocated by a dam, and it’s about how people’s homes can become threatened by larger industry, and how industry can take control of our resources – of rivers, of the skies, of mountains, of our elements.”
“I think that is what has given the film its international flavour as well, those two things – it is a very personal story, it is about a family, a boy trying to get his family to not blame him for something, and for him to be forgiven and to forgive himself for what he thinks he has done. So it is a very small human story in a way, but on a larger context, it is also about mysticism and it is about history of the place, and how that banks up and then can throw blame to places where blame shouldn’t be thrown. And then in this case, I guess the greater antagonist of this piece is industry. It is western industry, and greed, and how that can create pressures inside families where there is loss and where there is blame. That is something that is very real to everyone.”
Off screen as well as on, Mordaunt feels as strongly about the need to create works that reflect a variety of different experiences, and for filmmakers to seek out work that allows them that opportunity. It all starts with film schools, “very valuable places where students can go and try things out, they can tell their stories, they can collaborate with other students, and they can have mentors.” At Sydney Film School in particular, Mordaunt notes, “you’ve got students who come from all around the world. For Sylvia and I, with the stories that we make, that is very important. Obviously Australia is our home, but we live on this big old planet. So in terms of kind of getting perspectives that encompass this planet, we think that’s incredibly important in narrative – not only in personal stories, but what people bring culturally, histories and mysticism and stories of family and how that aligns with people from all around the world. I think there is a lot of value in that.”
Mordaunt’s time as a teacher at Sydney Film School enabled him to pass this way of thinking down to the next generation of filmmakers, particularly via practical experience on The Rocket. “It is also good to get students and attachments onto productions, and we did that with The Rocket. We’ve got a girl called Ana Jimenez who went through Sydney Film School, and she came on the entire journey of The Rocket with us. She is now our assistant and works with us three days a week, and still does a year after production. Also, we took on quite a few attachments, from either Sydney Film School or other film schools in Thailand, or from drama groups in Laos. I think the process of making a film is, yes you have to get the film made, but at the same time it should be a place where there are building blocks for people and for young students as well.”
Summarising his own journey from attending film school to delivering a keynote address to film students, Mordaunt is adamant about hard work and being open to anything. “I think, one thing is to not feel there are any short cuts. Some people think, “oh I will come out and I will direct my big movie”. That pretty much never happens. I think probably the most valuable thing for me is letting life make some of those decisions. It is not always about a deep grinding ambition – it is actually also about what you connect with, where life is sort of taking you, and the people you connect with. Out of that comes a kind of connection to the narratives that exist in those places and in those people, and I think that is far more valuable than ambition itself.”
“My biggest piece of advice would be to follow your heart rather than your ego,” he continues. “I was writing these genre pieces, and suddenly life took me in a different direction. It took me to South-East Asia, and we connected with that place on a very deep level, with a place that had suffered war. And we connected with the people there very deeply, and then with the Laos people back in Australia. So it was a path that I never chose, and the same with teaching. I never chose to go and teach. I never came out of university and said, ‘well what I want to do now is to go make films with indigenous people’, it was just that that woman gave me that job, and then there I was. I became very interested and passionate about those stories that existed inside indigenous Australia, and the same thing happened with Laos.”
Mordaunt further expands, “I think it is then about choices. You’ve got to make a choice, and then make those personal connections into something that will translate, communicate and entertain, you know. Yes, you need to make deeply personal stories and they need to be of your heart, and they need to be truthful, but I am a true believer in that they also need to entertain. I’m not one of those filmmakers who say, “look I don’t care if no one comes to my film, if no audience member connects with my film whatsoever, it is not for them, it is for me”. I think that’s terribly indulgent, because filmmaking is expensive, timely and costly and involves a lot of people, so I want to connect with an audience. And that’s very important.”
Sarah Ward is a film critic, arts writer and festival devotee. For over a decade, Sarah has contributed to cinema, culture and festival publications and websites, as well as local and community stations. She currently writes for artsHub, FilmInk, Concrete Playground, Metro Magazine and Trespass Magazine, and can be heard weekly on ABC digital radio.