Monday, September 23, 2013

Rockets, rain and a walk down memory lane



There are movies about heavy issues...and movies full of laughter and light...and then there are those rare films that manage to weave moments of humour between the heartbreak. For me, these are the films that are touching and powerful. The Rocket - which was written and directed by Australian filmmaker Kim Mordaunt and produced by Sylvia Wilczynski - is one such movie. It had me laughing and crying at the same time. It left me feeling uplifted. It restored my faith in humanity.

Set in Laos, it tells the story of a boy who is considered cursed by his family...and his path to redemption, which leads him to meet some memorable and loveable characters...who all end up at a rocket festival together.

Maybe it's because part of my heart still remains in South East Asia that I found this film particularly magical. The cinematography is superb, with breathtaking shots of the lush green mountains of Laos. Mordaunt has spent a lot of time in this part of the world and it shows - his script is such an accurate reflection of the culture and customs of the people of Thailand and Laos. The film brought back many happy memories of my time in Asia.

All of the actors were outstanding, but the two children who play leading roles were truly exceptional. Sitthiphon Disamoe, who plays Ahlo, had the ability to convey so much emotion not only with his delivery of the lines, but in the way he moved his body - each little facial expression and shrug of his shoulders had meaning. Then there was the angelic Loungnam Kaosainam, as Kia, who is the kind of child who is able to look straight through a person and read their soul.

The film is now showing in independent cinemas across Australia and has already won a swag of awards. It has also been submitted as the official Australian entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the OscarsDo yourself a favour and go see this film!

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One of the many crazy stories I was sent to cover during my two years in Thailand was a rocket festival. In celebration of this charming film, I thought I'd share with you an excerpt from my memoir The Buffalo Funeral about the day I watched people trying to 'pierce holes' in the sky to make rain:


It had reached that time of the year when the skies over Thailand became dark and heavy in the late afternoon. Each day, under the oppressive heat and humidity, one would pray for the monsoon to break and the clouds to release rain and yet, somehow, the sky would hold thick and strong – and the country’s people would be left to sweat through another night. In the north-east province of Yasothon, villagers were gathering for Bun Bang Fai – otherwise known as the Thai Rocket Festival. On the way to the festival, when I asked Vusit about the meaning behind the long running tradition, he told me the rockets were launched so they could pierce holes in the sky and bring rain for the farmers. He also mentioned something about the rain god Wassakan who apparently loved to be worshipped with fire (go figure) and, therefore, the more ‘bang’ and smoke the rockets created, the more rain the god was sure to send.

As a child who grew up when it was still legal to launch fireworks in the backyard, I can remember being completely traumatised when walking through a dark park with my parents one night and having some drunk local teenage boys throw crackers at us. The fireworks didn’t hit us, but the noise of the tiny explosions and the sight of the sparks (which probably would have delighted the average child) left this sensitive schoolgirl rather distressed. Thankfully the laws changed and I was able to enjoy the beautiful spectacle of magical light blooms in the sky from a safe distance in the years that followed. As we pulled into town, I hoped that similar safety laws were in place in Thailand. I had made two inaccurate assumptions about Bun Bang Fai. The first was that there’d be designated ‘rocket’ areas and designated ‘spectator’ areas on the large field where the festival was taking place. Wrong. The second was that the word ‘rocket’, in this festival context, would translate to ‘small fire cracker shaped like a rocket’. Also wrong.

As I flung the tripod over my shoulder and began following Vusit through the massive crowd of already fairly intoxicated onlookers, a loud explosion ripped through the air. It was followed by a huge plume of smoke that rose high above our heads and caused an ecstatic cheer to erupt around me.

“Vusit!” He had picked up the pace, keen to catch the commotion on camera, “Vusit! Hey! These rockets – like, they are fireworks, right?” I inquired.
“No Khun Ange – they are rockets!”

BWWWOOOOOFFFFF! 

The explosion was so forceful that I considered hitting the deck to protect myself from flying debris. Another elephant- sized puff of white smoke rose from the land. I was unable to see the source of the smoke as Vusit and I were now inside a pack of sweaty festival goers – all wearing brightly coloured shirts and most holding bottles of whisky in their hands.

When we finally found a patch of ground that was raised from the rest, Vusit pointed to a group of fifteen or so men carrying something that was heavy enough for them to be straining as they moved through the spectators.

“See ... rockets!” he exclaimed, as he set up the camera.
“HO-LY CRAP!”

The parting crowd revealed the object that was weighing the men down. It was a large piece of giant bamboo that stretched for six or so metres – with two metres that had been cased in bright blue PVC piping – full of gunpowder. Around the top of the ‘rocket’ was a thick pink ribbon. The men were making their way to the far edge of the field towards three bamboo structures that looked a bit like towers of scaffolding. They would have been at least three storeys high.

Then, with great difficulty and thanks to some very long vines, the men hoisted the rocket up so that it sat vertically parallel on the bamboo scaffolding – like a space ship about to hurtle into the stratosphere. They tied it into place and then 11 of the 12 men made a run for it, leaving one guy to light the match.

BWWWOOOOOFFFFF!

The homemade rocket shot up into the sky and, before the crowd could cheer, made an abrupt about-turn – hurtling back to the earth and crashing with a BWOOF and BANG into a ditch behind the launch pad.

“Oh my god!” I looked at Vusit who let out a little girlish giggle as the smoke began rising from the ditch.
“Sometimes rocket not good,” he said.

I looked over to a small swamp where two very drunk men were splashing about in the mud. The hand painted sign next to the water’s edge read DENGER ZONE. Maybe the sign would have served the public better had it been placed on the side of the highway leading into town. I know I would have appreciated a ‘heads-up’ before I stepped onto the festival site.

It was moments like these that caused me to question the sanity of the Thai people – PVC piping, full of gunpowder, exploding in close proximity to more than one thousand onlookers? I mean, what goes up ... must come down, right? Safety anyone? Anyone?

Sensing a look of horror on my face, Vusit continued.

“One time the rocket fall on a house in a village and some guys die. Maybe five guy die. But usually just fun for the people,” he said before another missile exploded at the other end of the field.
It’s kind of strange when you turn up to an event with a TV camera. Your brain has ways of convincing you that no matter what happens in front of you, the fact that you are behind the lens makes you somehow immune to it all. Maybe that’s why TV crews find themselves risking their lives or doing crazy things to get ‘the shot’ or ‘the story’.

As I stood amongst the insanity of the rocket festival I reassured myself that nothing bad was going to happen to me. I was a journalist. I was with the guy with the big impressive TV camera. Surely the rockets knew that their job was to crash back to land, away from us! Even so, I was rather relieved when Vusit told me to stay with the tripod while he went and got some close-ups of the rockets. I opened my backpack and checked my mobile phone. I’d been hoping for a text from Mike who had left the country two days prior in his usual work-mode haste. This time he was in Fiji – covering civil unrest. But there was no message and I knew there wouldn’t be one until he returned to Bangkok. As I sank into a state of sorriness, my thoughts were interrupted by a gang of men dressed as women, wearing bright lipstick and eye shadow. They were parading through the crowd, holding what looked like small rockets between their thighs but, as they moved closer, I realised they were pieces of wood that had been carved to look like penises. What on earth? The Universe usually has a way of snapping me out of my woe-is-me-ness, but I hadn’t expected the wake-up call to be a wooden phallus! Everyone around me was also laughing, including a couple of kids who thought it would be even funnier to run up and touch one of the penises. Even the monks were laughing. I noticed a few other phallus statues around the festival site, but I was too scared to ask Vusit about the relevance of this particular appendage when it came to rain for the farmers. Peung later told me it had to do with bringing fertility to the land to ensure it was a bumper rice crop. I suppose that’s reason enough...

BWWWOOOOOFFFFF!

The ground shook as another massive rocket hurtled into the sky. I looked around, trying to spot Vusit amongst the chaos. He was standing with a family of Westerners who appeared delighted by the calamity around them. Vusit waved for me to bring the tripod over.

“Khun Angela, this family from Britain,” he explained as I uncurled the microphone lead and readied myself for the interview.

“We should stand over there – away from the peoples,” he motioned for me and the family to follow him to a clearing.

“Is it safe here?” I asked.

“Sure,” he said as he began to roll the tape. I stood next to the camera, stretching out the microphone to interview the father.

“What do you have to say about the festival?” I shouted.

BWWWOOOOOFFFFF!

“It’s CRAZY!” he shouted back, “We’ve never seen anything like it! The kids are having a ball!”

BWWWOOOOOFFFFF!

The man’s son then stepped forward. He’d obviously done his homework. “I think the festival is about awakening the rain god so that the farmers can plant their rice and the families in the village have enough food.”

Just as I was about to praise him for being so eloquent and knowledgeable...

BANG BANG BANG BANG BANG!

If you watched the tape back you would see the little boy’s eyes widen as his father says: “Um, son, I think we’re a little too close.” You’d then hear me say: “Yeah – we are, we’re too close Vusit!” and then you’d hear a thud (me dropping the microphone) as the camera revealed (thanks to a fast pan to the right) a very drunk man setting off a series of smaller rockets just metres away.

If the camera continued to pan right, and then zoomed in, it would have found me cowering behind a group of monks. Hell, if the media card wasn’t going to protect me, then surely my next best bet would be to seek shelter amongst the ordained Buddhists in the crowd! Rockets would most certainly realise how bad it would be for their karma if they were to take out a pack of monks, right?


Ange Takats is an award-winning songwriter and author. This excerpt is from her travel memoir The Buffalo Funeral which follows her unusual journey from foreign correspondent to folk singer in South East Asia.