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The Impossible – a rebuttal

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Last night, The Impossible was screened on Channel Four – which I watched and enjoyed as much for the memories of seeing this film being made and watching my son in it – and also following the kind comments on twitter.

There were some detractors though which is to be expected with anything subjective like a film – albeit I take exception to the accusation that the film has been ‘whitewashed’ – by only featuring white people who may or may not be rich.

This was a criticism of the film when it was released and at the time, I wrote a rebuttal and reproduce it here in full for anyone interested.

 

There is much chatter about the The Impossible and I am sure more to come this weekend.  I have no issues with criticisms of the film per se. It is a subjective thing. But I would like to contribute to the debate about the ‘whitewashing’ of the film across the broadsheets and internet.

Most of this debate rages amongst people who have no first hand knowledge of the tsunami whatsoever, so I feel that my opinion is relevant and objective also. The following is an extract from my forthcoming ebook on the whole subject of being Tom Holland’s dad. Text in italics is from the book and additional comments are in normal text.

 

 just a quick riposte to some of the film’s detractors; in particular regarding the absence of Thai people in the film and the over-dramatization of Maria’s injuries. All of the characters in the film are based on real encounters. They are not fictional. Maria and Lucas did rescue a small blonde Swedish boy called Daniel who they hope to meet again once the film is released. Lucas did repatriate a Swedish father called Benstrom with his son in hospital. Henry was helped to look for his children by a German tourist with an injured leg. Khao Lak is a holiday destination and the indiscriminate tsunami brushed and mixed up all before it. Some survived, many did not, but who the Belon family encountered was not an editorial decision by the film-makers.

I am not so arrogant to presume what happened in the actual tsunami as certain commentators are. I don’t know because I wasn’t there. But I have been in Thailand for Christmas in 2010 at the Holiday Inn on the island of Phi Phi and the entire resort was northern Europeans “and if then, another wave had struck; the injured and deceased would have all been Northern Europeans. But what about the staff? The staff wouldn’t have been blonde and good looking? No, the staff were all Asian and this same demographic applies to the Orchid Beach resort, Khao Lak in 2004. And yes, of course, the staff (indigenous people) were killed and injured in the disaster just like everyone else – but the film, The Impossible concentrates on the Belon family and their story alone. Eighty people alone died in the Orchid Beach Resort “and how many of these victims do we actually see? Not many. How many actual corpses are shown? One, two and even then it is not discernible from where they hail and it is irrelevant anyway. The film-makers concentrated on the Belon story and the people who they encountered. The Thai people depicted in the film are real and I think the film displays the kindness and humanity that Thailand is celebrated for. A villager who dragged Maria to safety and the Thai women who dressed her. In reality, Maria was stripped naked by the wave which was something that could not be shown in the film for obvious reasons. And the Thai doctors and nurses, of course, who saved her life. One particularly asinine reviewer asked the following question of the Thai doctor who administered the first shot of penicillin to Maria Belon and saved her life “where were his family? Er, probably at home I should imagine. The tsunami wreaked particular havoc along the coast. Implicit really. It is hotels and resorts that hug the coast in Thailand and not hospitals so it follows that the injured will be largely hotel patrons and likely that the medics working at these hospitals will be unaffected and ditto their families. And furthermore, if this journalist wants back stories to every character appearing on screen, then no doubt this same person will complain that the Impossible is too long at six hours. This same riposte applies to the those who have complained that The Impossible is too narrow and does not account for the disaster as whole. The disaster that claimed more than a quarter of a million people across more than twenty countries. Good luck to anyone brave enough to try and make this film.

As for Maria’s injuries, she is a remarkable lady. Some reviewers have noted the ‘fuss and tears’ that her character sheds in the film, which is a particularly asinine observation. The last scene of the movie is Maria and her family on board a hospital plane from Thailand, bound for Singapore. This is the point where their story and the film end, but in reality the nightmare for Maria and her family has a long way to run. In Singapore, Maria spent four months in hospital. She had some eighteen operations and was read the last rights on two occasions. The carnage and injury associated with a tsunami are obvious, but less apparent is the silent killer of infection that engulfs people and wreaks havoc after the waters have receded. The ground is pulverised by the water and what is churned up and ingested by people poisons them. Maria was heavily infected and medics worked frantically to save her life as her family looked on. Different cocktails of drugs were used on survivors all over the world as holiday-makers were repatriated home. And when a cure was found for the particular strain of infection pertinent to Thailand, the information was shared by medics worldwide and who knows how many other lives were saved as result.

Another comment that grates is the fact that the Belon family are rich which as far as I am aware is not yet a crime. Europeans who holiday in Thailand at Christmas do need to have cash and a good thing too for the Thai tourist economy. But because of this fact, are we supposed to feel less sympathy for their plight, or worse, even glee? Should some back packers have been thrown in for good measure to balance things up a little? And aren’t backpackers to Thailand very often privately educated ‘gap yah’ types anyway? Unlike cholera which we in the rich west can avoid a tsunami is completely indiscriminate it sweeps all before it and people, rich and poor do their best to survive. And not that it matters anyway, but just for the record, the Belon family are not in fact rich. They are not the masters of the universe. They are a normal middle class family who happened to be stationed in Japan as Henrique worked for a worldwide American company and no not a bank. Wouldn’t that have played in to the hands of the detractors? And on this subject, Henrique’s anxieties about his job shown in the film before the wave struck were well founded. During Maria’s four month recuperation in Singapore, Henrique’s firm let him go. Nothing further needed.

On to making the on-screen Belon family, English. Yesterday on BBC5 Live (my station of choice) Mark Kermode the esteemed critic had a measured and worthy opinion and points to make on The Impossible, but he did question the decision to make the family British and he wondered if the film would have been better had it remained a Spanish film. The answer to this is simple, we will never know because this film would never have been made as a Spanish film. Even though the film was funded from Spain and it has made its money back in Spain alone the financiers would never have taken such a risk. As JA Bayona said in Toronto, ‘you try raising $50m to make a Spanish speaking film?’ ergio Sanchez, the writer of the Impossible put it to me in even more graphic terms –

When they brought their Spanish language film, The Orphanage to the Toronto Film Festival they decided not to inform the audience that it was a sub-titled film. Five minutes in to the film’s world premiere, a third of the theatre had left.

Film-making is a commercial business where losing one’s shirt is more common than filling one’s boots. The success of the film in Spain has been heartening for the Belon family and I am sure for the film’s producers but it makes sense even to a financial dullard like myself that setting out to make such a film, the biggest audience reach is the only route to take.

The Asian tsunami of 2004 was a world event for its sheer size and because of the fact that the world’s population was involved with Thailand being one of the world’s vacation playgrounds. Such a film needs a world language and the widest possible audience.

I do, however, understand the point that is really being made here. That this film is being made because white westerners died in this tragedy and there is a lot of truth to this. This is a reality as unpalatable though it is rooted in first world/third world economics but this not a fair criticism to throw at the film-makers of The Impossible.

As I say, the point is valid, best demonstrated by the fact that we have yet to see a film based on the Pakistan floods. And we will never see this film either. Firstly, because it will never be made and secondly, because even it were to be made, I wonder whether cinema goers the world over would go to see it. I am sure that there are many stories of enormous fortitude and survival displayed in Pakistan that can be discovered and meticulously researched. But good luck with trying to raise the finance for it, let alone make the film.

I was not in Thailand for the tsunami but I was there for the making of the film, The Impossible, which I know is my great fortune in more ways than one. And being there, I got to know and love the Belon family, another great privilege. In every sense of the word, Maria is a beautiful woman. Fiercely proud of her family and full of humanity, she would never have allowed this film to be based on her story if it wasn’t a faithful reflection of what happened to her family. She owes her life to a Thai man who dragged her from a swamped jungle. A man she is hoping might come to light now that the film has been released. And Thai doctors and nurses in Thailand who worked tirelessly for her and her family as depicted in this worthy film.

The film-makers have become friends of my family. They are people I greatly admire. And I am bound to defend them. But this defence here today is not a myopic one. The film has received overwhelming acclaim and attention a reflection of the extraordinary attention to detail and hard work by the hundreds and hundreds of people who have brought this film to the screen. I don’t think the film is perfect. How many films are? But it is a bloody bold piece of film-making. An extraordinary story, brilliantly recreated by hard work and much talent which is faithful to events as they occurred and the small but noisy criticisms it has received is not valid and I felt moved to respond.

I must feel passionate about it because the need to write this post woke me up at 5am this morning and three hours later I am about to publish it.

And if you can’t take my word for it because I was not there in 2004, then take the word of Simon Jenkins. Simon was there in Thailand in 2004 and he writes a spirited defence of the film’s authenticity in the Guardian which is available via @simonjenkins09

 

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