Tsunami porn

I didn’t know that my girlfriend had nearly died until a week after it happened. I was on my first trip to Antarctica in December 2004 when the Boxing Day tsunami hit Asia. She was in Phuket. We were due to meet in her home town of Kuala Lumpur in mid-January to live there together for a year while she took up a new job. The ship was completely isolated – bar official transmissions by the radio operator, no communications came in or out. None of us even knew the tsunami existed. Somehow my parents, after lobbying the ship’s onshore operators persistently, managed to get an email of telegram brevity through to me via satellite. It said something along the lines of “You may have heard about disaster in Asia and beyond. Don’t worry, Janis is safe.” This was rather too cryptic and vague to worry over, and anyway, the word was there was nothing to worry about. All good. We didn’t return to port in Argentina until January 2, and between there and the airport I managed to get a few newspapers. So it really wasn’t until halfway to Auckland that I began to realise the scope and gravity of what had happened. And it wasn’t until I got back to Australia that I found out Janis’ story.

She was in Phuket with one of her friends when the tsunami hit. It was their last day. They had been staying in a place close to the beach. The hotel had told them they should take a taxi at ten-thirty to meet their flight. The friend, though, was one of those nervy types, and pushed for them to leave half an hour early. Janis, who was of the slightly disorganised no-rush mentality, would probably have left an hour later were she left to her own devices. But she went along with the plan. As their taxi drove along the foreshore they saw the sea receding way back towards the horizon. People were gathering to watch the puzzling spectacle. Most of you will remember this was the lull just before the drama. Even the driver was intrigued, so they stopped and got out to look with everyone else. After a short while though, the friend got anxious again, and they reluctantly kept going. They made higher ground, and then the waves came in.

Their driver, an elderly Thai man, got a call from his son-in-law saying there was some kind of flood. He went straight to his house, got the family, and took everyone up into the hills. There the girls, neither speaking a word of Thai, were looked after the whole day. The driver’s granddaughter spoke a little English, and they got by. There was no way to get word to anyone, so the girls’ parents and mine were all anxiously watching the news and fearing the worst. The family stayed in the hills until nightfall, then the driver took them back past the ruined town to the airport, where they somehow managed to wrangle two seats on the last plane out to Bangkok before the airport was shut down. It was only there that they could finally call home. That day must have been an agony for the families, and I can’t say how glad I am that I missed it.

They were supremely lucky. And while obviously the extent to which I was affected was laughably minor compared to the devastation visited on so many, I still find the memory distressing. (All this first-person stuff isn’t because I think I’m important, it’s because I can’t give anyone else’s perspective on this.) I remember clearly the plummeting shock of how close a call it really was, which took a few days to sink in. The idea of them standing there watching the waves recede, with all that we now know it signified. It still makes me feel kind of ill. I can’t fathom the idea of losing someone you are deeply in love with, and someone who you think is going to be part of your long-term future. It was the first serious relationship for both of us, and we loved each other with a youthful intensity and a boisterous enthusiasm. There was none of the cynicism or reservation of the present day, several relationships down the line. Had I lost her, and with her something potentially so amazing, I would have carried it for the rest of my life. Then there were the other horrible scenarios, like how would her parents have coped, and how would I have been able to help them through it, given I would be one of their main connections back to their daughter.

Given this background, I’m pretty taken aback when, on the long, long bus ride to Salta in Argentina’s north-west, a film called Tsunami comes up on the TV screens. First fears are quickly confirmed, it is indeed a dramatisation of Boxing Day 2004. And it’s big – an HBO-BBC coproduction, expensive and lengthy, presumably a miniseries in its original form. Good actors: Tim Roth, Toni Collette… but, what the hell?

I don’t know what to feel when the preliminary scenes start coming up on screen. But I’m on a long-distance coach, and there’s no way to escape. Initial misgivings are soon justified. We all know what’s coming, and the set-up is so meticulous, so cynical, that it sets my teeth on edge. We’re presented with a parade of inevitability. Here’s the beautiful hotel. Here’s the lovely idyllic shoreline. Here are the pretty actors. Here’s a nice little bit of character development to get you emotionally invested. Here are the fateful decisions about who goes diving and who doesn’t. Here are lots of shots of sweet little toddlers running around on the beach. Now watch while we smash it all up as graphically as possible. Guttering, choking, drowning. Devastate and destroy. It’s like watching the White House explode in Independence Day, but with the hypocritical veneer of being authentic and serious film.

Given the bad associations, it leaves me a bit shaken. But it’s distressing in more ways than the filmmakers intended. I can’t fathom – why does this film exist? Who decided, six months or a year after the event, that it was a good and desirable and appropriate idea to make this film? And above all, what right do these presumptuous pricks have to this story? It’s like war-porn. We all know what happened. We all know it was horrific. So, do we really need to see that recreated in intimate detail? What purpose does that serve? Is it for our further education and edification? But we already know what happened. It was too recent to have forgotten. The stories were legion and filled the papers for weeks. So then is it just a film? Something to pass the time? Then why pick this story? Consider that concept. You want to tap into that experience, into the terror and death of hundreds of thousands, and the grief and misery of millions, for…your entertainment? If so that’s utterly crass and a disgrace. Apologies to the sensitive, but really it just seems like jacking off over the corpses.

Some films want to tell stories. And some just want to milk every last drop of emotional impact out of real events, convincing you that the impact is due to good filmmaking when it’s really only because the events themselves were so distressing. Art seeks to have some sort of emotional effect, but just because something has an emotional effect doesn’t make it art. Even with a couple of weeks to cool down, it still makes me genuinely angry. Why did such a film actually need to be made? And what of the decision to go, in 2005/06, to some of the locations devastated by the disaster – and then spend millions of dollars on making a movie rather than doing something worthwhile?

Also, while it’s absolutely no surprise, it’s nonetheless pathetic that almost the entire focus of a film on the Asian tsunami is on Westerners.  The wealthy British tourist families of the plush Oasis Resort. (Goodness, one of them is black! How progressive.) The white British embassy staff on their way to the disaster scene. The white Australian aid worker. The white journalist and his Thai sidekick. And this is the model for the whole movie – Asia itself is relegated to the role of sidekick, that and provider of scenery, just the way Western tourists go to drink in Thailand because the bar-girls are easy on the eye and on the wallet. The occasional shots of villages and villagers are as background sets for the white protagonists to play out their stories. Going by this movie, you wouldn’t even know that Thai was occasionally spoken in Thailand.

The one Thai character of any kind of prominence is – wait for it – a waiter from the resort where the important tourist characters were staying. The one Thai who gets even half as much screentime as one of the Westerners, and he has to be presented as a servant, here to carry the drinks and call everyone Sir. He’s firmly kept in that capacity, stuck in his hotel uniform for the entire film. The fact that the film is centred on a tourist resort in the first place is yet another joke. As it is, resorts are all that most Westerners know of Thailand, and serving staff is the only capacity in which they know Thais. Do we really need to perpetuate this? It’s astonishing that the view can be so narrow. Indeed, there’s almost no hint that anything actually happened outside of Thailand itself, despite the fact that three-quarters of the dead were Indonesian, not to mention the devastation of Sri Lanka and deaths as far away as the east coast of Africa. Sure, my personal story was about the tourist centre at Phuket, because that’s the only way that I was connected to the wider tale. But for a film purporting to portray this wider tale, it’s the old story that the deaths of a couple of thousand white tourists mean and always meant a whole lot more than those of 230 000 Asians. Just like Roger East said.

There is a strange final chapter to the story. A couple of hours in to the interminable angsting of the film, the bus starts to slow down. We are on a desert road somewhere in Tucuman province, miles from the last place and miles from the next. Dust lifts up in smoky billows, like a dance of seven veils. Abruptly, as the road’s black tongue lays itself over a slight rise, we can see it: a truck ripped clear in half, its back end flipped over and lying flat in the roadway like a dog on its belly. The cabin is on its side ten metres off the road. Things are in pieces. It’s hard to tell if there’s one vehicle or two. Hundreds of LPG canisters, the cargo, are scattered in all directions, for a hundred metres or more up and down the highway, and scores of metres either side. There is no emergency scene paraphernalia, no barriers or flashing lights, just a couple of silent police cars and one cop pointing us around the chaos. The bus creeps through at walking pace, steering around twisted metal and debris, raising dust from the verge. The many-coloured canisters sprout from the desert earth like strange bulbous fruit, spread among the shrubbery and red dirt like hundreds of thousands on a desert cake.

The first thing I can think of is how eerily the scene is like Zoe Barron’s poem ‘No Sirens’ (listen to it here and see what I mean). The passengers becoming viewers of the drama. But here we have the double absurdity of looking up from the carnage on our screens to the carnage that we’re passing through. A lot of people are so absorbed in the film that they take a while to notice. Then their heads bob up and down like aging helium balloons, partly wanting to see, and partly drawn back to the television. The real-life disaster is in the world outside the windows, paralleling the deliberately and expensively re-created mock disaster inside. Both playing out on squares of glass, viewers looking from one set of reflections to the other. But the kind of real-life disaster that we’re all so keen to avoid soon passes behind us, and everyone is free to relax back into the vicarious enjoyment of someone else’s manufactured, third-hand disaster. The kind of disaster we apparently seek out, if this cinematic offering is to be interpreted correctly. Someone else’s disaster is so much more palatable, in any case, more comfortable, not so hard on the nerves. We should make a note to thank the filmmakers for the enlightening experience.

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One Response to Tsunami porn

  1. heidi degn says:

    thanks Geoff. Miss you my friend.
    xx

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