The Impossible, a film that ever since I heard about it has made me uncomfortable and sad by seemingly epitomizing the condition of mainstream Western perceptions and representations of tragedy of the other. I am not arguing or questioning at all about the films technical credentials or artistic merit, because even with a wet, sloppy script, director J.A Bayona does a great job, especially capturing a visceral intensity throughout with some top rate performances all combining to make a fairly decent film.
However, this was a tragedy where almost a quarter of a million people were killed and millions others lost families, homes, villages and entire societies. It is an event that requires a respect and gravitas that any artist who wants to represent or process it as work needs to keep. By choosing to re-tell a story, if true, still a story about a privileged white family who experience a slice of the disaster but are lucky enough to walk away from it in their own private plane does not give the respect it needs.
Now, I am not saying it is completely wrong to focus on this story, because it is a remarkable and fascinating one, but to focus on it in a way that shows them and other white tourists survival as more important than the locals disgusted me but didn’t even surprise me. The local people are background, they are treated as just mise-en-scéne, like the exotic palm trees or pure sand of the beaches, they have no dialogue and when are actually shown on screen, are seen to be just tending to the needs of the white tourists in soft, blurry focus. In a recent interview Ewan McGregor suggested that this caring light that the local people were shown in was an example of the movie not ignoring them, but if you are going to cover this topic, to show the suffering of tourists and none of the ‘other’, it doesn’t matter if they are shown to be helpful, they are ultimately voiceless in anguish.
What makes me most sad is that this is not a creative choice, it is the way the industry and our society in general is willing to invest or more correctly not invest in topics focusing on the ‘other’. For instance the family of the true story that inspired The Impossible were Spanish, but that has been changed to English because Bayona has said himself it was easier to get more investors and a bigger budget, so what chance does a director have to make a film on this scale about the impact of the tsunami outside of a holiday resort? None. There is even a further part to this debate that disturbs me even more that this transcends nationality and goes as deep as race, and it sticks like a fungus to the heart of mainstream Western cinema and to an extent non-fiction media too.