This weekend’s release of The Impossible has reminded me of another film involving the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, a documentary titled From Dust. You’ve likely never seen it. The IMDb listing shows only 13 users have rated the film (compare that to the already 3,786 voters on The Impossible‘s page), and my review from the 2006 Tribeca Film Festival remains the only one linked there. But it is easily rented or bought through Amazon Instant Video (or seen free on CultureUnplugged.com). And I think a producer or screenwriter looking for an idea for a movie could be inspired by the David vs. Goliath tale it tells.
From Dust is about a fishing village and a coastal city in Sri Lanka dealing with the aftermath of the disaster, which destroyed the area with 13-foot-high tidal waves. The people have been forbidden from rebuilding their homes through a government mandate, which is either for their safety or for the opportunistic benefit of the state, depending on what you believe. Eight years later, I’m unaware of what happened to the subjects in the documentary, or their land, but the idea and the issue of building hotels and resorts upon the ashes of a catastrophe is not exactly limited to this story. Nor is, as we’ve seen post-Sandy, the argument over who is responsible for rebuilding after devastation.
Restoration can certainly be a positive thing — just look at all the great cities reborn following their destruction (San Francisco, for example) — and it can also be viewed as part of the negative concept known as disaster capitalism. Whether by man-made or natural causes, a wiped-out neighborhood will always be strewn as much with dollar signs as debris in the eyes of greedy real estate developers. Well, the movies love greedy real estate developers as villains already, so now you just need the plot. With some basis in the 2004 tsunami, you could change location to any of the increasing number of disasters. Obviously (and as seen again with The Impossible), Hollywood prefers white people stories, so remaking From Dust set in the aftermath of Katrina or Sandy might be more lucrative.
The government or businessman doesn’t even have to necessarily be a total bad guy. The thing about restoration is that it’s more complicated than stories of poor people being screwed over by politicians and tycoons. Not that the whole debate is very cinematic, yet the drama of what comes in the wake of a disaster can be as interesting as the disaster itself. A documentary like From Dust makes me wonder what happens after the credits go up on disaster movies with relatively hopeful, happy endings, such as Independence Day, Volcano, Deep Impact and many others.
Post-apocalyptic movies are able to touch on some of the drama of what happens to the survivor post-disaster, but they tend to be more fantastically anarchic and dystopian. A realistic look at the aftermath of a tragedy, beyond what is depicted in The Impossible, and while the rest of the world is still going about as normal (unlike the total end-of-the-world plots), could make for a very good movie. Now, who wants to take this pitch on?