Culture Warrior

When the trailer for Juan Antonio Bayona’s The Impossible debuted on the web – an upcoming holiday release starring Ewan McGregor and Naomi Watts as the parents of a living-comfy British family vacationing in southeast Asia in 2004 when the Indian Ocean Tsunami hit – it caused quite a stir. Nathan Adams referred to the trailer as “melodramatic,” and our comments section was abuzz with seasoned FSR writers and readers alike assessing the merits of a film about a real-life natural disaster that devastated the lives of countless people in Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and India which focuses instead on a white, ostensibly wealthy British family on holiday. David Haglund of Slate called the trailer “deeply troubling” and “horribly misjudged,” going so far as to say that, out of the hundreds of thousands of lives adversely affected by the tragedy,

The Impossible is, so far as one can tell from this trailer, about the uplifting story of five, well-off white people. Which is not to say that the lives of well-off white people don’t matter. But movies like this one create the unmistakable and morally repugnant impression that their lives matter more.

The whitewashing of the silver screen has been proven to be an issue that is neither small nor unfamiliar when it comes to the enterprise of Hollywood representation. As Cole Abaius pointed out in a recent editorial, one of the more ironic repercussions of a globalized Hollywood economy dependent upon foreign sales is that Hollywood studios are still hesitant to cast non-white actors (except for the occasional mega-stars) even for narratives that don’t take place in Caucasian-majority countries. But the reason that Summit’s particular take on the true events that provide the foundation of The Impossible resonates as “troubling” has less to do with the fact that it’s yet another global product dominated by a white cast (like the fact that James Bond is played by Daniel Craig instead of Idris Elba, or Spider-man by Andrew Garfield instead of Donald Glover), and more to do with the fact that the film takes a specifically non-Western global event and filters it through a domesticated, whitewashed lens. Such a juxtaposition between the film’s setting and its characters makes the whiteness and wealth of The Impossible’s characters stand out jarringly in this case while similar practices go unnoticed elsewhere.

Check out the US trailer for yourself:

First off, we’re admittedly analyzing only the trailer here, not the actual film. The Impossible as a feature film may be smarter than the trailer makes it appear to be at first glance in terms of balancing the politics of representation, white privilege, the residue of Western imperialism, and the rocky cultural intersections involved in “selling” a nation for transnational tourism.

However, that doesn’t mean that the meaning elicited from the trailer itself isn’t significant. Trailers can be quite deceptive, but they’re also the primary means by which our conceptualizations of a film become established. As ads, trailers possess and communicate meaning of import in a way that is autonomous from the film itself. Clearly, the advertising agency that worked with Summit on the trailer aimed to create the impression that The Impossible is a tear-jerking true story about resilience against the odds, the power of the nuclear family, and the will to survive; as such, we are meant not only to identify with the family, but laud their bravery and sacrifice in their pursuit of reuniting.

Secondly, The Impossible is a true story based on the experience of an actual family vacationing at the time of the earthquake and tsunami in the Indian Ocean. There is no reason to say that this experience wasn’t any less traumatic and devastating for those visiting (regardless of their particular race) than the inhabitants (once again, regardless of their particular race) of any of the affected nations. The problem with The Impossible trailer isn’t the depiction family’s experience of the tragedy itself, but its implications about what happens when, say, the film ends. While watching the trailer for the first time, an image kept appearing in my head of an exhausted, scratched-up family sleeping comfortably on a plane returning them safely to their home of origin. Being able to survive and then leave a tragedy is altogether different than having everything that is familiar, including one’s home, fall apart before your eyes. However, years of uncertain reconstruction and rehabilitation doesn’t fit the formula of a Hollywood ending quite like a welcome return to a home far, far away from moving tectonic plates.

On this point, I agree with Haglund who states, “Transferred to the big screen, however, that story [of the survival of a white tourist family] takes on a new context and a different responsibility.” I commend everyone – inhabitants and tourists alike – who attempted to survive and help others in this real-life tragedy. But when this particular story, of the hundreds and thousands of incredible stories made available in the ensuing days and years after the disaster, is transferred to the big screen, I find it a bit harder to shed a tear for the tsunami’s interruption of Naomi Watts’s sun-bathing than, say, nearly anything else that anybody was doing at the time the tsunami struck. How many members of that pool’s waitstaff survived and found their families?

The Impossible Release Date

If this were, say, the second or third high-profile film made about the Indian Ocean Tsunami, this trailer might come across differently. Whether or not other films about this event are made anytime soon, the story presented in The Impossible is simply one of many, many stories about those days in 2004, so to give the film the weight of being a definitive take on one of the most devastating natural disasters in modern history is to be willingly complicit in granting The Impossible a representative power it doesn’t need or deserve. We don’t have to give the film that power.

At the same time, there’s no denying the fact that films can take on great representative power. For many, this film will be the primary index that keys them into this real-life event, similarly to audience’s relationship to Scottish history through Braveheart, Kazakhstan through Borat, and the Holocaust and WWII through Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. All of the above are movies that I like, but they’re also movies that have come to carry a weight well beyond representing history or culture, and have instead been elevated to stand in for that history or culture.

As my colleague Rob Hunter stated in the comments section of this website’s posting of The Impossible trailer: if McGregor and Watts were not in the cast, the movie would not likely have been made. This is no doubt true. Hollywood studios have certainly not done their part in cultivating an audience that would be willing to see a wide Christmas-week release about the plight of Indonesian or Thai people after an unfathomable international tragedy, even if producers had its cast speak English.

When a non-English-speaking culture is depicted by Hollywood, a native Anglophone is typically required as a vessel. However, a film about the people whose homes this tragedy affected might not sell according to the rules of a cynical Hollywood, but it would be incredibly compelling specifically because cultural differences are unfamiliar to Western audiences (especially for movie fans as Indonesia and Sri Lanka have not established an regular body of exported films to US audiences, unlike Thailand and India). How might a Buddhist or Hindu perspective of life’s cyclical nature, karma, and the interconnectedness of living beings, for instance, see the process of overcoming such a tragedy differently than a British family based culturally in Judeo-Christian values, rugged individualism, and an ideology of self-preservation? There are certainly clear answers to a question like this, but they won’t be found in mainstream filmmaking.

The question, then, is no longer whether this film could have been made otherwise, or what an alternative would look like, but, now that this movie has been made in this way, would it be better that it’s this particular story that appears to be told, or that no film was made at all? We’ll have to wait until The Impossible reaches screens in December to know for sure. But I can’t get away from the irony of the film’s title, knowing that there are so many possibilities for representation cut off because of Hollywood’s pathetic aversion to risk in the face of so many amazing stories waiting to be told. For now, you’re more likely to get by a tsunami while on vacation than see a Hollywood movie about individuals bravely triumphing against all odds starring Asian actors.

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