Tsunami miniseries brings heartache to TV screens
Initially, Boonlue Mongkhol objected to his village being used for a television miniseries about the 2004 tsunami. He lost his loved ones in the disaster and didn’t want to relive the tragedy.
But when the BBC advertised for extras, the 38-year-old businessman put aside his personal feelings and spent five days portraying a corpse and a body collector—earning 500 baht ($13) a day.
“My father, niece and nephew died there,” said Boonlue, who also lost his house, seafood restaurant and mini market when the massive waves hit Khao Lak on December 26 2004. “I didn’t want to do it, but there is no other way to earn money.”
The filming of Aftermath—a two-part miniseries produced by the BBC and United States cable channel HBO, shot along Thailand’s tsunami-battered coast—has set off a debate over the merits of bringing the tragedy to the screen so soon after the disaster.
Supporters say it’s an important story, touching on universal themes of hope and loss, while many survivors say reviving the tsunami has hit them with more heartache.
Similar debates among survivors have played out in the US with United 93, the first big-screen treatment of the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks, and in Australia when there was talk of making a movie about the 2002 Bali bombings, the victims of which were mainly Australians.
“You are exacerbating the healing process,” said Anie Kalayjian, whose non-governmental Association for Trauma Outreach and Prevention has provided counselling to survivors of the tsunami and last year’s Pakistan earthquake.
“On some level, they need to distance themselves from the devastating impact of the event to heal,” she said.
“Post-trauma means the trauma has to end and you need a certain distance before you can process your feelings and make meaning and sense out of the unimaginable.”
Billed as a compelling story of survival and courage, the two-part series to be shown on HBO and BBC Two later this year follows eight characters in the aftermath of the tsunami, including a young couple searching for their child, an Englishwoman whose husband and son are missing, and a Thai man who loses his family and village.
The drama is being directed by Bharat Nalluri and the cast includes Tim Roth, Sophie Okonedo and Toni Collette.
Khao Lak, with its white-sand beaches and stunning views of the Andaman Sea, was chosen as the location because a majority of the 5 400 people killed in Thailand came from surrounding villages on the country’s south-western coast, as did the thousands more left homeless.
Though many of the hotels and hundreds of homes have been rebuilt, jobs remain scarce and many families are still grieving for dead relatives.
“I don’t want a movie shot here,” said Wandee Sae-hong, a 32-year-old survivor from the nearby village of Baan Nam Kem, which lost about half its 5 000 residents in the tsunami. “I don’t want to see the disaster again. It will bring too much sadness.”
Other Thais welcomed the production, saying it could bring jobs to the area and serve as an educational tool.
“It’s good because the next generation can see what happened,” said Renu Suiraksa, a Khao Lak woman who lost her brother and 10 cousins in the disaster. “Before, I didn’t know anything about a tsunami. But if we have this movie, people will be able to see what happens and maybe have time to run away the next time.”
Thai survivors and relief workers say they were most angered that the crew chose to re-enact the disaster—complete with dead bodies and overturned cars—on the main road through Khao Lak that was devastated by the giant waves.
Others were upset the crew chose to put up flyers throughout the tsunami-hit region, saying victims were needed as extras.
“It was pretty tasteless. People are not happy,” said Robert Reynolds, an American charity director whose Srithong Thukaoluan Foundation is supporting more than 100 children affected by the tsunami.
Finola Dwyer, the drama’s producer, said she regretted the wording in the flyer. But she defended the decision to shoot in areas hit by the tsunami. “Why not? It did happen. It’s not a piece of fiction,” Dwyer said.
Dwyer said she faced similar challenges shooting the acclaimed drama The Hamburg Cell, which came out in 2004 and delves into lives of the September 11 hijackers as it recounts the meticulous preparations for the attacks.
For that production, her team chose to shoot in Hamburg, Germany, where hijackers hatched their plans—despite the fact that residents were “feeling bruised and raw from harbouring these guys”.
“The Hamburg Cell was a real challenge,” Dwyer said. “It was balancing and working and navigating through all those different sensitivities and not wanting to cause offence but still wanting to make something truthful and real and reflective of the situation.”
In Thailand, Dwyer said they sought and received government approval before shooting started because of the nature of the project. But even as they shot around the resort town of Phuket and Khao Lak, she said they were embraced by locals and even some survivors came to watch.
“When we were in Khao Lak, we had people come by and tell us their stories of how they were caught up in the tsunami,” Dwyer said.
“Everybody acts differently. Of course, some people will get upset,” she said. “But many of the survivors we met said, ‘We are really glad you are doing this because people have already forgotten.’”—Sapa-AP