Monday, January 07, 2013

Survivors applaud "The Impossible."

It is Sunday evening in California. This weekend, the movie “The Impossible” (Director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G.Sanchez) and starring Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts and TomHolland premier in wide screen at over 500 screens across the USA. As I mentioned in last weeks blog post, I saw the movie about a week ago, knowing I wanted – needed – to see this movie before friends and family saw it this weekend.

As I anticipated, the weekend has been filled with mixed emotion. A number of family members, friends, and even strangers attended the movie. And following the movie, felt compelled to call me or send me emails. Most of their reaction was, “Rick, I had no idea that is what you went through.”

This reaction, along with the reaction of movie critics and film goers confirms what I also believe. The movie is that good. Or better said, “that real.”

This afternoon, I spent about 45 minutes talking on the phone with another tsunami survivor. He was also on Khoa Lak, the same beach that Henry (Erique) and Maria and their three boys were on as dipicted in the film. This is about 15 miles north of Patong where I and others experienced the same tsunami in Phuket. We had not talked in three years. But we both knew, as the anticipation of the release of this film, that we would eventually find a way to call and talk with each other when this film came out.

One of the things that both Peter and I agreed on was the small details of the film. In fact, there were items that we both agreed were so real that we had even forgotten them from our actual experiences.

For us both, the film was emotional to watch. Not because we were necessarily thrown back into the reality of those 72 hours beginning at 9:30 am on December 26, 2004. But because for the first time, we both said, “Now people can actually understand and feel what it felt like to be in the middle of the tsunami.”

 Over the last 8 years, I have been asked many times to explain “how did it feel to be in the middle of the tsunami?” Well meaning reporters and friend urge us to describe the details.

But this movie “shows” the details.

One of the best example of how this movie gets it right is in the “swirling debis ofwater.” For so long, I have tried to explain to people how dangerous the water was. Huge shards of glass from broken out hotel plate glass windows, pieces of tuk-tuks and huge chunks of pieces of building filled the water. Once a person asked, “Couldn’t you just swim” in the water. But as this movie so well describes, it was like being in a washing machine of deadly debris.

The director and writer also accurately depicted the sense of desperation as mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters walked around looking for missing loved ones. Because most people had their personal belongings swept away, they didn’t even have pictures. And so they were walking around desperately trying to describe their children or mothers or fathers. And because there were visitors from around the world, and many were in shock, people would walk right up to you and start to speak in Swedish or German or Spanish – not even realizing or understanding that you didn’t understand.

There was another interesting moment and a poignant moment for me, when Henry Belon (Ewen McGregor) is shown in the movie calling his wife’s parents. McGregor struggles to explain that he has lost his wife and two of the children. On the other end of the line, you hear a father trying to comprehend what he is being told. That moment in the scene struck me also as very real.

I remember calling my parents back in Kansas, and trying to explain to them to “not be worried, but eventually they would see something on the television about a wave in Thailand, but that I had survived.” I remember her reaction was calm, almost unbelieving. Like many people in the world, true word and news of the devastation did not reach mainstream media until 4-6 hours after the first wave had hit. And even then, news stations like CNN reported that “…25 people had been killed…” No one knew the level of destruction until days later. The phone call was meant to tell someone that I was ok. But later, as I reflected on it, it was also a way to report to the outside world that I had lived. That I was ok.

As I talked about in my in my initial journal entries, I had a cell phone that lasted for hours that morning. Over 200 people used the phone to call home to places all around the world, mostly to say, “I am ok. I am alive.” For days afterwards, I continued to get return phone calls, asking to talk to people who had originally used the phone. I had no idea of how to find them or what to even say. But I would take down a phone number and description just in case. About 24 hours after the original calls, I started to get phone calls from individuals who had heard about my phone number from others who had heard from their loved ones. The cell phones that worked that day were important moments of comfort for many people that fateful day.

With other survivors this weekend, we talked about memories of things we had forgotten. We talked about the splitting of families, and the struggle on whether to move on to a hospital, or stay were you were to look for missing people. The movie accurately showed an element that has been a little embarrassing to discuss up until now. The speed and turbulence of the water as so strong, that it did remove clothes. IN the movie, Maria Belon is shown with ripped clothes. But it has been reported that she, like many others, had their clothes completed stripped away. Standing on the cliff, many survivors came to us completely naked, and bleeding badly.

We also talked about the “post 24 hour false tsunami warnings.” The next day, after the tsunami had struck, there would be moments in which you would be working to help clear debris, and suddenly, locals around you would start to run. At least 5-10 times, false warnings would be spread via cell phones to other cell phones. And people would just start running.

There were other details that the film didn’t show. The amount of dead bodies strewn about were tough. You see in the movie the rows of them at hospitals or make shift morgues. Most of that happened after about 24 hours. But before that, there were bodies jammed into debris everywhere.

Another item that even some of us as survivor disagreed on, were the number of waves. From my perspective, the waves, at least in Phuket started at about 10:00 am – and continued with swells that washed into the streets until 4:00 that afternoon. The first wave was small, but it was the second wave that was the tallest and most devastating. The wave you see in the movie made it look like it was the first wave of destruction. But most of us agree, that the size of that wave was actually the second. But I did read the real Maria Belon did agree that the six hours of relentless waves had been consolidated in order to get on with the movie. Fair enough. But as survivors, we just wanted everyone to know that water and waves were an issue for the first six hours. And not only did people lose their lives in those first waves, but they also tried to make a run for it afterwards, and were also struck and swept away in waves three, four and five.


 For the last 10 days, I have been reading some reviewers who need to point out what they didn’t like about the film. Most need to point out that the movie skips over or ignores the emotions of the locals. I don’t think that this is an “and/or” discussion. This movie was about 5 people and what happened to them. There could and should be another movie about the amazing local people that were also impacted by the tsunami. They also felt pain. They also lost loved ones. They were crying and hurt and scared just like people around us.

After the tsunami struck, many of the locals left the resort I was staying in. If they had survived, many had homes inland and left to go be with family. But not without grief. Most locals had an aunt or uncle or cousin who they knew were killed that day on the beach. But the process of finding and navigating and dealing with the process of finding / mourning and deciding what to do next was very different.

Each of the survivors I have connected with over the last days applaud this movie. We have a sense that others are really understanding what we went through. We also hope future movies can be made of what the locals also went through – not only in Thailand, but also in the other countries where 220,000 more people were killed.

It is likely that many of will have nightmares again for a few days. But the difference is this time, when we wake up, we can talk to people who have seen the film, and have a little better idea what we experienced.

Thanks to the actors Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, Tom Holland, Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast for bringing the characters to life. Thanks to Director Juan Antonio Bayona and screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez for trying to make it real. Thanks to Maria Belon for sharing her survivor story with the world.

Because of this, a few of us are a little more healed.
(I invite other survivors to comment on their reaction to the movie. Or others to ask us questions. - Rick Von Feldt)

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At 1:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just left the film and found your post while searching for more info. It seemed important to hear what survivors felt about the movie. Thank you for sharing your story. I'm glad you are safe and able to share your experience with all of us. Very best wishes to you.

At 1:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great movie! It was very intense! I was very emotional most of the length of the movie. Thank you for sharing your story. I am glad you survived also! How are you now? How did this experience affect your day-to-day living, perspectives, life-goals, personality...? Are you afraid of water, oceans, beaches, islands? Thank you for helping any of those people you served. May God continue to bless you and those survivors too!

At 4:41 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thankyou for sharing your story. I watched the film earlier and it bought me to tears, just as it did all them years ago when i heard the news. Nothing though prepared me for the detail and honesty of the film! I wish you all the best for the future

At 2:10 PM, Blogger Hridoy Rafia said...

Thank you for helping any of those people you served. May God continue to bless you and those survivors too!

At 9:37 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


At 7:51 AM, Anonymous Marie said...

I only saw the movie yesterday, and as a survivor I have to admit that i hesitated on whether or not it would be a good idea for me to watch it. I wasn't too sure on how I would react.
Truth is I couldn't agree more on how this movie depicts the reality in such a heart shattering way. It brought back so many feelings, and I had to stop the movie several times to catch my breath.
As you said, I am thankful that this film can actually help people to get a better understanding on what it was really like out there.
Thank you for this well written article

At 5:29 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm too scared to watch it.. But i'm so interested. I feel like i've been trying to forget the last 10 years so I'm not sure if it is a good idea. The screams are what I still hear so clearly even 10 years later. How does it help you heal?

At 11:54 AM, Blogger Linda Winch said...

This movie put in perspective what the survivors went through on that Horrific day... God bless each n every one of u courageous people!

At 12:11 AM, Blogger Teraisa Joan Ann said...

Thank you for writing this. You've put tears in my eyes-I'm so glad you're still here. ~Teraisa

At 12:10 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that it a good movie because it a movie with a lot of emotions. It filming well. This movie has based on a true story. This film make me realize how much family are important, and make me realize how sometimes the things that you least expect comes at the most unexepected moment.


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