Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Who Decides Which Stories Get Told?

I watched The Impossible recently and thought it was fairly good. It's not the kind of movie that pushes the boundaries of cinema or leaves the viewer feeling like they saw something new and exciting but it was a good, solid, well-made movie. Based on the story of a Spanish family vacationing in Thailand in 2004 when the tsunami hit, it stars not Spanish actors but British, Scottish, Australian actors. This lead to criticisms that the movie was trying to make the cast more comfortably white for an international audience. The Spanish director of the film, Sergio G. Sanchez, said this in an interview with Very Aware Movie Blog in 2012:

We didn’t know if we were going to get the financing to make this film. That first draft was in Spanish. Even in that first draft, 80% of the dialogue was in English because after the wave comes, that’s the language everyone would use to communicate. So then with the characters, you never know where they are from. We let everyone keep their accents. Instead of working against that, we thought it was an interesting concept to have this family have no home. It’s not clear what’s the home they want to go back to. At the end, they realize home is where they are together. We were trying to make it universal – to try to create a place where nationality didn’t matter.

It felt quite natural to get an English speaking cast. It was a film about people – about a Western family going to Thailand and how it’s an experience that transforms them. It’s the end of these people’s innocence. There’s a lot of suffering in survival – it’s not a victory. I thought that was very interesting.

And that, in turn, lead to the movie's main criticism which was that a movie about a tsunami that devastated the lives of untold numbers of Asians focused on a Western family on vacation, not the locals who are still living with the devastation to this day.

And that leads to the bigger question, which stories can be told?

The same types of criticisms have been leveled at different movies from different eras for years.  Schindler's List has received criticism for being about a German industrialist and his success in saving 1,200 Jews rather than focusing on Jewish families devastated by the Holocaust.  This video of Terry Gilliam criticizing the movie on those grounds has been a popular Facebook link for years.  But is it a valid argument?

Was Schindler's List about a success?  To a degree, yes, but Gilliam clearly exaggerates the tone and mood of the film.  If one had not seen the movie and went by Gilliam's description, one would walk away thinking Schindler's List was a lot brighter and cheerier than it is.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say there's a little deception in Gilliam's statement because Schindler's List isn't really about success so much as failure viewed from the vantage of a seeming success.  The tragedy of the story of Schindler's List is that six million other people died.  If anything, the movie plays more like a sick joke than a "Happy Ending" feel good story.  The punchline is that when everyone waves goodbye to the 1,200 Jews that escaped, they turn around and see a sea of six million corpses at which point they say, "oh, I get it."

But let's say Gilliam is dead on right.  What then?  Can't you still tell the story?  Hell, we've told numerous stories about Hitler, even making him seem downright human in Downfall, if not maniacal and despondent at the end.  So what about Schindler?  What's wrong with illuminating a small shaft of light in the darkness?

Let's go back to Sanchez with The Impossible.  Let's look at the second part of the quote again:
It was a film about people – about a Western family going to Thailand and how it’s an experience that transforms them. It’s the end of these people’s innocence. There’s a lot of suffering in survival – it’s not a victory. I thought that was very interesting.
I'd wager that you can successfully tell any story as long as the story has something that makes it worth telling.  There may have been thousands and thousands of families that survived the tsunami but perhaps this story has an angle that makes it interesting.  And the director doesn't consider it a success but rather an illumination of the family's failure to notice the world around them before.  Before the tsunami hit, as far as the family is concerned, Thailand is a resort on a beach.  After, it is a nation of people, suffering and dealing with devastation.  And all their other stories can be told, too, but that doesn't exclude this one from being told.

On the other hand, who's to say Gilliam is excluding Schindler's List.  Maybe he's merely saying it's not his preference to tell that kind of story.  This, in fact, seems to be what he's saying though he's saying it with a fair amount of judgment against going the other way.  When he describes the kind of story that Spielberg makes, and the rest of Hollywood, a big general brushstroke he paints over everyone else making movies, he calls them "comforting" because they give you answers so you don't have to think about them after you go home.  In other words, thinly veiled code for "movies for stupid people."  And it's an easy out because aren't we all smarter than everyone else who goes to the movies?  Aren't we?  Aren't we really?  Well, maybe we are.  But that still doesn't mean we can't tell a story if there's a goddamn story to tell, does it?