Whitewashing <i>The Impossible</i>

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The sad story of a white family who lost all their luggage while having to see lots of Thai people dying in a tsunami.’ 

(L)ess an examination of mass destruction than the tale of a spoiled holiday.’

(T)he indigenous locals have been turned into cameo players in their own story.’ 

These are just a few of the criticisms that have greeted The Impossible since its recent worldwide release. An English-language Spanish film about the 2004 Asian Tsunami, the disaster epic unfolds through the eyes of a British family.

Wealthy married couple Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor get separated from each other and their three children when the first wave hits. The rest of the film details their search for each other amid the chaos and destruction on a tourist resort in Thailand.

First, let’s remember the scale of that destruction. The Boxing Day Tsunami killed 227, 000 people.  Less than four percent (9,000) of these were foreign tourists.

In the absence of films that relay the horrors of this catastrophic event from the point of view of the people most affected, what do we make of The Impossible, a story that focuses almost exclusively on the experiences of privileged white Europeans?

 Technically and artistically speaking, the film is terrific. The acting, particularly that of the children, is top notch. The director, Juan Antonio Bayona, expertly uses CGI to enhance but never overshadow the story.

What I am trying to say is, yes, I got caught up in the emotion. I felt for the characters. I winced, I cried, I marvelled at the resilience of the ‘human spirit.’ The Impossible is a masterful feat of filmmaking and for this the creators deserve credit. 

However, as a non-white person, it is impossible for me not to feel personally slighted by the blatant whitewashing of this specifically non-white event. The first I heard of the film was when I came across the trailer last month, just two days before I was to shoot my own short film. When I immediately turned to my friend to complain about its overwhelming whiteness, she reminded me that my own film features only Arab-Australian actors. Isn’t my decision to make a film exclusively about Arab characters the same as The Impossible telling a story about white European characters?

No, it isn’t. And here’s why.

Films such as mine, which although featuring non-white characters, are nonetheless aimed at a western audience. They compete for space in an environment that has historically marginalised the experiences of non-whites. Often, filmmakers such as myself make films about non-white characters specifically to counteract stereotypes and address the lack of diversity in our film and television industry.

From the days of Al Jolson wearing blackface as The Jazz Singer, films have either ignored the existence of non-whites or simply cast white actors in their roles. Who can forget Mickey Rooney’s extraordinarily racist turn as Audrey Hepburn’s Japanese neighbour in Breakfast at Tiffany’s

Closer to home, Australian director, Geoff Davis, was roundly criticised a few years ago when he cast his son Josh in a mini-series based on the life of Billy Sing, a legendary WW1 sniper. The real Billy Sing was Chinese-Australian and the actor who played him is white. By whitewashing this character, who sadly died in poverty and obscurity, Davis simultaneously denies the contribution that the Chinese made to our history and feeds the mythical stereotype of the heroic white male. 

This scenario also plays out in another otherwise excellent film, director Ben Affleck’s Argo, in which Affleck himself plays Tony Mendez, one of the CIA’s most decorated agents. Mendez, who devised and executed an audacious plan to rescue six diplomats from Iran during the hostage crisis in 1980, is of Italian and Mexican ancestry. Affleck, of course, is white.

It is a minor tragedy that in an environment that grows more hostile to immigrants - particularly Hispanic ones- every day, Affleck chose to whitewash the patriotic efforts of someone from this community. It is unlikely Affleck did this deliberately. the role of Tony Mendez was probably just too great for him to pass up. In doing so, however, he deprived a Hispanic actor the opportunity to play an all too rare leading role.

What makes the whitewashing in The Impossible arguably worse than Argo is the obvious cynicism of the filmmakers. Based on the true story of a dark haired and darkish-skinned Spanish family, the filmmakers admitted to changing their nationality and casting lily-white actors in order to make the story ‘universal’.

In other words, only white people can stand in for the human race as whole.

For this reason, Thailand and its people are mere backdrops for the story of a Caucasian family who learn the hard way that even western privilege is no match for the brute force of mother nature. 

Early scenes depict the tourists, blissfully ignorant of the calamity about to befall them, raising lanterns over the calm evening water, playing cricket on the beach and getting sunburned by the pool. After the wave, we see them stumbling aimlessly by the roadside, searching for each other in a fog of fear and confusion. While some cry over the death of a loved one(s), others are lucky enough to be reunited.

And through it all the Thais are practically irrelevant. Nameless resort workers before tragedy strikes, they later serve either as dead, bloated bodies or as ‘Magical Minorities’ who exist merely to help the white folk survive their unfathomable tragedy. And so the lives of millions of non-Caucasians, to whom this story actually belongs, are relegated to the sidelines yet again. Is the west so accustomed to the idea of third world suffering that we no longer even see trauma unless it is experienced by white people?

This is not to say that tourists weren’t impacted by the Tsunami. Of course they were, and their experiences cannot be denied. But neither can we deny the historical context in which this film exists. It is the latest in a long line of western films that erases the experiences of non-whites and renders their suffering somehow less important, less capable of eliciting empathy.

In doubling up on its whitewashing, The Impossible plays into a classic catch-22. The more non-white characters are overlooked the more audiences will expect to see white actors in leading roles. And the more that audiences want to see white characters, the more marginalised non-white actors -and the real people they play- become.

42 comments

  • Although there is clearly a racial difference between Thai people and Naomi Watts, I think the idea of white and non-white is getting more and more subjective. You suggest that the half Italian-Mexican Mendez was a non-white, but who is to say that Italians do not identify as white? And if someone is of mixed heritage then it’s even more complicated. I really dislike labels; they are useful for making generalisations in conversation but they mean nothing to the individual.

    Your catch 22 point is excellent but challenging. The industry film industry is very conservative and it’s difficult to get funding for anything with diversity. I don’t have an answer but I expect it will change with time; especially considering the pace of Hispanic change in the USA.

    Commenter
    Tom
    Location
    Canberra
    Date and time
    February 01, 2013, 7:56AM
    • Even the term Hispanic completly washes over the fact that in the Spanish speaking Americas there are white people (even blonde and red haired people), native Americans, black people and a mixture of all of the above.

      Commenter
      Jcarroll
      Date and time
      February 01, 2013, 9:44AM
    • Jcarroll, your understanding of the word 'Hispanic' is incorrect. Anyone who knows what Hispanic means will not assume a Hispanic person must have a certain look. Hispanic refers to a collection of cultural groups which have some connection to Spanish culture (often through Spanish colonization). These cultural groups can differ widely in their cultural practices, and their relationship to Spanish culture can sometimes be fairly tenuous. Hispanics can be of European, African, Asian and native American descent.

      Commenter
      Judy
      Date and time
      February 01, 2013, 11:41AM
    • Judy you are right I think I have flown off the handle here a little. Though I would argue Hispanic is often used as a synonym to Latino, which is very much a racial identifyer that ignores the fact that Spanish speaking America come from as a diverse range of backgrounds as English speaking America.

      Commenter
      Jcarroll
      Date and time
      February 01, 2013, 12:45PM
  • The Thai people are free to make their own movie form a Thai perspective. If Hollywood tried to make the film from a Thai family perspective, they'll get it all wrong.

    Commenter
    George
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    February 01, 2013, 9:00AM
    • Yes they are, but would you watch it? would it even be released here and marketed to a western audience? probably not. Their stories would still not be heard by the global population.

      Hollywood has massive amounts of money and influence over the world's film industry, it's highly unlikely that a local Thai producer would stand any chance in competing with it.

      Commenter
      Miffy
      Date and time
      February 01, 2013, 10:09AM
    • I have seen a few great Thai films at film festivals such as Blissfully Yours, Tropical Malady and Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. They are startlingly different narrative films to what western audiences are accustomed to and many will find them confounding and inaccessible that will find a very small niche audience. Most people will simply not sit through a foreign film. As simple as that.

      Commenter
      George
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      February 01, 2013, 11:14AM
  • There were as many stories as people affected that day. This was one of them. You're confusing filmic storytelling as soley some social crusade to right the worlds ills (as often short filmmakers do, myself included at times in the past) It can be that, and it can do that powerfully, but the movie business chiefly entertains by putting the audience into situations we're not likely to ever be exposed to, and ask ourselves questions as to how we would act. The filmmakers were not Thai (or Indonesian Sri Lankan etc) they were western and their experience of Thailand was, like most westerners, as a tourist. They found a premise that resonated strongly with themselves and their experiences, and felt it would do the same for other moviegoers. Filmmaking doesn't take votes on most worthy, no one sits around in a room and says the tourist tsunami film doesn't work, only 4% of the deaths were holidays makers, the Indonesians win here, let's go to Aceh province (though i want to see that film too) You can make judgment on inequality in the film industry generally, but to charge one production team with making the "wrong" film is ridiculous. One day, one Tsunami, many, many stories.

    Commenter
    tigernorway
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    February 01, 2013, 9:23AM
    • This films focus on western tourists is troubling, but I think the binary you paint of a world which is white or non-white is kind of odd.

      Commenter
      Jcarroll
      Date and time
      February 01, 2013, 9:25AM
      • Me too. As an Arab person you're closer to the Thais than to any white person? Why?

        Commenter
        Alice
        Date and time
        February 01, 2013, 9:52AM

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