Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Who Gets To Tell The Story? (And who will listen?)

I want to say right off the bat that I have not seen the movie The Impossible.  I have, however, read the review of the film by Lisa Scharzbaum in the December 21st issue of Entertainment Weekly.  And it got me thinking.

The movie -- by screenwriter Sergio G. Sanchez, directed by J.A. Bayona -- is based on the true story of a family that was vacationing in Thailand at the time of the 2004 super Tsunami.  The movie is apparently a devesating depiction of the destruction wrought by that event, and a harrowing tale of one family's struggle to survive.

Ms. Scharzbaum makes the following comment toward the end of her review:
"It's worth acknowledging the dismay of some that, in the midst of the suffering by hundreds of native residents we're invited to care about the problems of comfy white visitors.  (More attention is paid to how brown-skinned caregivers treat tourists than to their own wounded and dying.)  But such UNICEF thinking misses the larger, universal story of the kind of superhuman strength that love can inspire."
It's that last sentence that really caught my attention.

Firstly, I'm not entirely sure what the phrase "UNICEF thinking" is supposed to convey.  It seems intended to dismiss such "dismay" as she has just told us is "worthy" of acknowledging.  I can only imagine that by invoking the UN organization dedicated to the betterment of the lives of children around the world that Ms. Schwarzbaum is implying that such a critique could only come from someone with a pollyanish perspective.  Perhaps she thought that "PC" sounded too, well, PC. 

But then she goes on to argue that asking why only the suffering of the white family really deserves our attention is missing the "larger, universal story" that the film is trying to tell.  So here's my question -- why can that story only be told through the eyes of a white family?  Why would not the story of those "brown-skinned caregivers" trying to help the tourists and "their own" families not tell this story as well?  Perhaps, even better?

This question gains even greater urgency in my mind when we add the information that the family in the original, true story upon which the film is based is Spanish.  Ms. Schwarzbaum notes that they were "ethnically morphed into . . . a peaches-and-cream British clan."  So, again, why can only a white family tell this "larger, universal story of the kind of superhuman strength that love can inspire"?

For far too long Western culture has assumed white experience to be normative.  As we have become more aware of our multi-cultural reality this assertion that the mono-culture white experience subsumes everyone else within it has been revealed to be as flawed as the notion that male experience can stand as the universal.  The History Channel's current series Mankind: the story of us all aside, we've realized that "the brotherhood of man" leaves out not only the sisterhood of women but also many transgendered folks who do not see themselves as fitting neatly into either gender polarity.(And really, History Channel, how much more expensive would it have been to add two letter to your title so that you could more accurately advertise Humankind:  the story of us all?)

It may be assumed, as Ms. Schwarzbaum apparently does, that the moviegoing audience would only accept the universalisty of this "larger, universal story" if it is told through the experience of a family that emobided our cultural norms.  But there is a growing population -- including white folk -- who could just as easily see the universality of the struggle of a Black family, or an Asian family, or even the Spanish family who actually underwent it.

In Gassho,

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Pete Armetta said...

Who said the story can only be told through the white family's eyes? In this case that's how the story was told wasn't it? Or am I missing something? And who said the story wasn't told by countless others who weren't white? In which case it could very well be that "white people" didn't listen?

Upper middle class progressive "white people" do very well at listening to each other, and then examining and wondering why other voices aren't included. From where I sit they don't do a very good job of really listening to anyone else in the first place as their peers are the only ones they give any credibility. When they do listen they do so in order to make themselves feel better or in the name of "social action" and be more PC, not to affect any real and practical "on the ground" change.

That's how I see it anyway, through my own experiences. This sounds like an interesting enough film, I may have to check it out, thanks. UNICEF thinking, that's a good one!

Ann Salamini said...

From the point of view of the filmmaker, following a Western family makes a logical beginning and end to the story. It also makes it easier for the viewer to leave the story in their minds.
Of course, I haven't seen this film either and I'm not even referring to a review, but there is surely a strong entertainment angle for this film. It would be a very different project to make a film about a different culture that fairly represents it. And the story would have a very different arc toward whatever end was decided on.
So instead of asking why this film isn't 'the' film we want, we could ask where is the film we want, has it actually been made, would we have the patience to see it or, more to the point, ever get the chance to see it?