Turn of the tide

Is it too soon to recreate the story of the 2004 tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people? In Thailand, James Rampton talks to the cast and crew of the BBC's new drama
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The Independent Online

Looking out to sea, all I can see is the azure water breaking gently on to pure white sands - a scene of timeless beauty that has attracted millions of tourists to Phuket in Thailand. It could be a scene from a Bounty ad. But as my gaze swings inshore, I am confronted by a harrowing sight: acres of utter devastation.

We are surrounded by the aftermath of a catastrophe - shattered huts, snapped telegraph poles and smashed concrete walls. Wild dogs sniff around in the ruins of the wrecked houses. A lone fishing boat is marooned several hundred yards inland. All around us, it is utter carnage.

However, none of it is real; the entire scene has been meticulously recreated by the set designers of Tsunami: The Aftermath, BBC2's powerful new two-part drama about the disaster that struck South East Asia on Boxing Day two years ago and left in excess of 200,000 people dead across the region.

Penned by Abi Morgan, the author of the award-winning Sex Traffic, the three-hour film weaves together several different strands. It pans across the aftermath of the disaster, stopping to zoom in on characters whose lives have been turned upside down by the tidal wave. Ithomes in on several fictionalised figures whose experiences represent what many victims underwent. These include: Nick (Tim Roth), a jaded foreign correspondent, whose cynicism is leavened by the sheer scale of the suffering he witnesses; Than (Samrit Machielsen), a Thai waiter who attempts to rebuild his village after his entire family is swept away; Ian (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Susie (Sophie Okonedo), a couple beside themselves with grief when their six-year-old is lost in the tsunami; Kim (Gina McKee), a mother desperate to get medical help for her severely injured son; Kathy (Toni Collette), a ballsy Australian aid worker; and Tony (Hugh Bonneville), a British Embassy official unprepared for the magnitude of the tragedy.

Directed by Bharat Nalluri, the drama is conducted at a brisk pace which prevents it from sliding into sentimentality. That said, many of the scenes possess a heartbreaking poignancy. Before putting pen to paper, Morgan visited Phuket to assess the local mood and then spent seven months interviewing more than 50 people caught up in the catastrophe. But the very plausibility of the drama has generated its own difficulties. While I am in Thailand, some newspapers are reporting local unhappiness about the piece. The Nation, for instance, states that "surely the mini-series will revive painful memories for the Thais who lost their relatives to the disastrous waves of December 26, 2004".

So is the drama upsetting for the locals who endured this tragedy? Not according to the many Thais I have spoken to. Take Santa Pestonji, the Thai production executive on Tsunami: The Aftermath.

A film producer of 44 years' standing who has worked on such movies as The Killing Fields and The Man With the Golden Gun, Pestonji has personal experience of bereavement as a result of the tsunami. He lost an old friend, an art director with whom he collaborated on The Beach and who was swept away when the tidal wave crashed over the island of Phi Phi. "It was a big shock," Pestonji sighs, "because he was such a good man." But he is adamant that the people of Phuket have welcomed the production. "Nobody has said, 'please don't come here, it's insensitive to make it here'. Maybe some people in the UK think it's too soon to be producing a drama about the tsunami, but I think that's a cultural difference.

"Before we filmed in Khao Lak, an area that was devastated by the tsunami, I went around asking people, 'are you upset that this film is being made about your tragedy?'. They replied, 'no, we think it's important that there is a record of what happened. Also, we are part of making that history.' I encountered no objections whatsoever."

Tim Roth is sitting on a canvas chair between scenes. The actor reckons there has been some mischief-making press coverage. "It's a better story to say it's all a terrible abomination. But what's been reported is not at all what's happened. When you haven't read the script, you'll make assumptions - and they are always much more exciting than the reality. But we meet people affected by the tsunami on a daily basis, and the reality is that they are absolutely fine about us filming here."

Hugh Bonneville adds: "I talked to a taxi driver yesterday who had lost his sister-in-law and nephew in the tsunami. He said to me, 'It's great you're here. Yes, it was a terrible disaster, and yes, we grieve for those we have lost. But we have accepted what nature inflicted on us, and now life must go on.'

"Perhaps because of their Buddhist philosophy, the Thai people accept the forces of nature and then move on. In the West, we have more of a blame culture. We wag our finger and say, 'I blame Tony Blair'. But the Thais have an amazing fortitude and gentleness of spirit. Like United 93, I think this drama shows how resilient people can be under extreme pressure."

The film has also prompted questions about the speed with which it is being shown. After all, less than two years have passed since the tsunami laid waste to vast areas of South East Asia. When is it acceptable to portray such catastrophes? It took five years, for example, before it was deemed appropriate to depict the events of 9/11 on screen.

For Pestonji, it was high time to remember those who perished. "My first response when I heard about the project was 'why so late?'. I'm really glad it's being done now. People have very short memories, and it is important to remind them what happened during and after the tsunami. There are so many stories that need to be told."

Looking past me towards the waves lapping on the beach, Roth concludes: "There are lots of lessons to be drawn from the tsunami. However, for me one stands out, and it's this: aren't human beings extraordinary?"

Tsunami, The Aftermath starts at 9pm on BBC2 on Tuesday