Friday, January 11, 2013

When Truly Universal Becomes "Lo Imposible"

Spaniard director Juan Antonio (J.A.) Bayona, most well known for directing the horror film El orfanato (The Orphanage), decided to direct a film based on the real-life story of Henry and María Belón, a Spaniard couple who were on vacation in Thailand with their children when the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and accompanying tsunami destroyed much of that part of the world. Written by Sergio G. Sánchez and produced by the Spaniard film companies Apaches Entertainment and Telecinco Cinema (Álvaro Agustín, Belén Atienza and Enrique López Lavigne), it marked director Bayona's English-language debut.

Something odd happened between the draft of the script being completed (the first draft was in Spanish and titled Lo imposible) and the final, finished film, called The Impossible. The Belón family from Spain became British (with the new surname Bennett). María became blonde and was portrayed by Australian actress Naomi Watts and her husband Henry was portrayed by Scottish actor Ewan McGregor.

The Belon family
So why the change in nationalities? According to the director, "It was the family who didn’t allow us to talk about nationalities. From the very beginning they wanted the family [in the film] to be kind of universal. They didn’t want to talk about nationalities because the water took that away. After the water arrived there were no more nationalities or class… The truth is that there is a comment about that at the end of the film because they felt privileged to survive, but they felt a lot of suffering that they had survived and I thought that was very interesting. It was not a disaster movie with a two-dimensional answer – they live or they die – it is more complex than that, there is a lot of suffering to survive, it is not a victory. I thought that was very interesting because it told the reality of the emotion."

To read more of what the director said about the movie, click here.

Actress Naomi Watts
and María Belon
According to María Belón herself, "I am fed up with this question all the time. This movie is not about nationalities, not about races, not about colors. It's about human beings. One of the conditions we put is that there should be no nationality for the family. I don't care if they would be black, brown or green skin. I wouldn't care about anything."

Belón said she was involved in the making of The Impossible for several years and that she did have a say in the film's casting. When Bayona asked Belón who her favorite actress was, she replied Naomi Watts because of her performance in 21 Grams [directed by Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu].

Read more of what she said about the movie in Ben Kenber's blog on Yahoo! by clicking here.

Director Juan Antonio
(J.A.) Bayona
Elia Esparza of Latin Heat wrote, "Currently there is an uproar over Ben Affleck casting himself in Argo for the role of Tony Méndez. But do Spanish people consider themselves Latino versus European? Also, the director is Latino… it is his film to cast as he wants. But does this not also hold true for Affleck? María Belón is from Spain and not America, does that make it OK for Hollywood to cast Latino roles with non-Latinos?"

Read more of this blog by clicking here.

On the movie, the Clearing Customs brings up a different point, noting, "My first thought when I saw the movie trailer was, Why must we tell non-Western stories through the eyes of Westerners? Surely there were stories about Indonesians, Sri Lankans, Indians, Thais, and others in Southeast Asia worth telling. Belón [in an appearance on the U.S. television show "The View" addressed this by saying], "It needed to be told just as an excuse to tell everybody else’s stories. That’s the only reason why we wanted our story to be told is because nothing happened to us. . . . I will tell that thousands of times. Nothing happened to us, but from so many people were so painful, so difficult, that that was the only reason why we wanted to tell this story, just an excuse to tell everybody else’s stories. . . . Only for them. Only for them."

To read more about this blog, click here.

For her performance as María, Naomi Watts earned Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations for Best Actress. Also interesting to note that while the family in the film had an undisclosed nationality (even though speaking with British accents), principal photography occurred in Alicante, Spain (and later Thailand).

Most good storytellers tell stories with universal themes in which all of us can relate.The question then is "What is universal?" or "What makes a story universal?" Does it mean people of European heritage in the lead roles? A story that deals with non-Caucasian characters but tells the story from a Caucasian character's point of view? British accents? (Confer films of the science fiction/fantasy genre, such as the Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises.)

Would a couple of Spaniard actors playing María and Henry in The Impossible make the film's story less universal?

Dev Patel and Frieda Pinto
in Slumdog Millionaire
Do the films City of God (Cidade de Deus), Y tú mamá también and Slumdog Millionaire tell stories that explore universal themes? All three were nominated for Academy Awards. City of God (Cidade de Deus) received four nods including Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director. Y tú mamá también received a nod for Best Original Screenplay. And Slumdog Millionaire received ten Academy Award nominations and winning eight, including awards for Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Director and the biggest award of the evening– Best Picture. And all three films were box office hits, domestically and internationally.

Suraj Sharma (and tiger) in Life of Pi
Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild
What about films that were released in 2012? Life of Pi? Beasts of the Southern Wild? Both told their stories without making the lead roles fit into what some would think would be "universal". And they both are nominated for Best Picture at this year's Academy Awards. (Another Best Picture nominee this year, Argowell, that's a different story.)

Perhaps when Hollywood takes a good, truthful look at the world and who populates it, maybe then it won't be so skittish about telling stories that are truly universal.

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