Impossible is nothing: whiteness knows no limits


The 2013 Academy Award nominations were announced today and among them was a Best Actress nomination for Naomi Watts’ performance in The Impossible. The film follows a family who find their Thailand holiday caught in the mayhem of the December 2004 tsunami. As well as receiving many rave reviews, the film has been widely criticised for turning a natural disaster in Asia into a story about white people.

The Impossible promotional photo

Devin Faraci’s review on Bad Ass Digest calls it “the sad story of a white family who lost all their luggage while having to see lots of Thai people dying in a tsunami” while David Cox at The Guardian places the film into the long history of Hollywood whitewashing. For me, the racism of The Impossible is less remarkable than the way in which third world experiences become mere “background colour” for a first world learning moment.

But hang on. Isn’t the film based on a true story? Why shouldn’t this family have their story told?

Sure. But there are seven billion people in the world today, and each one has countless stories to tell, as well as the stories of past, future and worlds that never were. So which stories get told, and in particular which stories get financed and publicised, is political.

It’s no accident that this Spanish production is in English language. The Spanish director and production company previously collaborated on the 2007 Spanish language film The Orphanage, which has since sold rights to an American studio for an English-language remake. I imagine that experience might make you consider how to make your original films more marketable to an American audience.

It’s no accident that the film casts blonde, light-skinned actors and actresses to play the dark-haired, olive-skinned Spanish family on whose story the film is based. Both director Juan Antonio Bayona and Maria Belon (portrayed by Naomi Watts) have said they consciously didn’t specify the nationality of the main family as they wanted the film to be “universal”. But obviously the film is still set in a particular time and place, among real events that affected real people. It’s not a fantastical animated allegory – it’s Thailand in 2004.

It’s no accident that the film revolves around the story of tourists, whose departure gives the film neat closure, rather than the local residents who have to contend with destroyed infrastructure, economic uncertainty, and many people displaced long after the physical disaster is over.

There is a deliberate choice here to use this story and these actors, not because they are universal, but because they appear universal – because European tourists and blonde actors are neutral and generic, in a way Asians or actors of colour are not.

Another film that has been recognised in this year’s Oscar nominations is Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, a film about the abolition of slavery in the USA that features no Black characters in its core cast. Kate Masur’s analysis in the the New York Times calls the film determined “to see emancipation as a gift from white people to black people, not as a social transformation in which African-Americans themselves played a role”.

I think the whiteness of these two productions has less to do with people of colour actors being unmarketable, as the presumption that subaltern stories are essentially uninteresting. In both films, the thoughts, feelings and actions of the central white characters are complex and unpredictable, dramatically developing throughout the film as the characters learn and grow. White people make decisions. People of colour have situations, which determine their actions and motivations. White people experience trauma, sins and tragedies, while everyone else’s suffering is part of their natural condition.

This is changing in relation to the portrayal of people of colour in contemporary Western settings, especially for middle-class characters. But it remains to be seen whether the Academy Awards can imagine third world people, people in subaltern positions (enslaved, colonised, or just poor) actually have stories to tell, rather than just suffering to embody.

Jinghua Qian

Author: Jinghua Qian

Jinghua Qian is a Shanghai-born cultural commentator living in Boonwurrung and Wurundjeri country. Eir work focuses on marginalisation and resistance, and spans verse, prose, performance and broadcast. Jinghua has written for Overland, Sydney Morning Herald, and SBS, performed at Melbourne Writers Festival and The Famous Spiegeltent, and presented multilingual queer programming for 3CR Community Radio.

8 thoughts on “Impossible is nothing: whiteness knows no limits”

  1. We have gotten so use to this view of the world, like – ‘ disaster kills 300, no Australians were dead.’

  2. Yes, of course, Bayona cast Naomi Watts because she was blonde and ultra-pale… He cast Naomi because Maria Belon said to him once (no thinking about the casting of this movie, just talking about movies in general) that Naomi performance in 21 grams was one of her favorite movie performances of all time . They wanted international famous actors to play the parents, they didn’t plan to cast “blonde actors” (by the way, Tom Holland and Oaklee Pendergast are dark haired and look very similar to the real Lucas and Simon, but I guess “blonde family” in general, it is better for your point), they didn’t have any physical requisites, they would have been very happy with the “Yes” of any international good actor, George Clooney is olive skinned enough for you? Oh no, they didn’t want him, they surely were just looking for blondes! And Spanish industry makes movies in Spanish (and in other official spanish languages, for example, catalan), in English (The Others, Agora, Buried…) and in other European languages. This year there are four movies nominated for best spanish movie, one is in Spanish, one is in English, one is in French and one is a silent film. Only complete “foreigners” to European movies find completely strange or calculated to shoot a movie in other language. Here it feels natural and we only judge the movie.

  3. “Lincoln,” like its immediate predecessors, manages to make itself almost completely about great white men. Slavery here is a thing, both debated and settled by important white men while blacks await deliverance. Slavery this time is revised to extol American patriotism and memorialize great white men. The comment by “V” seems to miss the point; it should be reasonably obvious that in these fictionalized versions of historical events the ‘protagonists’ or ‘heroes’ are almost exclusively portrayed as white, glossing over the reality of situations that indisputably and predominantly affect POC. This process functions to produce a narrative that is sanitized and homogenized for mass consumption. As such it lends its endorsement to the kind of racism that insists that narratives about white people are more ‘important’ or ‘palatable’.

  4. I don’t miss the point, this isn’t a Hollywood movie, Bayona did not decide to start a “tsunami project” and then CHOOSE the story of a white family because he did not want to tell the story of POC. Yes, that’s the way Hollywood works, I know, “I want to make a movie about that but I want them about white people, find me a story, invent it, I just need white characters!”. Bayona discovered this story by chance, met the family (they were living in his hometown), it became personal to him, he felt he wanted to tell it in a movie. Oh, but he shouldn’t have done it because they are white and Hollywood (an industry in which he have never worked… Their movies have never been done with Hollywood money) usually tell too many stories about white people. And this not a movie about heroism, he is very aware about the privilege and luck of his characters (in all they ways one can be privileged).

  5. Dearest V, I find your comments both naïve and asinine. Clearly you have some kind of particular attachment to this film or filmmaker, which has impelled you to establish the benign intentions of the film in relation to the predominance of racist discourse and to render it ‘above criticism’. This is exactly how you miss the point – there is likely to be all kinds reasons and excuses and explanations on the level of individual cinematic narratives as to “why they are not bad or racist or whatever”. These reasons, excuses and explanations only serve to undermine a critical analysis of dominant narratives and representations of race. In short your opinions and anecdotes about Bayona are at best irrelevant (and at worst function in the interest of the proliferation of racist discourse).

  6. I don’t know Bayona, but I know how the spanish industry works compared to Hollywood. Directors normally choose their stories and then they get them produced, a lot of times in Hollywood (unless you are a very good, established director) the producers want a certain movie and look for a director, the constant changes of director in pre-production in a lot of Hollywood projects? The constant director rumours? The director’s cut vs. the official cut? A director complaining because he could not choose the ending? You will almost never see that in Spanish cinema, because the movie is a personal project of the director always , and then, they try to get the movie produced, in these cases the producers don’t feel they have the right to make artistic or plot important choices. He discovered this story, he met the family and wanted to make a movie about it The same way Amenabar made a movie about a female philosoper set in ancient Alexandria (yes, not cheap… Hollywood would have said “No” just by hearing “female” and “philosopher”… And entire movie about astronomy, science and religious intolerance… too much…), the same way Almodovar, Alex de la Iglesia, Guillermo del Toro, Rodrigo Cortés, Isabel Coixet, Iciar Bollaín… tell exactly the stories that they want, in the way that they want, treat the topics that they want and finish their stories in the way that they want (I’m thinking about a lot of endings, topics and even entire movies that would never have happened if Spanish industry worked like Hollywood. European cinema is not so afraid of risks, of diversity, of certain topics, of certain looks, of certain ages, it is not so obsessed about “happy endings” or making people always “feel good”… They still make bad movies, of course… ). That’s why I know Bayona wanted to tell this true story he personally knew and it was not a “general tsunami project”. The only commercial concession was the international actors and having the 100% of the movie in English instead of the 70% (the characters talked in English to the characters outside the family), but Haneke shoot in French an Austrian novel set in Viena, European co-productions with spanish, italian, german actors… are usually shoot in English because they sometimes need a lot of production companys from different countries to get the money and they finish with a multinational cast so the only common language is usually English, so here it wasn’t considered “strange”. And I lost interest in a lot of Hollywood movies (some of them with directors I like a lot, but I didn’t excuse them) the moment I saw the cast and it became obvious they just wanted white actors playing characters that were not supposed to be white, I found it truly offensive when they were trying to make it look like “they were just the best actors” (yes, you could never find a good actor the race the character is supposed to be and I have to believe that…), I never watched them at the cinema because it would be like supporting these practices and choices with my money and I don’t want to, most of them I never watched them at home either, I just act like they don’t exist and are not worthy of my time or money (surely if most people acted like me they would stop with these practices). And I have never been the kind of movie goer that only wants to watch certain stories, in a certain language, from certain countries, with actors that look in a certain way… I would watch everything that looks like a good movie. Having said that, I still think the same about Bayona’s movie, he discovered this story and the family was white, saying he shouldn’t have told it because they are white and tourists doesn’t convince me. Excuse my English.

  7. I guess this is trending on Netflix. I thought it was an excellent tear jerker. And then I got to the end and saw the real family. Ughhhh! Perhaps if this script was floated now, it would either be done right or wouldn’t be done at all.

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