Humanitarian Rides "The Third Wave" in Sri Lanka
(from brinkzine.com 5/25/07)
There’s a classic country music song, written by Becky Hobbs and sung famously by Alabama, called “Angels Among Us.” That song came to mind when I was watching Alison Thompson be a modern-day Florence Nightingale while nursing surviving Sri Lanka tsunami victims in her stirring, extraordinary documentary, “The Third Wave.” Both on screen and off, the Australian-born Thompson, who now calls New York home, modestly downplays her own contributions in helping the destroyed village of Peraliya come back to life, preferring to pay tribute to her three brave cohorts, Italian boyfriend Oscar Gubernati, Australian Donny Paterson, and American Bruce French, and to volunteerism in general. A first-responder for nine months at Ground Zero, Thompson says her eye-opening document of volunteers making a difference is a clarion call to mobilize everyone to lend a helping hand somewhere in the world. I read about her remarkable life and her diary of her time in Sri Lanka online. I met her at the Tribeca Film Festival, where she and her film received thunderous ovations from awed audiences.
Danny Peary: Talk about your youth in Australia, growing up a preacher’s daughter in the bush outside Sydney.
Alison Thompson: I have great memories of growing up in Gray’s Point on the edge of the Sydney Royal National Park, camping, swimming, kayaking, fishing, boating, bushwalking, surfing, playing cricket and soccer. I went to public schools and dreamed of playing professional cricket and having four kids. My father was a preacher man and my mother a nurse, and I traveled with them to many Third World countries. I lived in jungles and even visited the Royal Palace in Tonga.
DP: What affect, if any, did your father being a preacher have on your becoming a humanitarian?
AT: I think my father being an international preacher helped give me a love and understanding of travel to Third Worlds. And my mother taught me unconditional love.
DP: Do you think that growing up on an island is what gave you a restless spirit, so much that you have traveled to every continent and filmed in thirty countries?
AT: Yes. I think Australia, despite air travel and modern technology, is still isolated from the rest of the globe and you grow up with a feeling that you just want to get out there and explore the world. As most of the world is so far way, when you leave you just keep on going! I no longer feel restless to keep traveling but purely inspired. There is an incredible world out there, and each country is unique. Still, after exploration, I came to the conclusion that the best of the best is right here back at home.
DP: When were you a medic and mathematics teacher?
AT: In Australia I taught mathematics for five years at Cronulla High School. Also, I worked as a Nurse’s Aid at my mum’s Chesalon nursing hospital in Jannali over a period of eight years. That experience and various courses I took helped me when I worked as a medic on September 11th and for nine months after that at a Ground Zero first-aid station.
DP: When and why did you decide to become a filmmaker?
AT: I was investment banking on Wall Street at the time! I never had a thought in my life that I would become a filmmaker! It just happened. I had a real passion for photography and also filmed all my Third World trips to Africa, Burma, Iran, etc., and people started asking me for my footage and wanted to buy it! I left the security of a paycheck and went to study at NYU film school and learned everything I thought I needed to know to make a film. Three weeks out of film school, I made my first film.
DP: Talk about the making of “High Times Potluck.” Was this the type of film you expected to spend your career making or did you already want to make message films?
AT: Fresh out of film school, I raised a million dollars from Wall Street and asked Victor Collichio, who wrote Spike Lee’s “Summer of Sam” to write a comedy. He wrote “Potluck,” so I went for it! We shot it in twenty days, using over forty locations and fifty actors. We had a great cast and had a real blast making it all over the streets of New York. It was a fun comedy, but it wasn’t very deep.
My “Potluck” Investor was killed in the Sept 11th attacks, and after working at Ground Zero as a first responder, my life was changed forever. Firstly as a volunteer but also as a filmmaker, I now wanted to make films with real messages to the world, that would make people think about issues they had known nothing about.
DP: What did you do as a volunteer for nine months at Ground Zero?
AT: On the morning of September 11th, I rollerbladed with my first-aid kit downtown, four miles to Ground Zero. When I arrived the South Tower had just collapsed and there were injured people everywhere with bits and pieces of bodies lining the streets. I reached onto a debris pile to grab someone’s arm to help free him, but it was just an arm and I squeaked and threw it away.
I met an EMS guy who helped me work CPR on a man, and we started helping people who were bleeding. I heard a rumble from above and the North Tower exploded above us, so I rollerbladed as fast as I could and dived under a car. It went black for half an hour and I prayed my guts out. After that I set up a triage station with EMS worker Michael Voudoris at Firehouse 10, across the road from Ground Zero, and stayed, living in the streets, collecting bodies, and washing out firemen’s eyes. I didn’t have any shoes with me, so we took them off a dead body that passed by on a stretcher. The shoes were size 13 so we sliced them in half and I wore them with my toes hanging out the ends.
A $3,000 cashmere coat from a retail store called Century 21 kept me warm at night.
We collected sixty-eight green garbage bags full of people and ate KFC on piles of iron and burnt debris. The police took over a nearby Burger King and cooked burgers. One day on the pile we ate filet mignon and potatoes from a fancy uptown restaurant. A destroyed Amish store supplied us with food and water for days. Everyone pitched in to help in an amazing display of humanity.
There were many times when we heard SOS tappings from people who were trapped deep underground but we couldn’t get to them. One day I found someone’s heart lying out on a piece of steel.
For the next five days it felt like the rest of the world was gone and we were the only survivors. Three were no phones or electricity and we lived as a MASH unit next to the morgue.
On the fifth day, Fema shut us down and we were too exhausted to argue. I found my rollerblades exactly where I had left them five days earlier and I rollerbladed back uptown in shock. I fell asleep on a Saturday night and woke up on Monday night.
I lived Sept 11th over and over as a volunteer for the next nine months and marched with the soldiers of Ground Zero on its closing day, May 31, 2002.
I never found my friend but I had tried really hard.
DP: How is your health? Did you realize the air was unsafe?
AT: While working at Ground Zero I met an air pollution tester and every day he assured me that the air was safe. I never really believed him but unlike others I haven’t had a sick day since.
DP: Had you been to Sri Lanka before the tsunami?
AT: I had never been to Sri Lanka before but I knew it was a very poor country and I had heard many surfers tell stories that if you ever got sick there you have to come straight home because you will die in a local hospital.
DP: Having been at Ground Zero, did you actually believe that you’d spend only two weeks in Sri Lanka?
AT: When I set off for Sri Lanka I really believed that I was going only for two weeks. I had a return ticket for that time and had only a few hundred dollars in my pocket. I had rent to pay and was up to direct an episode of “Law and Order” in N.Y. the next month.
DP: You had to expect complete misery and destruction when you arrived in Sri Lanka, so how much worse was it than you expected?
AT: On Sept 11th, after the second tower had fallen, there was no hope to save anyone. So when I arrived in Sri Lanka it was actually better than I had expected. I felt like I was once again standing at the gates of hell, but this time there were survivors and I felt like I had been a second chance to help people. As the months moved on it became harder and more challenging than I could ever have imagined in a wild mushroom trip!
DP: Talk about the formation of the “Fantastic Four,” and how well you complemented one another.
AT: I had told Oscar, my Italian boyfriend, that I had decided to go to Sri Lanka to volunteer and I asked him if he wanted to come with me. I said, “I was going anyway.”
He came and we met Donny, an Aussie ex-army engineer, at the Sri Lanka airport at the baggage carousel and asked him to join us. Bruce came later that night. He lived in Telluride and was a private chef for the band Pearl Jam. He was a friend of a friend whom we hadn’t met yet. He was the last to join our team. We rented a van, filled it with medical supplies, food and water and started driving along the tsunami coast helping people, until we arrived in Peraliya and stayed there.
We were so different from each other but somehow it worked. We all had different skills to bring to the table. Donny became “Operations” and built toilets and houses. Oscar produced the village by raising money from the road and re-directed aid traffic. (Italians are really good at acquiring things.) Bruce ran logistics. And I ran the field hospital and later the Tsunami alert center.
DP: Among your hobbies are carpentry and cooking, so did you expect to do more than nursing once you and your friends began trying to bring life back to Peraliya? Other hobbies include kickboxing and fencing, so did you feel safer and more confident than might other volunteers in a strange and sometimes hostile environment?
AT: I was just expecting to do anything to help. All I really needed was to use my commonsense in everything I did whether it was collecting bodies, eating clean food, or hugging someone. There was stifling heat and sweat ran down my legs daily. I think my being fit prepared me for the marathon ahead but we were running on pure adrenaline.
We didn’t have much time to think about the next day but simply getting through that day and the days melted into each other. I felt very confident with my past experience in many third world countries. I thought I knew what to expect and I was very wrong.
DP: What was a typical day for you like?
AT: The typical days varied over the months. In the beginning we would wake up at first light 5 a.m., eat a papaya or something that Bruce would muster up, and drive straight out to the village three miles down the road. The villagers would stand there waiting for us and run over to the van to greet us.
In the early days every moment counted, as we were getting the villagers food, water, and temporary shelter and treating people who were sick or hurt. Over three thousand people in this village depended on us, not to mention the thousands we would encounter along the way to and from the village. Donny and Bruce had really hard physical work-- they would spent hours repairing roofs, cleaning out temples and homes, and preparing shelters with big rolls of plastic. They also had to deal with the problem that there wasn’t a single toilet for miles.
I would treat wounds with the help of some paramedics and nurses I had collected on the way. The hospital was so busy; people would walk to us from over 20 kilometers away to get treated. In the following weeks we were treating over a thousand patients a day.
I would arrive at the field hospital, feed my starving cats and dogs, and then start treating people--and not move sometimes for thirteen hours. There was nowhere to ‘pee’ and my bladder would hurt, once it ran down my legs all over the floor but there was no time to stop. People just kept on coming and infection was setting in. There were so many people wanting help and when the stress became too much I would walk into a broken house and just start crying. Sometimes I didn’t even know why I was crying, I think I was just so tired.
It was so hot and during the first week I had picked up a virus and had a 102-temperature along with the 104-degree heat. It was really very hard for everyone, but there was no time to think of yourself because these people had just lost their eight kids and spouses and everything they owned and were much worse off. The adrenaline set in and we concentrated at the tasks at hand.
In the later months when we had many more volunteers, we would get up and have a more civilized breakfast at the beach in the main town as it was being rebuilt, and we would start work around 8 a.m. There was always just so much to do and we were in a race against time to get everyone into some sort of shelter before the monsoons arrived.
A typical day would also be spent listening to hours of horrifying stories told through translators who spoke broken English. You didn’t have to understand the words to feel their pain.
DP: When new volunteers arrived, would you tell them what you wanted them to do?
AT: When volunteers arrived at Peraliya we would say, “There are no rules, politics or bureaucracy, so just get your head down and work, do whatever you want to do.” We left them to their own commonsense, and it worked out very well.
DP: Was the diary you were writing for yourself, or were you emailing people around the world, including in America and Australia?
AT: I knew I had to get help and when the internet shop was back in order I started sending emails out to friends and family or anyone that would read them. The situation on the ground was so desperate and I begged for help. I knew what people were seeing on TV or in newspapers wasn’t the truth because my mother was telling me things that were being reported back home that weren’t accurate. I started my diaries to get help and to report what was really going on in the ground. A few weeks later a journalist came through and created a Web site for us so volunteers elsewhere could read what we wrote and respond and come and help. I received hundreds of emails from people sitting at home watching TV wanting to come and help. I had no time to type back so my response was simply “Come! Get on a plane and drive to our village. See you soon!”
DP: In your diary, you write to all prospective volunteers, “Don’t listen to the big organizations when they say they have plenty of help or only medical skills are required.” As time passed, did you witness any money or supplies coming in from the Red Cross, Unicef, the Bush-Clinton fund, Doctors Without Borders, Care or any charity that many of us donated to? What was (and is) the problem?
AT: Some of the aid money got there but most of it didn’t and the world did give so generously! Everyone meant well but it was just that most of the large organizations were struck in bureaucracy within their own organizations or in logistics at the airport. A lot of the tsunami money was saved or redirected to use for other projects in other countries. I know The American Red Cross donated 50 million of left-over tsunami money to the U.N World Food Program (the WFP is a good organization).
The volunteers had no one to answer too so we would just build a toilet. A larger organization would have to write six letters that went through twenty-three people to get approval. We wrote to three of the top Aid organizations for four months or help us with no response. They seemed to be fighting over who was in charge and plastering their signs all over the coast to show sponsors back home they were “on the job!” I saw their aid signs but I didn’t see what they were doing. We did see large NGO’s staying in $500- a-night hotels and driving around in big fancy brand new jeeps. I think the key problem was that the larger organizations need to regroup into smaller sub-groups that can make bigger decisions on the ground and move about and respond much more quickly. We lived meagerly and wanted every cent that was sent to us to go straight to the people. We couldn’t have lived with ourselves if it didn’t.
Clinton’s envoy came through and choose our camp to host a meeting of all the NGOs in the area as it was the only camp rebuilding. It was a positive meeting but as usual nothing became of it. Celebrities would also come through and take pictures with children and promise money and aid and they never came back. Quite a few famous Australian cricketers came through but we never heard from them again. I am not into playing the blame game of who did what. All I know in the 2 years I was there the money wasn’t reaching the people and still isn’t.
Most of the organizations were stuck, but there were also smaller ones that worked well. I have researched the money problem for fourteen months but it would take me hours and hours to explain all the fraud and the billions that were lost passing through millions of hands. A lot of the donated tsunami money is still sitting in bank accounts around the world.
All I know is that after a disaster everyone is needed! No skills required! It doesn’t take much to pick up rubble or hug someone. Some volunteers who came to us were rejected from large organizations as they didn’t have Masters degrees, etc. I am sorry this is Bullshit and wrong. It is about getting on the ground and getting dirty. It isn’t just medical; you have five hundred traumatized children sitting around with nothing to do-- they need actors, singers, teachers, everyone.
DP: Is that why you realized you could never leave?
AT: We realized we couldn’t leave in the first days and weeks as there was no-one there helping in our area. It was the biggest disaster of all time and thousands of miles of the coastline were gone. The people also relied on us and trusted us and we couldn’t choose to not show up to feed them. Even when we came back to Sri Lanka after a three-week break, we saw that no work had been done from when we had left.
Three is still so much work to be done.
DP: In the film it seems that almost all the people trusted you at the beginning—is that true and if so, why? Was it always the kids who trusted you most?
AT: The Sri Lankan village people trusted us, as we were the only ones there helping them. It started out as a medical camp where we were treating their wounds, feeding them daily, and providing water. We treated them with respect and love and asked them what they needed for their village. We worked together and included them in most decisions. The children were the most honest of everyone and when the adults started to turn on us, the kids knew the truth. They could see us working our guts out and just trying to help. The children behaved like adults and the adults like naughty children.
I learned a lot from the honesty of the children and when the adults were lying to us about how much aid they had received, the children would always give us honest answers.
When I became frustrated at the jealous village women screaming at each other over aid, I would lock the hospital up and walk down the railway tracks to cry. The children would run after me trying to kiss me and begged me to stay. They would say “you help us …we love you …those women bad!!” When you are surrounded by thirty children all trying to kiss you at once, it is one of the most beautiful moving moments you can ever experience. So I would open the hospital back up again and go back to work.
We all stayed for the children.
DP: What was it like seeing the drawings the kids did of you?
AT: Seeing the pictures the children drew of me was a sweet moment. I was happy they had stopped drawing the tsunami. They drew me exactly the way I dressed including my hairstyle except they drew me with black hair instead of blond. At first I thought they just got it wrong but one little girl said it was because I was one of them.
DP: Repeatedly you say in your diary, and it’s evident in the film, that you “were trying to make sense of it all.” And when you saw heartbreaking things, you’d try to put a positive spin on it in your mind by talking about “the bigger picture.” Any comments now that you look back on it?
AT: With everything there is always a bigger picture and an outsider can see that. That is why we could sympathize with someone’s pain but also see further in time to healing. When a woman in pain would beat at my chest or curse my name, I could understand that it wasn’t me she was really mad at--it was from the loss of her five or six children, her husband, her home. It took me a while not to take it personally, but by the end I could see through this to the bigger picture.
There were times when you couldn’t put a positive spin on things. After consoling maybe seven hundred women there was still that one woman who was inconsolable and telling her that her dead child was at peace in a beautiful place just didn’t work. I would break down with the thought that the child was just dead and stuck in a tree somewhere. I would cry a river as the woman’s tears stained my clothes.
DP: After 9/11, there was so much heartbreak seeing people searching for the missing. You experienced that to even a larger degree in Sri Lanka—was that one of the most difficult things to deal with?
AT: The Tsunami dead was multiplied by hundreds of thousands compared to Sept 11th but I found it hard to see or hear a difference in the pain. One was a murderous massacre and one an act of nature. They were both bad and the grieving of one dead and hundreds of thousands was still equally really sad.
Only half of the bodies at Ground Zero were found, mostly in little pieces. The other fifteen hundred just vaporized. It was the same with the tsunami. Many bodies were found right away, but five months later we were still collecting bodies and people were still bringing me body parts. I really wanted to find all the bodies; I knew that I would want to be found.
The heartbreak in Sri Lanka seemed louder compared to a more refined New York crowd but it didn’t mean the pain was less. My friend Phil Marber, who runs Cantor Fitzgerald, lost over 600 members of his company, all of whom he knew personally. How do you deal with that kind of loss? I remember being in the pit at Ground Zero one year later with the grieving families and hearing 24,000 people sobbing and crying all at once. It was one of the most saddest experiences I can ever remember.
DP: Was there ever a discussion with Oscar over whether you’d bring a camera to Sri Lanka or leave it behind? Did you always expect to make a film?
AT: I took a video camera with me to Sri Lanka, as I do everywhere I go, including on holidays. I thought I would shoot some footage of the destruction and hopefully make a little piece after I returned home to help raise some money for the victims. I never expected we would be there for fourteen months and come back with 250 hours of footage.
We just passed the camera around to volunteers, kids, ambulance drivers or whomever and then at the end of the second month we met a local camera guy who said he would shoot for us and he just followed us around as we ran the refugee camp.
DP: Would there have been a film without him? As a director, did you give him actual direction? What did the people think about the filmmaking, particularly those who didn’t trust you?
AT: Sunil was a Canadian Sri Lankan whom I had met in early March when he wandered through the village with his camera. We talked about him joining us to shoot the refugee camp for a while and he agreed. He came to the camp every day for a few hours and then more as the months moved on.
Sunil was a beginner cameraman so every now and again I would pull him aside to tell him not to zoom or to make sure the light was behind him or something basic. I checked the tapes every few days but was generally too tired to do it and after a few weeks I trusted his work enough to leave him alone. It was too busy a time to think about that.
His footage turned out to be very natural and honest with light in all directions and a simple touch, just like the refugee camp itself. The filming got better as the refugee camp got better.
He knew the local language and had a great quiet way of moving about so you didn’t even know he was there. Sunil became part of the story as the villagers complained to him and tried to push him into a translator position. We would have had a very much different film if he hadn’t been there to capture the villagers’ side of the story.
Generally, the village people ignored the camera or just spoke into it to ask him questions and ask for favors, etc. I don’t really think they understood the concept of a film. They didn’t really seem to mind the camera but as they started to turn on us, they turned nasty towards Sunil and some were threatening to crush his camera.
DP: At night you reflected for the camera sometimes and seemed at peace—was it like that most nights? Was having a camera there helpful to you because you knew a document would eventually be produced for the world to see?
AT: At night we would talk into the camera about what we had experienced that day. I think the camera helped us from going insane. It was sort of like therapy, where we would talk about the day and get all our feelings out and then the next day we would move on. Sometimes we would cry or laugh or just let off steam in a joke, but most of the time we were just too tired to talk into the camera so we missed many nights.
I knew I had to keep shooting and something would come together later. The shooting at night was really personal and I thought we would have a laugh or cry in re-watching it years from now. I knew the footage could be made into something but it wasn’t until much later in the year that I realized that the volunteers were the story.
DP: Explain the meaning of your film’s title, and at what point did you decide “The Third Wave” would be the title?
AT: The First tsunami wave destroyed everything, The Second wave killed around a quarter of a million people. The Third wave title refers to all the aid and volunteers that flooded into the country to help. The title just came to me one day shortly after I came home and it made sense.
DP: The film takes on a new dimension when the people realize that time has passed yet they still have nothing. While watching the film and seeing the once thankful people start to turn against you and forget all you had done for them—the persecutors—I thought of “Lord of the Flies,” when the bad side of human nature surfaces. You mention this in your diary.
AT: After a while it became apparent that we were in some sort of “Lord of the Flies” movie. We had seen mankind at its very best and now we were seeing it at its very worst. I remember talking into the camera and meaning to say “Lord of the Flies” and when I got home I saw it on tape and I had said it wrong: “I feel like I am in a “The Lord of the Rings” movie. It just didn’t sound right!
DP: In your diary there are several instances when people turn against you—beating and poisoning your dog, laughing at you and leaving you on the ground when you tumbled from your bike in pain after almost being hit by a firecracker—but you chose not to include mention of this. Were you trying to balance what you showed?
AT: There were many things we experienced over fourteen or fifteen months that couldn’t be included in an 88-minute film. There was just too much footage and too many stories to choose from.
Some villagers treated me unfairly out of jealousy for aid and I struggled hard in the editing room as a director, rather than as a character in the film, to keep to the film’s objective--and yet also show our shortcomings. There were so many ways to tell this story with the footage I had, and I chose to make an uplifting film about volunteers and how they can make a difference in this world and to make it clear that everyone is needed. I wanted to give future volunteers a road map so that after they observe and learn, they can volunteer themselves somewhere in the world in the near future.
I choose not to make a negative film about how we were better than them or kick them when they are still down. That’s another film. I think the film shows just enough of the injustices we experienced during our stay.
When some of the villagers beat up my dog or committed other crimes against me, or directed hate or jealousy towards me, I learned to rise above it and put it into the concept of good and evil. I was going to beat evil by the act of unconditional love. I was even kinder to them and it so confused them they that they gave up. Many months later, people dropped to their knees and apologized at the cruel things they had done to me. Everything balances out in the end.
DP: Comment on this line from your diary: “There is no time for vanity or emotion.” At the Tribeca Film Festival, when I first met you, you were modest about your personal accomplishments in Sri Lanka, so was it hard for you as director to figure out what to include of yourself in the movie, particularly when you were personally doing something special?
AT: There is no time for vanity or emotion.
When you are working in a refugee camp you look like shit and are dirty and really sweaty all the time. There are no blow dryers, makeup, pedicures, hot water or even toilets. There is no time to show your own emotion as you are so concentrated on saving lives that yours doesn’t matter for a while, because you know you will be okay. You try to be strong as the people in front of you who have been through a lot worse.
In editing the movie, those words also rang true but I tried not to think of myself as “in the film.” I thought purely in the logic of four characters and creating a story. I tried to give the four characters equal time but we just didn’t have the footage on all of us and certain characters naturally took the lead. I tried many times to take many of my shots out but my editor was strong and stated that they were important to the storyline. I usually hate being in front of a camera but was really too busy most of the time to notice it. It’s not like you are in makeup with soft lights--you are exposed in sweating flesh and desperate, ugly moments.
DP: You also didn’t include your caring for Oscar after his bus accident—which you wrote was the hardest of all.
AT: In late August, Oscar was involved in a very bad motorbike/bus accident and was confined to a couch for a few months. For me looking after him, while running the refugee camp and tsunami center alone, was the hardest thing I have ever had to do in my life. This is not in The Third Wave, which covers only the first five months of our journey in Sri Lanka, up until we all left for the first time. We do have the next eight months on tape, but it is a more personal journey of Oscar and myself. One day I may have the energy to re-visit it in a film but for now I need to change my thoughts.
DP: Comment on something else you wrote in your diary: “I am alone but I won’t let the snake get me! I have the ultimate higher power looking after me.” When such a disaster happens, particularly a natural disaster that killed 250,000, including kids, did you ever for an instant lose faith?
AT: “I am alone but I won’t let the snake get me.” In the refugee camp I saw things as either good or bad. Moving forward was good and something that was hurting the cause was bad. I called it the fight between good and evil. We would plant new coconut trees (good) but over night drunk men would pull them out and destroy them ( bad).
In every turn we were faced with what I called “the snake,” which represented the snake in the Adam and Eve story in the Bible. The snake tempted Eve to eat the apple and to go over to the dark side.
Many volunteers, including atheists, also commented on feeling the presence of the snake and its impact on this island. I took it a little deeper and felt a personal battle between good and evil and I was determined to win no matter what the snake threw at me. There were times when the snake seemed like it was winning but after I was able to take myself onto a higher level of thinking of loving my enemies unconditionally, the snake could not reach me.
One day, a year later, I found a dead snake on the track and I smiled at how pathetic it looked.
I know it sounds very deep and mystical but in these island paradises you begin to think about life very deeply. I think I made the comment about the snake when everyone had left or was sick and I was the only one left in the village. I felt more vulnerable than I had ever been in my life but so powerful in spirit and faith that nothing could touch me.
I never lost my faith, and the disaster just made it stronger. I witnessed hope for humanity.
DP: What were your feelings when Katrina happened and you were there?
AT: When Katrina hit New Orleans I wanted to go there to help so badly but we couldn’t just abandon this disaster. There was too much work still to be done and we needed to follow through on this work. I posted an entry on the Web site urging people to go there and gave them a loose road map of how they could do it.
Many Aid workers pulled out of Sri Lanka to go back to help Katrina victims, which made our work even harder.
DP: You became the body collector—did this cause you nightmares? And if it didn’t, did you wonder why it didn’t?
AT: There were still so many bodies left out there that hadn’t been found and we would go out every other day to collect them. Soon I became known as “the body collector,” and people started bringing me legs and heads in little plastic bags. I guess I just got used to it. Sometimes I would pretend that I was picking up meat but at other times I would imagine the family when they found out that their loved ones had been found.
I never had any nightmares about the bodies I saw, I think the carnage of Sept 11th helped me with that, but I have developed a strange fascination with the decay of the human body. I like to look at dead bodies now, they make me feel calm. I think I will stop now before they come and lock me away.
DP: Would other volunteers there have totally different stories than you? And would their films have been similar or different?
AT: Everyone’s experience over there was different. People were challenged in very different ways. For me it was mental, for others physical.
The volunteers who came for a few weeks faced a whole different reality than the ones who stayed for long periods of time. The long-term volunteers experienced a much harsher reality.
DP: Talk about the amazing soccer game that Oscar and you arranged.
AT: To make a long story short, Oscar decided to arrange a 90 minutes soccer game of peace between the Tamil Tiger rebels in the North and the local Galle district in the south. The game was to be played in Jaffna, a major battleground to the north of Sri Lanka. They had both been engaged in a Civil war for over thirty years but Sept 11th taught us not to give into Terrorism so we went ahead. We negotiated with the Sri Lankan Army General and were then taken out into a field full of men with machine guns to meet with the leaders of the Tamil Tiger rebels themselves. Three hours later a soccer match was agreed upon and it was a mighty day.
The week before the match the Sri Lankan foreign minister was assassinated and a state of emergency was declared, and days before the game a policeman was killed in the area, and the day before the match a grenade was thrown into a public office.
We walked into that stadium not knowing if a massacre was about to take place.
The game was a success and both teams celebrated in the same shirts together singing, laughing and sharing a beer. For one day the war was quiet and Sri Lanka became one.
It was an amazing day and we joked that “it was a good thing that they won!”
DP: How much could you laugh each day there? Are there memories that make you laugh? What memory still breaks your heart the most?
AT: When you are in a really bad situation, things can only get better so it was easy to laugh at ourselves and the situations we found ourselves in. One funny moment I remember was when Oscar was consoling someone who had lost loved ones. He would say “I know how you feel” and many other cliché comments. He was very sincere when he said it, but months later someone dropped off a disaster manual of “What Not to Do in a Disaster Zone” and it said: “Don’t say you know how they feel when talking about a dead loved one because you don’t!” We laughed so hard when we went down the list and saw that we had broken all the rules.
The memory that breaks my heart the most was when a woman I had helped so much for six months denied that I had ever helped her to the chief of the village just so she could get more aid. The betrayal stabbed “E Tu” at me and I felt physical pain in my heart. That is the moment you see me break down and cry in the film. It broke me.
DP: Talk about your early detection system, which I’m sure is a source of pride.
AT: I am really proud of CTEC, the Community Tsunami Early-warning Center we have created. It is still the only one there protecting the whole country. It has a main base open 24 hours a day with eight employed officers who work five-hour shifts monitoring the world’s data on computers for earthquake activity and many different nature elements. It is linked to the Met Department and all the other tsunami centers around the world. It is also connected to the surrounding villages with speaker systems and to over two hundred community points around the island. There are ten volunteers in each village to get the message out if there is any danger to the people of the village.
You can have the fanciest tsunami system in the world but you still need to get the message out to the people in the far away villages and CTEC bridges that gap. We receive calls from all over the country, sometimes more than two hundred calls a day.
DP: When did you realize it was time to leave Sri Lanka?
AT: I realized it was time to leave the first time I hit a mental and physical wall. Infection in the village was almost healed and we had everyone safely in temporary shelters or new homes before the monsoons hit. I knew it was a time to go and rest but I knew I’d be back because there was still so much work to be done.
I don’t think I have ever really left Sri Lanka but I removed my physical self from the village so the villagers could go back to their normal lives.
I left them with the early warning disaster center to watch out for them, even if it just gives them peace of mind to sleep at night.
I made this film to hopefully bring money and attention back to this region, to the people of the tsunami that were left behind.
DP: Did you feel any guilt when you left that everyone that you’d helped wasn’t appreciative of what you’d done?
AT: When I left Sri Lanka I learned that you help people because they need help. Never let your ego be hurt if the very people you helped turn around and scorn you. Just help because they need it and you will never be disappointed.
DP: Did your time in Sri Lanka change you or bring out what you already knew was the best in you?
AT: I can say it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. I found it brought out the very best in me, as I was able to use all my life-learned skills. I did see it bring out the worst in some others. When you are taken out of your air-conditioned environment, who knows how you will react--but that is the beauty of it. Everyone is changed and most people meet themselves for the first time in their lives.
DP: Knowing what you know now, how would you have done it differently?
AT: I probably wouldn’t do anything too much differently because it worked. I would liked to have taken my own translator with me, but that would have been too expensive.
DP: What was it like returning home? And how bad was it finding you were being evicted?
AT: When we arrived home to New York, the headlines were obsessed with Brad Pitt and there was no tsunami news around. I was happy to have a hot bath and a bagel and I just wanted to sleep for a few weeks.
After rebuilding five hundred homes it was hard to come home to an eviction notice. My landlord said, “Next time just look after yourself! My wife is nagging me to go shopping!”
We joked, “We were now tsunami victims!” and wanted to call up our Aid friends to build us shelter. It was a brutal welcome home to NY and we survived on eating bananas for a few weeks. After this experience material things didn’t matter to us anymore. We were happy to be alive. We had six days to get out of our apartment and my friend Phil Marber helped us pay our rent and it all worked out. It always does.
DP: How did Morgan Spurlock become involved with your film? What were his contributions as executive producer?
AT: When we finally got home we had over 250 hours of footage but we were too broke to survive, let alone make a film. We cut together a 20-minute teaser and sent it to a friend who showed it to “Super Size Me” filmmaker Morgan Spurlock. He immediately responded that “the world has to see this story” and he came aboard as Exec Producer and raised us the finishing funds to comfortably finish the film. He even agreed for profits to go back to Sri Lanka. Morgan is a very fine and humble man. He said, “This is a very important film, I just made a film about hamburgers.”
DP: How did you go about editing 250 hours of film into 88 minutes? What did you need to leave out to keep your story focused?
AT: Cutting 250 hours of story into 88 minutes was really hard and we made hard decisions to cut out so much of the story! But we were thinking that in Sri Lanka it takes 88 minutes just to line up for petrol.
I slowly logged every tape and then sorted it into bins of time, characters, events, etc., and then chipped away at it placing it on long Final Cut Pro timelines. For those familiar with Final Cut Pro, I had to “Control B” a lot of footage, which means leaving it in but hidden with the option to delete it later.
I wanted to cut the footage as if I were making a narrative film with three acts, characters, and an interesting pace. So I focused on the four main volunteers, treated them as characters, and kept advancing their stories. Any side stories were deleted, and then I made the decision to tell only the first five months of the journey, as that concentrated on the volunteers and illustrated the message of the film, which is “everyone is needed.”
It was hard to let go of so much good footage but I had to separate myself from the volunteer I had been in the footage and become an objective storyteller.
DP: What reactions did you want from people who see the movie? Were these the same reactions you wanted when you began filming?
AT: I would like people who see “The Third Wave” to think about the possibility of being volunteers themselves. This doesn’t mean they have to go overseas. In the film we have tried to provide a basic roadmap for them to follow, bumps and all.
DP: How was the Tribeca Film Festival experience?
AT: The Tribeca Film Festival was amazing. It’s a big festival and we were honored to be part of it. We had five sold-out shows with three standing ovations at the end of each screening. We were blown away by the positive response and letters people wrote to us. It never entered my mind that something like that could happen. I think we got the volunteer message out and brought attention back to a forgotten disaster that still needs much work to be done.We had been in the editing room for a long fourteen months and had finished the film only three days before the festival started. I loved showing it at Tribeca because of my experiences on Sept 11th. New York audiences are intelligent but also can be hard and cynical, so if they can enjoy it then I think anyone can.
DP: When is your film playing in your native Australia?
AT: The Third Wave film is screening at the Sydney Film festival on June 9th at the Greater Union Theatre. All my family will be there to see it. I haven’t been home in three years so I’m thrilled.
DP: Do you have a Web site, where people interested in you and how they can see “The Third Wave” can go? And since, as you say, Peraliya—from where you still receive mail every day asking for aid--and other villages in Sri Lanka still desperately need assistance, do you have a Web site for people who wish to help?
AT: Anyone interested in the film or future volunteering can go to thethirdwavemovie.com Web site and write to us. They can also go to the original refugee camp Web site and read a more detailed diary of my adventures in Sri Lanka. It is located at peraliya.com
DP: You’ve been living the experience for so long, first in Sri Lanka, and now with the film, so when do you think you’ll be able to move on to something else? When do you think you won’t be exhausted?
AT: I will always remain involved with Sri Lanka. In fact, I have committed to a ten-year program running the new tsunami center. I am also heading to Darfur, Sudan, at the end of this year with a bodyguard and a camera to try and make sense of the terrible genocide occurring every day over there.
I will continue to make films with important messages to the world and continue my love for narrative features. I have been offered to direct many large productions from Kung Fu movies to animated films, so I think I will try and do it all. I just have to sleep for a few weeks and then I think I will be as good as new.
DP: Are you proud?
AT: I feel very humbled to have had this experience and it also has given me a deep confidence that I can do anything in this world. I just have to have faith and take that first step.