After the Wave [subtitled in part]

After the Wave is an Australian documentary about the catastrophic tsunami in December 2004 that killed approximately 230,000 people in 13 countries (which doesn’t even take into account the much greater number of people injured, left homeless, etc.).

About 8,000 of those deaths occurred in Thailand, which is where the bulk of the film takes place.

The focus of the film is the massive forensic project of identifying the dead after the tsunami. Some of the material is about the effort in general, and some is about a half dozen or so specific cases—only one of which is Thai, by the way—of families seeking information about their presumably dead loved one.

In the early going, different teams of investigators sent from different countries concentrated on their own nationals. Also in the early going, the Thai officials sought to separate Thai and other Asian cadavers from Western cadavers, on the theory that this would facilitate identification in that investigators would be better able to recognize subtle visual differences in their own kind. (The “they all look alike” theory.)

But soon enough both of these approaches were abandoned. The Australians were more or less allowed to take charge and run a unified investigation, and they persuaded the Thais that most of these bodies were so decomposed as to be indistinguishable, from the outside anyway, to where racial differences were irrelevant to identifying them.

One rule of thumb exemplified by this movie is that degree of certainty has little or no correlation with truth when it comes to heavily emotional beliefs. Someone will swear up and down that they just know that their loved one would have behaved in such-and-such a way in the face of an oncoming tsunami, or someone else will be absolutely certain, with no (non-psychic) evidence, that their loved one is still alive, and they will turn out to be correct only at the same rate as chance.

It is pretty much taken for granted by all participants in the film that finding the body of a victim of the tsunami is key to those who loved that person achieving “closure,” and that achieving closure is hugely important for emotional well-being, for being able to recover and have a decent, reasonably happy, life moving forward.

I guess I’ve never been totally sold on this notion of closure, not entirely clear on what it means and not convinced it has the high level of importance that almost everyone attributes to it. Not that I’m a skeptic in the sense that I’m on the other side and think it’s a bogus concept or doesn’t matter. More that I’m unconvinced either way. I just feel my contrarian nature kicking in a bit when people talk so confidently about achieving closure as if it’s self-evident what that is and why it’s so crucial. My reaction is “Maybe, but tell me more,” rather than “Of course!” or “Bullshit!”

In thinking this through a little deeper, I can think of at least a couple of different senses of closure that are relevant to the kind of cases that this film is about.

One is when a person is missing and there’s genuine doubt if they’re really dead. That one I can understand. If you’re left perpetually wondering if you’ve done enough to search for your loved one, if you can’t mourn because you don’t know if the person is dead, then I agree that ending that uncertainty is desirable. No one wants a Castaway situation where you’ve gotten on with your life and years later a supposedly dead Tom Hanks shows up at your door.

I don’t think that applies more than modestly here though. In the very early stages, yes, there was plenty of that kind of uncertainty. But after the first few days or the first few weeks, not so much. There is one case talked about in the movie where a survivor wasn’t found until considerably later, but even in that case it was early enough that complete lists of patients at local hospitals hadn’t even been compiled. Once you get much further in the process than that, there’s no mystery anymore. You don’t have to find and identify a dead body to know the person isn’t coming back. It’s not like a survivor is going to be hiding, like some fanatic Japanese soldier on a remote Pacific island evading discovery for decades after World War II. If your loved one survived the tsunami, you’ll find out (and if you don’t, then you can infer that they didn’t).

The other issue, though, that I think is important to people is more of a ritualistic or symbolic one, and that’s the one that I suspect wouldn’t matter to me nearly as much.

For a lot of folks, I have to think “closure” includes that there is some formal, legal record of what happened to the person, you were able to be in the physical presence of the body to say your goodbyes, you were able to give the body a proper burial, you participated in some funeral ceremony that fits your preferred religious tradition, etc.—i.e., the whole conventional process was followed that you have come to associate with a proper transition to death and acceptance of death.

I just doubt that that stuff matters to me as much as I infer it matters to most people. I don’t know that it would give me closure, or maybe it would give me closure but I just don’t care that much about closure. I don’t see such a loss as hurting noticeably less because the body was found and formally buried and all that.

Maybe, like I say, that’s because I’m different from most folks. Probably, in fact. But even for the people who do benefit significantly from such closure, I suspect it’s mostly a self-fulfilling prophecy type thing.

That is, imagine a society where the opposite cultural messages are dominant. Like, if it’s considered an additional trauma to discover the body and have to dispose of it, if people whose loved one is never found are consoled with remarks about how that makes them more fortunate because they can be comforted by the thought that it’s at least possible that the person somehow found their way to some other dimension where they are living happily ever after. Or whatever. A society where people expressed pity for those who had the misfortune to experience the closure of their loved one’s remains being identified. I would think in that society the emotional impact of such closure or its absence would be very different from what is the norm in ours.

Listening to the stories from the survivors and from those mourning individuals who did not survive drew me in to a significant extent. That human element is what made After the Wave watchable for me, more so than the forensic stuff, except insofar as the latter was clearly related to the human stuff.

There are some heart-wrenching tales in here. But then again, another thought I had concerning this film is that attention-grabbing deaths in the end are no more important than any other. If you lost your parents to heart attacks in 2004, is it any less of a big deal, does it hurt any less, than if they were killed by the tsunami while vacationing in Thailand? It’s understandable that someone would make a documentary about one and not the other, just as they might about Hiroshima, a cult mass suicide, or a series of fatal shark attacks, but when you get right down to it, being sensational, being newsworthy, being documentary-worthy, doesn’t make those deaths of greater weight than any other way people die.

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