‘The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari’ review: A haunting reminder of the power of nature and human perseverance | AFI FEST
Humanity’s existential threat from climate change is a disaster wholly self-created. Humans have found a way to exert a power over nature in the most calamitous of ways. But, if there is one thing that we have discovered through this devastating path towards our own self-destruction, it’s that the earth is not going to go quietly. No matter how we may convince ourselves that we have dominion over the planet, nature continues to find ways to remind us of its power and how truly small and insignificant we can be in the face of nature’s full force, as we’ve seen with hurricanes, floods, fires and even a pandemic, which symbolize the ongoing battle between humanity and the Earth.
It is within this particular moment in humanity’s existence, where the planet is continually sounding the alarm to the disastrous collision course we have put ourselves on, when it is good to be reminded of nature’s awesome power, and the importance of our species to find a way to embrace humility is essential, because, no matter how much we feel we are in control, when it comes to nature, we’re not.
Documentary filmmaker Rory Kennedy’s latest film is such a reminder of how important it is to respect nature’s power, and illustrates the consequences of arrogance—yet is also a compelling portrait of humanity’s greatest trait, which is the ability to come together in times of disaster.
The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari, which is part of the AFI FEST 2022, looks back at the tragic events of December 9, 2019 off the coast of New Zealand, when the Whakaari, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, erupted while tourists were on the island.
The volcano, come to affectionately be known as The White Island, was the center of life in the small town of Whakatane, on the northern coast of New Zealand, as much of the town’s economy was built around tourists’ interest in the volcano. Despite it being New Zealand’s most active volcano, showing continuous volcanic activity for over 150,000 years, tourists and scientists have been drawn to the island for decades, intrigued by its gorgeous, multi-colored topography, its whitish/gray lake and the continuous plumes of volcanic gas that are released from its multitude of earthy pores. Tour companies gladly ferried tourists on the 90-minute boat ride from Whakatane to the volcano to enjoy a short hike across the lifeless, other-worldly terrain, snap a few pictures of themselves at the mouth of the impressive natural wonder, gas masks and hard hats at the ready, in case the sulfuric acid became too acrid or if any of the perpetual earthly emissions became a little too energetic.
If ever there was a case of humans tempting fate, it was on the White Island.
Kennedy and her husband and producing partner, Mark Bailey, first read about the disaster in an article by Alex Perry in Outside magazine and were instantly compelled to tell the story of the raw power of nature, contrasted by the myriad stories of heroism and resilience that emerged from the disaster. Using an impressive trove of found footage from survivors, rescuers and observers, Kennedy pieces together the events of the day, telling the story from a multitude of perspectives, effectively putting the viewer right there on the island, allowing us to experience the entire event, from excited anticipation to tragedy to heroism and rescue. As effective as the story itself is the moving score, produced by Hans Zimmer and Steve Mazzaro, which helps to build up the tension as we get closer and closer to the eruption. Kennedy does a good job of slowly unraveling the story without giving into a gratuitous impulse to exploit the disaster, respecting both the event and its victims.
While the archival footage from the actual day is the most compelling and haunting part of the film (without which there could be no film), it is the interviews with survivors that brings the emotion of the tragedy most to bear, especially the story an American couple on their honeymoon, and an Australian young man, who had been looking forward to going to see the volcano with his parents and sister. The only voices heard in the film are those of survivors, locals and rescuers who take us through their experiences on that day, ultimately piecing together various human stories that illustrate the capacity of humanity for compassion and survival.
Kennedy chooses to focus the film on the survivors and the ordinary people who did rush to aid those who had been severely burned and nearly suffocated by the mountain of gaseous ash that exploded from the earth, rather than highlighting the noticeably deficient efforts from official rescue outlets, which are now subjects of various lawsuits because of their lack of response, as well as the tour companies who put unknowing people in harm’s way. Whether by choice or by legal dictum, this shying away from blame and accountability does make the film feel incomplete, but it doesn’t make it any less effective.
Despite the fact that there are moments, during the height of the chaos during and just after the eruption, that the viewer loses some grasp of the timeline and specific details, like who was where and when, the filmmakers are able to overcome it by letting specific survivor’s stories serve as representative experiences for everyone on that day.
The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari may not specifically be a film about climate change, but it is nonetheless an extremely haunting and effective reminder that we are and will forever be at nature’s mercy, and, in an effective parallel to the climate crisis, the only way we can survive is to take care of each other while respecting our planet and all her immense beauty and power.
This review is from 2022 AFI FEST. The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari will be in select theaters on December 9 and then streaming on Netflix beginning December 16.