The Third Wave.
An Ozone Pictures/Walkabout production, in association with Warrior Poets, Arts Alliance America, and Endless Films. (International sales: Cinetic Media, New York; ContentFilm Intl., London.) Produced by Oscar Gubernati. Executive producers, Morgan Spurlock, Joe Amodei, Peter Demas, Kym Anthony, Jeffrey Tarrant, Alison Thompson. Co-producers, Cedar Daniels, Jeremy Chilnick, Marco Franzoni, Sunil Elvitigala, Russ Terlecki. Co-executive producers, Richard Belifiore, Dave Pederson.
Directed by Alison Thompson. Camera (color, DV), Sunil Elvitigala, Marco Franzoni; editors, Cedar Daniels, Peter Demas; music, Mario Grigorov, Jason Lanier; associate producers, Paul O'Neil, Henry Jarecki, Tony Detre. Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (special screenings), May 16, 2008. Running time: 98 MIN.
With: Alison Thompson, Oscar Gubernati, Donny Paterson, Bruce French.
(English, Sinhalese, Tamil dialogue)
The (in)famous image of cig-puffing Sean Penn paddling a raft through watery New Orleans helps explain his plucking from the Amerindie sea volunteer-recruitment docu "The Third Wave" to serve as the Cannes fest's first-ever jury prexy pick. Following the efforts of four unpaid relief workers, including tyro docu-helmer and trained nurse Alison Thompson, to aid destitute Sri Lankan survivors of 2004's Asian tsunami, this unimpeachably well-intentioned pic offers a warts-and-all-look at relief efforts, and hits hard enough to convert charitably minded auds, fest-sidebar bookers, farsighted broadcasters and perhaps a Stateside specialty distrib, preferably one partnered with grassroots orgs.
"Third Wave" runs the arguably admirable risk of diluting both sales and activist potential via a downbeat midsection devoted to detailing victim irritability and missionary burnout. But its "everyone is needed" message, along with its unfortunate good timing as catastrophic disasters persist, could raise its profile.
Decently lensed DV pic, named for the mild outpouring of volunteer aid that followed the pair of devastating tsunami waves, spans 19 weeks in the lives of variably skilled Western visitors to tribal village of Peraliya, where more than 2,500 perished. Aussie-born, New York-based Thompson, a first-response rescue worker at Ground Zero for nine months after 9/11, heeds another call for help, traveling with producer beau and fellow volunteer worker Oscar Gubernati to Sri Lanka with camcorder in tow.
Joining a small handful of other independent Western humanitarians, the pair sets up a first-aid station and clocks long hours at a refugee camp with local government aid inadequate. Villager Sunil Elvitigala is recruited as co-camera operator and eventually bears the brunt of one village woman's frustration--"All you've done so far is watch," she tells him.
Judicious use of post-production sweetening delivers soft images that help disguise the limitations of equipment and d.p. experience. Likewise, the tricky tone of good will remains smooth, except in an off-putting sequence whose flashy editing appears to equate the thuggishness of some village boys--the proverbial few bad apples--to scarcely defined Sri Lankan religious practice. If individual villagers, too, fall short in characterization, the omission at least reflects the reality that Red Cross bonnet-wearing Thompson--whose clinic at one point serves 1,000 patients per day--can't often stop to chat.
Among the four go-getter volunteers at the pic's center, the strongest impression is made by Donald "Donnie" Paterson, a baldheaded and mustachioed Australian Army vet whose swarthy humor--there to entertain both surviving villagers and the film audience--gradually turns to despair and illness as exhaustion takes its toll.
Still, focusing on optimism and inspiration as opposed to guilt-tripping, the pic compares quite favorably to others in the pro-charity/anti-tragedy subgenre of U.S. docus, though it pales in comparison to Darfur film "The Devil Came on Horseback" and recent Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winner "Trouble the Water," still the tradition's two standouts.
Though propulsive bongo music suits the docu's galvanizing agenda from start to finish, the end-credit revelation that volunteer Bruce French has worked as tour chef to Pearl Jam yields unfortunately timed laughs. Penn, reportedly alerted to the film by representatives of the Happy Hearts Fund, receives "presented by" credit on the digital print, whose occasional Sinhalese and Tamil dialogue is subtitled in English.