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Alison Thompson, The Third Wave

The calm after the storm in The Third Wave

By Jennifer Merin

JM: It seems The Third Wave, your documentary about the devastating tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004, became a personal odyssey for you. How'd you become involved?

AT: My boyfriend, Oscar Gubernati and I were watching TV when the tsunami hit. We watched TV reports for the entire day -- just sitting in our comfortable apartment, eating Chinese food. And then I thought, "We've got to do something." I'd been a rescue worker following Sept. 11, working for nine months as a volunteer. I said to Oscar: "I've got to help. I'll collect some medicines and go for two weeks as a volunteer." I asked him to go, too. Finally he said yes.

We didn't have any money -- only a few hundred dollars to our names. But we called friends for help, and we bought one ticket and got another frequent flyer ticket and we just took off. When we got to Sri Lanka, at the airport we met this guy, Donnie Patterson from Australia, and he joined us. Then we'd met this chef from Colorado -- Bruce French, who was the chef for Pearl Jam. We'd talked to him once before we left and arranged for him to meet us there, and he did. So, there were four of us who rented a van, filled it with food and water, and took off down the coast giving basic first-aid and water.

Then we found Perelya, the village where the famous train wreck had happened. We just stumbled upon it. There were 2500 bodies on the ground, the whole village was destroyed. A 40-foot wave had swept the entire village inland and wiped it out. So we set up a first-aid station, giving out food and water. It started from there. We intended to stay two weeks, to maybe help at a camp or something. But we ended up being in charge of a refugee camp for 14 months. There was no one else there, and the four of us just started each day by saying we'll stay another day, or a few more days.

JM: Your little first-aid station grew into a full refugee camp, with a hospital and all. How did that happen?

Volunteers from all over the world asked to join us. They'd been rejected by other organizations that required Master's degrees and all that. So, we took them -- even if they said they didn't have any skills. It didn't matter -- they could pick up rubble or just hug someone. It grew into a volunteer revolution.

JM: How did it become a film?

AT: As a filmmaker, wherever I go -- upstate, downstate -- I take a little camera and 30, 40 tapes. I thought I'd take some pictures of the destruction and make them into a video when I got back, and raise some money. I didn't know I was going to make a movie. When I got there, I was so busy, I started handing the camera around to kids, to the ambulance driver -- asking them to shoot a little bit for me. We'd get about ten minutes a day.

Then, in February, a Canadian guy arrived and said he'd shoot in exchange for room and board. We said yes-- told him to follow the four of us -- Donnie, Bruce, Oscar and myself -- and document what we were doing. In the end, we had 250 hours. So, I thought: "Hmm, I've got to make this into a story about volunteers, showing how everyone's needed. It's not just medical, it's not just organizations." That how it came about.

JM: The film was shot piecemeal, so to speak, so you, as the director, weren't able to see it unfolding on film. Right?

AT: Yes. We just kept shooting. Sometimes the camera became a release for us in a way, almost like therapy. At night, we'd recap our day and someone would break into tears. I knew there was drama in what was being shot. And I knew to just keep shooting, keep shooting. And I thought, "We'll see what we have down towards the end."

JM: That's the point: You didn't know what you had...

AT: No. And we didn't even know what people were saying -- because they were speaking another language and we didn't have translators. If we'd known, we might not have stayed. Because, as we were shocked to learn, they were talking about the tsunami relief money -- millions of dollars -- that was supposedly pouring in, but they weren't getting any. So they started fighting amongst each other, then they started an uprising against us. There's no government there, there's nobody helping them except us -- and we're in the village there everyday, so they blamed us.

Meanwhile, we just had pocket money. I was writing to my mum in Australia, and she was raising money from the Bible study group. My girlfriend's with the New York City Ballet and she raised money from the ballerinas -- little bits and pieces that just covered food and water. The uprising against us was very scary. We had death threats. We were there to help, but there was all this craziness against us.

JM: That's shocking. You must've been terrified and so very disappointed. Why'd you stay?

AT: Yes. I had a broken heart many times. I'd brought these people back from death, we'd helped people who'd lost everything -- then they looked us in the eye and said we hadn't done anything for them. But after a while, I had to go to a higher plane, understanding that they had nobody to blame -- it was a natural disaster -- so, if they wanted to blame me for their losing eight kids and 20 members of their family, it was OK. Getting to a higher plane, that's what kept me going.

Posted at May 6, 2007 8:26 AM

Comments (1)

Alison, What a remarkable woman you are, I wished I had known you then, as I would have gladly given my time and money to help these poor people. What a shame so many natural disasters seem to always happen in the third world,where lots of these people are already suffering.

So glad I met you last year and I wish I had your courage.
Regards Donna Davis Byron Bay

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