Over the past five years, there have been a few moments where the world’s attention wasn’t focused on the U.S. elections, Brexit, China, North Korea, the Middle East, or the onslaught of COVID. Perhaps you’ll recall when the globe’s collective consciousness centered on a story in northern Thailand where 12 teenage soccer players and one of their coaches became trapped in a massive cave. In fact, the 2018 Tham Luang cave incident dominated the headlines, with many riveted by what eventually became a multi-national rescue operation. Two individuals fascinated by the story were “Free Solo’s” Oscar-winning directing team of Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin. Their exploration of that story from the perspective of the eccentric group of British divers who were a crucial part of the effort is chronicled in the new NatGeo documentary, “The Rescue.”
“I think if you think back to that moment in 2018, it was a pretty dark time,” Vasarhelyi says. “And this was a distraction or something. It was this and the World Cup. And so, it’s a story that’s always moved us, and we pursued it, basically.”
If you don’t recall the outcome of the rescue effort, we won’t spoil it here (although you can easily find out what happened with a quick google search). Following the event, however, there was a mad rush from filmmakers, producers, networks, and movie studios to secure the story’s narrative and/or non-fiction rights. This was further complicated by the teenagers, their families, and the divers selling their rights to different individual parties.
Frustratingly, Vasarhelyi and Chin couldn’t initially get into the room to pitch those involved in the rescue, but when a National Geographic project fell apart, the duo immediately reached out to their former “Free Solo” collaborators. Vasarhelyi notes, “The moment this happened, I called [NatGeo] and said, ‘Can you please make this film because it’s something that is important to us?’ And also, as Asian filmmakers, it was something that we felt like we were in a unique position to listen to everyone involved because there are very few positive non-fiction portrayals of Asians. This happens to be one of those good stories.”
One of the questions that perplexed many during the story was why were these kids playing in these caves in the first place? For Vasarhelyi and Shin, context is key. This cave was essentially their backyard. Their parents mainly were day laborers and economically disadvantaged. Therefore, there were few alternate options, and there’s only so much soccer you can play outside. And considering the hot weather in this part of Southeast Asia, the caves are a naturally cool place to explore and, for lack of a better word, chill. That is, of course, until monsoon season comes and the caverns become completely submerged with water.
“It was also one of the boys’ birthdays, so it also a special occasion to go to the cave,” Vasarhelyi says. “But what happened is they got trapped on the wrong side of the water. So, receding deeper into the cave saved their lives. They found the highest ground, but they were basically at the T junction is a place where these two rivers formed the first place to create a basin, and they were on the wrong side of it. And so, as the water kept on rising, they were pushed deeper into the cave because they were looking for higher ground. It wasn’t that they were stuck; they were trapped. It wasn’t that they were lost. They were trapped, and they were trying to survive by going deeper and deeper.”
If you were to visit the caves outside of the rainy season, you would discover the cave system has caverns with ceilings that are 100 feet tall. There are also portions of the space where you have to crawl on your stomach just to proceed further into the cave system. A reality that struck Vasarhelyi when she was finally able to visit Tham Luang herself.
“I mean, I had visions of, ‘The filmmakers making the cave got stuck in the cave.’ It could have been a disaster,” Vasarhelyi reveals. “It was hard, but I think once I saw it, I understood why thousands of people were needed to support those divers because it’s huge. The whole thing is huge. It’s inconceivably large. So, we tried our best working on the graphics [in the film] to try to convey that.”
Like many projects over the past 18 months, “The Rescue” was hampered by the pandemic. The filmmakers initially started working on the film in October 2019 and planned their first trip to Thailand in February 2020. After losing out on three different cinematographers because of COVID concerns, the filmmakers realized heading overseas at that time wasn’t the wisest option. Instead, they found themselves coordinating with local crews via zoom in the U.K., Thailand, and the United States, to interview subjects “in-person.” What complicated matters overall was the lack of diving footage captured inside the cave.
“There was no footage of the diving because one, only ten people could actually go make it in, two, it’s pitch black in the cave, three, it’s muddy underwater, and no civilians were allowed to film. So the reenactments always were part of the game in that there seemed to be no other way of doing this,” Vasarhelyi explains. “What’s really special though about the reenactments and how they’re used is that if you look, for example, at when the child was first anesthetized, that’s real footage from Dr. Harris [an anesthetist and cave diver]. And then we pursued this hunch of footage from the Thai Navy Seals. We ended up being able to fill out the world with stuff that was shot by other people, but on the ground while using the underwater reenactments for our purposes.”
Chin notes, “I think authenticity was really important to us. And so, we gathered the divers who all agreed to come, and we really wanted them to just demonstrate what they did and show us how they did it. We knew probably through that process that we would gain many other insights, which turned out to be true. I mean, given my profession and Chai and I’s background in the last two films we made, we have an understanding of people doing things where the stakes are very high, no room for mistakes, and just that kind of mentality that it requires to do something like free soloing or cave diving. And so, it was hugely illuminating for us to be able to spend some time with them, see their prep. Even given we were filming in a tank at a studio, it was amazing to see how seriously they take the diving.”
As a contender for the Best Documentary Oscar, “The Rescue” should keep Vasarhelyi and Chin quite busy over the next few months. That being said, the prolific duo has another feature project on the way in early 2022. Neither would reveal much, but Vasarhelyi did tease, “It’s out of this world. I would just say that.”
“The Rescue” opens in theaters on Friday.