Loretta Goff was at the Cork Film Festival to watch The Cave, Irish filmmaker Tom Waller’s recreation of the dramatic cave rescue which successfully extricated members of a junior football team trapped in Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand.
The Cave tells the story of the international rescue mission of the young Wild Boars soccer team, who were trapped in the Tham Luang Nang Non cave in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand for 18 days in June/July of 2018. Twelve boys, aged 11 to 16 were trapped about 4 km in to the cave with their 25-year-old coach after it became flooded, resulting in a rescue operation that was the first of its kind and was widely publicised across the world.
Irish-Thai Writer-Producer-Director Tom Waller, was quick to act on the story after his interest was piqued by the involvement of County Clare cave diver Jim Warny, which allowed him to focus on not only an Irish connection to the event, but the contributions of several everyday heroes who were involved in the rescue.
In keeping with his focus on the many individuals who contributed selflessly to the rescue, Waller cast several of the real participants as themselves in the film, including Warny. These individuals are placed alongside actors, in a similar vein to Clint Eastwood’s The 15:17 to Paris (2018). This results in some stilted and unclear moments throughout the film, but it does provide a spotlight for those who were actually involved in the event. Warny’s involvement begins about a third of the way through the film, allowing Waller to jump between Ireland and Thailand, and show the events unfolding from an international perspective.
In addition to the blended cast, the film itself feels like a mix between documentary-style and Hollywood action-style thriller, which doesn’t quite work. It is generally fast-paced, and cuts between several international locations, particularly at the start. This does add a sense of urgency to the rescue operation, but it also makes the narrative feel a bit scattered and underdeveloped in places. On the other hand, there are some moments that are perhaps given too much time, or returned to repeatedly, such as the difficulty bringing in the best water pumps. Though this is an important part of the narrative, its pacing in comparison to the rest of the film felt a bit drawn out.
Ultimately, the film’s pacing and style let it down. It would perhaps have been stronger had it leant more into the vérité style it pursues in places. However, it does achieve what it sets out to do in the sense of highlighting the selfless acts of countless individuals involved in the rescue mission and telling the story from a different perspective. Equally, Waller does a good job reconstructing the event, capturing the scale of the base of operations outside the cave where the rescue operation is planned across several teams, with thousands of individuals taking part. Waller creates an atmosphere of chaos, urgency and exhaustion here that is well-contrasted with the dark and isolated atmosphere inside the cave.
The film had its Irish premiere at the 64th Cork Film Festival. A large audience was in attendance, along with Waller and Warny, who participated in a Q&A after the screening. Warny, who received a standing ovation, spoke of his involvement in the film and the development of its narrative from conception. He noted his trust in Waller to tell the story accurately and said his own “aim [was to] show what it felt like” at the cave, reflecting the visceral experience for the viewer—thrown in amongst the rescuers. Waller, meanwhile, noted that one of the big challenges of making the film was “to make it suspenseful when you know the outcome”, because the rescue had been so well-publicised. Discussing the quick turn-around time of the production, which was shot mostly at the end of 2018, quite soon after the actual events, Waller explained that he had to be quick to get the rights to the story and get his unique version out there. Indeed, he noted that the rights to the kids’ story was given to Netflix, who are producing a series on it, meaning that the film that he made can’t be done again, further marking its uniqueness.
The Cave screened on Sat, 9th Nov @ the 2019 Cork Film Festival (7 – 17 November).