JWR Articles: Film/DVD - The Wahine Disaster (Director/Producer: Sharon Barbour) - September 17, 2008
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The Wahine Disaster

5 5
53 min.

Deadly timetable

The human race has been doing battle with Mother Nature since the first torrential downpour surprised Adam and Eve. The term “natural disaster” only has meaning to those whose lives are adversely affected by ice storms, lightning-sparked forest fires, floods, tornadoes et al. For the rest of the planet, those same events are a positive force for flora and fauna as the weak, rotten or useless amongst them are removed—producing a stronger, healthier world for the survivors.

In her spectacular recreation of the events and people surrounding the sinking of the Wahine forty years ago in the midst of an 80-knot storm that was pounding New Zealand like never before, Sharon Barbour has skilfully utilized those truly awful happenings to make a number of important points that universally apply to the foibles of our race when forced to work under extreme pressure or brought face-to-face with bad decisions or policies (the current credit-crisis fiasco being the most recent example).

Following the inevitable inquiry (“to ensure this can’t happen again”) after 51 died and many more were injured from the 734 souls aboard the overnight ferry from Littleton to Wellington, Captain Hector Gordon Robertson (whose steely eyes glare out of his photo) feels vindicated and remarks that he “has a clear conscience.” Seconds later, we hear from others more knowledgeable that the doomed entry into Wellington Harbour was not pushed forward because the operating company was so proud of its “on time” record. Had the captain realized when he arrived on the bridge at 6:00 a.m. that the storm was gaining momentum and ordered full speed ahead, his hapless passengers might have only suffered nausea rather than death and a plunge into the unforgiving, innocent sea.

A truly unconscionable television reporter’s attempted interview with a clearly disoriented survivor after his harrowing ordeal is soon scuttled when one of the exasperated rescuers intervenes (a further clip shows just how shameless and uncaring the media can be when calamity comes to their neighbourhood: getting the scoop trumps privacy and human dignity every time).

The film itself is a marvel of stock footage, still photos and ever-so-personal, present-day interviews with those put into harm’s way and their rescuers (not a few of the latter ended up fighting for their lives while trying to save others). The string-rich music (violas are the pride of the ensemble) complements the narrative with the double delight of adding to the flow and sensitively underscoring (solo piano, French horn and harp at just the right time) the courageously told recollections. Barbour gently guides their decades-later journey and discreetly captures the still strong emotions as they pour up to the surface “as if it was yesterday.”

Editing all of this down to a mere 53 minutes must have been an especially challenging task, yet the whole satisfies and not a frame seems out of place.

When all is said and done, the true star is the incredibly beautiful surging surf over which man assumes mastery until the next unimaginable “perfect storm” proves otherwise. JWR

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Director/Producer - Sharon Barbour
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