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This week in our Images Shaping History blog, Resident Blogger Marilyn Hernandez discusses how intense visual images have the power to convey what it was like to experience a tragic or catastrophic event. Marilyn explores how these images can evoke emotional responses and consequently create a special connection to the human condition.

As you read Marilyn’s post, please think about the following questions. We’d love to discuss with you. 

  • How long do we have to wait to tell the story of a tragedy?
  • How do we recreate the intensity of a tragic event or catastrophic experience?
  • What are you thoughts about films with intense visual images that are based on true stories?

Please comment below or discuss with us on 


Marilyn Hernandez

Resident Blogger Marilyn Hernandez

Although film images of struggles and tragedy  are oftentimes not easy to watch, these images and associated stories are vitally important in scope of cinematic storytelling. Indeed, the cinema can be a place to escape for entertainment’s sake, but it can also be a tool for providing insight into traumatic events and catastrophic experiences.

To tell the story of tragic events, filmmakers often turn to intense visual images. These intense images have the ability to pass through our eyes, down to the deep depths of our soul—creating a tidal wave of emotion.

The Impossible (2012) 

One-sheet for the film The Impossible {Click on image link for source info}

The Impossible is an account of one family’s story during the mayhem of one of the worst natural disasters of this century—the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami.

On December 26, 2004, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake jolted the bottom of the Indian Ocean and released a tremendous amount energy that caused a Tsunami across the Indian Ocean. The violent movement caused widespread damage and deaths from East Africa to Thailand. [1]

Trailer to The Impossible (2012) Warning: Intense Imagery

Exploitation or Commemoration

“…This family becomes kind of like a symbol of what was to be there. So you cannot portray them as heros meriting their survival because it would have been like telling the people who didn’t make it that maybe they didn’t do enough.” -J.A. Bayona

The idea of a film about a tragic event being made too soon is a matter of opinion.  Some believe that time and space are necessary, While others find it distasteful to create a film based on real life tragedy and believe that it is wrong to profit from tragedy.

Here is a video where the main actors of The Impossible—Naomi WattsEwan McGregor, and director Juan Antonio Bayona—discuss  the conception of the film and how the director avoided making the film appear exploitative.

I agree with Bayona, it is important to tell a story from the survivor’s viewpoint. When dealing with the issues of survival and tragedy physiological distance is part of creating a successful film story.

Emotion on Film

By trade, filmmakers are masters of manipulation. In order to create a successful film, filmmakers must connect with the audience. In the case of movies about tragic stories, it is important to be able to tug on the audience’s heartstrings and tap into the audience’s sense of fear. Doing this helps the filmmakers convey the emotional experience of a tragedy.

The sound, music, and visual effects are the main elements that create these feelings. When I watched this film, the experience of watching the explicit scenes was very intense. The images are not subtle. They are colorful and real.

Character of Maria (Naomi Watts) and son Lucas (Tom Holland) clinging to a tree after the Tsunami hit. For more images from the making of Tsunami click here. {Click on image link for source info}

One example of an intense visual journey is Maria’s storyline during the first half of the film. This maternal character is thrown around in the water and stabbed in the chest with a tree branch. After the waves subsides, Maria eventually finds her son Lucas in the middle of a heavy current. Together they hang onto a tree until they are in shallow waters. We then see a very bloody Maria with a wound her chest and a very thick piece of flesh hanging off her leg. It wasn’t pretty—it was raw.

Maria (Naomi Watts) severely injured. Lucas (Tom Holland) holding a toddler they found in the wreckage. {Click on image link for source info}

Emotion is relative. What makes me emotional might not make you emotional. Regardless, films like these are very important in not only the art of film but also our shared human history. 

History is not just about events, it is about human lives.

A scene from The Impossible. {Click on image link for source info}

Do you agree?

Have you seen the film? What was your reaction?

What do you think about films that stem from real life tragedy?

Until Next Time,


Read Marilyn’s Previous Blog Posts:

Fictional Projects of History 

Grit, Grit, & More Grit: A Take on the Immigration Experience in Film

[1] For more information about the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, here is an interactive map:  http://www.guardian.co.uk/flash/0,5860,1380955,00.html


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