Thais hired to play corpses in BBC tsunami TV show
The filming of a BBC-HBO mini-series about the tsunami along Thailand's Andaman coast has stunned and horrified residents still dealing with the aftermath of the 2004 disaster.
It is too soon to turn the tragedy into a drama, they say.
The miniseries' star-studded cast includes Oscar-winning actor Tim Roth and Australian actress Toni Collette and is being made by the award-winning British production house Kudos Film and Television.
"It's not right. It's not right," says Trongchai Pachkrau, shak-ing his head in disbelief. Trongchai was guiding a boat-load of tourists around Phi Phi Island when the tsunami hit on Boxing Day 2004. He has not
been in the water since and now works as a taxi-driver on the mainland.
Tour guide Sawitree Kulmat says it is "unbelievable" that the tragedy is being turned into a movie.
"Why are they doing this? We can't believe it. Nobody wants this," she said. "It's too early. Everybody is trying to forget."
Sawitree, who has worked as a tour guide in Krabi province for eight years, said a documentary would be okay but she could not comprehend how the tsunami could be turned into entertainment.
The wounds are still too fresh, she said. "What about the people who lost their families?"
The mini-series will air on HBO and BBC2 later this year, according to a press release from HBO. Extras working on the film say producers are aiming to wrap up production in time to broadcast the first instalment on December 26, the second anniversary of the tragedy.
Originally titled "Tsunami", the mini-series has been renamed "Aftermath".
It focuses on the tsunami's effect on Western tourists. The main characters are "a young couple searching for their child, an Englishwoman whose husband and son are missing, an ambitious reporter, a relief worker and an overwhelmed British official", HBO said.
Almost all the speaking parts are being played by Westerners, but Thais are being hired to fill the background and portray corpses, the extras say.
Flyers advertising open auditions for minor characters and extras were plastered throughout Krabi province in April.
The flyers disgusted and outraged many people. Robert Reynolds, a director of a charity that assists tsunami orphans, recalls being "stunned".
"Jesus Christ! You can't put that up here," he said. What upset him most, he adds, "is that thing on the bottom [of the flyer]", referring to the casting call for corpses.
It reads: "Victim, man, woman, girl; any age, any nationality. A lot of people!"
A casting agent, Maew, said Western extras were being paid Bt1,500 per day and Thai extras were getting Bt400 a day.
She said filming had wrapped up in Phuket and had shifted to Khao Lak, the Thai resort where more than 2,000 lives were lost. Production will shift to Bangkok this month, she said.
"It doesn't make me very happy that they [the film-makers] are making money out of this," said Reynolds, a 10-year resident of Krabi whose five businesses were "all but wiped out" in the tsunami.
He said the mini-series' focus on Western tourists distorted the reality of what happened. "It's tragic that so many tourists died and that so many lost family members, but Thais lost everything. They had no homes to go back to," he said.
"But maybe that's a movie that won't grab viewers."
Reynolds says he has written seven letters to the executives at Kudos asking them to show sensitivity.
He has also asked them to donate money to a legally registered charity assisting children orphaned by the tsunami (www.krabirelief.com).
So far he has not received a reply, he says.
A press release from the BBC said: "Kudos has been collaborating with local communities." But Reynolds said no one involved in the film had asked Krabi residents for input or even informed them that the mini-series was going to be made.
Sawitree found out about it through the casting-call flyers offering tsunami survivors the chance to make Bt400 a day playing victims.