The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari is a harrowing tale of human resilience

The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari is a harrowing tale of human resilience

There’s a haunting testimonial at the center of The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari, in which one of the survivors tells of her pre-eruption nerves, when she and her new husband decided to tour a dormant volcano in New Zealand as part of their honeymoon. She speaks of the dread she felt, despite the many assurances that walking tours such as this one are commonplace and quite safe. Sure, everyone signs a safety waiver before embarking, but what else is new? She talks about her reticence in the face of nature’s majesty, but also about her recognition that she was probably just being silly, and that she really should just take a deep breath and enjoy the adventure.

We all have this feeling before undertaking risk, and almost universally, our fear proves to be unfounded. The rollercoaster doesn’t derail, the plane doesn’t crash, the parachute opens, and no one falls out of the boat. But in the case of Whakaari, any amount of dread was not enough. In December of 2019, the volcano erupted while 47 people were on its surface. A mix of tour guides, adventurers, and vacationers found themselves scrambling to survive a sudden blast that, although short-lived, caused the death of many and led to lifelong repercussions for those who managed to survive.

The documentary, from Rory Kennedy (Ghosts of Abu Graib) collects testimonials from many of the survivors as well as the families of those who were lost, amd cuts them into footage of both staggering beauty and incredible tragedy, to tell what is ultimately a story of hope and resilience.

Being a recent disaster, and one that occurred at a tourist destination, The Volcano has access to footage from the front lines of the event. Cameras were there as the disaster unfolded, painting a breathlessly terrifying picture of a fun day gone terribly wrong. Kennedy uses this footage sparingly and respectfully — it is employed to make the danger tangible to the viewer without exploiting those who were harmed of killed. There is a trigger warning at the outset, however, because even though the footage itself is not explicit, it is harrowing. When the survivors tell their tale, it’s easy to see via their faces and in many cases, their scar tissue, that this relatively small eruption was barely survivable, but even so, it doesn’t feel tangible to the viewer. When you can hear the sounds of mass panic in real time, however, their stories go from feeling distant to feeling immediate. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it highlights how strong these survivors have proven to be.

At the time of the event, the New Zealand government was unable to mount an official rescue due to the potential for exponential danger, so it was up to fellow citizens to take action. A handful of independent pilots took to the skies for rescue and reconnaissance, and even a nearby tour boat was able to make an approach and selflessly deliver transport and aid. No one could have blamed any of these folks for staying away, but the spirited heroism inherent to the local community declared that ignorance and self-preservation were not options.

What begins as a deeply effective, boots-on-the-ground recounting of a disaster soon becomes a hopeful, uplifting tale of human triumph — how strangers can band together and fortify themselves against disaster, survive said disaster, and then live with dignity and courage despite having seen the scariest chaos nature can offer.

The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari premieres on Netflix this Friday, December 16th.

Directed by Rory Kennedy

Written by Mark Bailey, Dallas Brennan

Starring some of the bravest and most impressive people you will ever encounter

Rated PG-13, 98 minutes

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