I can’t begin to tell you what an honor and a privilege it was to be sitting across from Maria Belon, a Spanish doctor who along with her husband and three sons miraculously survived the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Belon’s story of survival is now the focus of the movie “The Impossible,” and she participated in a roundtable interview which I attended with several others. She may not see herself as a hero, but seeing her so lively and upbeat even after the horrific ordeal she endured is nothing short of inspiring.
In “The Impossible,” Belon is portrayed by Naomi Watts in a performance full of strength and raw emotion. We watch as she struggles to make her way to safety in the aftermath of the tsunami which decimated the coastal zone of Thailand, and it’s unnerving to see the injuries she received which included a nasty wound on one of her legs. Despite that, Belon said that “nothing happened to us” (her and her family) because they survived. So when J.A. Bayona, director of “The Orphanage,” came to her wanting to make a movie about the tsunami, she had to ask why.
“Why our story if we survived? Why in a story full of pain and full of loss pick up our story in which nothing happened? But then we understood that it was the only way of explaining the others’ pain was picking up a story of a family which nothing happened to,” Belon said.
For Bayona, the story of Belon’s family’s survival helped she a light on the devastation left in the tsunami’s wake. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives, and “The Impossible” never ever loses sight of that. But more importantly it is a story about many people and what they suffered. It is not just about this one family. Belon made this clear when asked if it bothered her that her family was being portrayed by English actors instead of Spanish ones.
“I am fed up with this question all the time,” Belon said quite strongly. “This movie is not about nationalities, not about races, not about colors. It’s about human beings. One of the conditions we put is that there should be no nationality for the family. I don’t care if they would be black, brown or green skin. I wouldn’t care about anything.”
Belon said she was involved in the making of “The Impossible” for several years and that she did have a say in the film’s casting. When Bayona asked Belon who her favorite actress was, she replied Naomi Watts because of her performance in “21 Grams.”
“When I saw her in ’21 Grams’ I thought (gasp) what is this woman about?” Belon said of Watts’ performance. “When he (Bayona) told me that Naomi is going to portray Maria I was like okay, then I’ll go around the world to the other end and I hide. I don’t want to meet her, I don’t want to disturb her.”
But despite her fear that she might give jinx the actress, Belon did eventually meet Watts and the two spent a lot of time together on the set. Belon said they talked a lot about life, being moms, being lucky, death, loss and just about everything else as well. Clearly these two women developed a very strong bond with one another that is unbreakable.
One of the most powerful moments from the interview was when Belon talked about the “gifts” that tsunami gave her. A natural disaster like this seems to take away much more than it could ever possibly give, but you have to admire her for finding any upside in the midst of such tragedy.
“This is one of the gifts the wave gave me – I don’t care about myself anymore,” Belon said. “I only appreciate the moment. I don’t think about the past anymore, I don’t take photos of any memories, and I don’t plan anything for the future. I only have now.”
But although Belon survived the tsunami, she said that she “almost died three times;” once while hanging on the branch of a tree with her son Lucas and two other times in the hospital. She admitted to being tired of struggling to stay alive, but it was the appearance of her husband which kept her going.
“When I saw my husband I was like ‘good! Now I can rest,” Belon said as if she were preparing herself for death. “He was so nice when he said ‘I didn’t come here for that!'”
As for her three boys, Belon did give us an enthusiastic update on their statuses: Lucas is now 18 years old and training to be a doctor, and she described him as being “immensely brave.” She said that what he took from the experience of the tsunami is that “there is never enough of what you can do for others.” Thomas, now 16, is at a school that studies half the time and does community service the other half of the time, and he is also working as a lifeguard in Wales. As for Samuel, 13, she said he is wondering whether being a firefighter or a policeman would be the best way to help people. Overall, they have all come out of this experience wanting to help others.
I asked Belon if she had been back to Thailand since the tsunami and if work still needs to be done to repair the damage that it left behind. She replied that there is still a lot of work that needs to be done especially with the orphanages and the widows. Many of the buildings and physical buildings have been repaired, but the souls of those who were left without parents and loved ones still need a lot of mending.
Watching “The Impossible,” you come out of it feeling like you survived the tsunami along with these characters. I shared that thought with Belon and she said “of course” as that was part of the movie’s overall design.
“When we had discussions with the director and we spent hours and hours talking about the film, and I said ‘it’s unfair to come back from one of those experiences with so much presence you get that you don’t give back,'” Belon said. “I told Bayona that it’s a bit difficult but you have to make people go under the wave, and they said ‘WHAT?!’ I said ‘sorry that’s the only way.’ You go under the water, you drown and you almost die and you come out of the cinema and say (gasp) ‘I’m alive!'”
“The Impossible” is now one of biggest box office hits in Spain’s history, and Belon is thrilled with the response it has received as she is with the film itself. She is not sure what she’s going to do next, but she did express interest in returning to work as a doctor. Even after all Belon’s been through, she made it clear that she’s not afraid of the water and said “it wasn’t the ocean’s fault” for what happened. She has also come out of this horrific situation with a no-nonsense attitude.
“I only do what I enjoy,” Belon said. “If there’s something I don’t enjoy, I quit. I do this (the movie) because I enjoy it. If somebody would like to do something that I don’t like then I will just go ‘sorry I don’t like it (laughs).'”
Maria Belon may not be a hero, but considering what she has been through you cannot help but see her as a tremendously inspiring person. We’re all glad she’s still with us to tell her story.