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Years after the George W. Bush administration stirred massive controversy by using waterboarding to glean information from some terror suspects, the Weinstein Company is about to put the issue front and center again with its U.S. release Friday of The Railway Man, which likely contains some of the most graphic scenes of the practice ever put on film.
The Railway Man tells the true story of Eric Lomax, a British soldier who was captured by the Japanese during World War II and forced to help build the Burma Railway. When his captors discover he has secretly built a radio, weeks of horrific torture ensue — and Australian director Jonathan Teplitzky makes it clear that the worst of it is waterboarding.
Lomax takes great pains to illustrate the horror of being waterboarded in his 1995 memoir, also called The Railway Man, and Teplitzky spoke to Lomax about it before his death in 2012, so the scenes, says the director, are extraordinarily realistic. He also says he “absolutely” and “without a doubt” wants to again stir up a modern-day political debate about waterboarding (which the Obama administration banned after taking office in 2009).
“The first thing that struck me is that it happened to Eric in 1943 and yet it is still very much a practice today. It’s so indescribable to watch it being filmed, let alone to think that some human beings went through that. I thought it was important that the film embrace that,” the director tells The Hollywood Reporter.
“Look, you try very hard not to set out to make simply a message film, but in a story like this you’re dealing with incredibly big and important things,” Teplitzky says. “This kind of maltreatment has incredible resonance for contemporary times. I mean, it’s not even called ‘torture’ anymore — it’s called ‘enhanced interrogation’…. Interestingly enough, the Nazis called it ‘enhanced interrogation.’ Waterboarding has a very strong tentacle to the modern day, and we were very conscious of that.”
In the movie, Lomax the prisoner of war is played by Jeremy Irvine, while Colin Firth plays Lomax in the 1980s, when he discovers one of his former tormenters is still alive and running a museum at the torture facility where he had once been held. Lomax’s wife is played by Nicole Kidman.
In the book, Lomax describes the water torture in graphic detail:
“The NCO suddenly stopped hitting me. He went off to the side and I saw him coming back holding a hosepipe dribbling with water. From the facility with which he produced it and the convenient proximity of a water tap, I guess he had used it before. He directed the full flow of the now-gushing pipe on to my nostrils and mouth at a distance of only a few inches. Water poured down my windpipe and throat and filled my lungs and stomach. The torrent was unimaginably choking. This is the sensation of drowning, on dry land, on a hot dry afternoon. Your humanity bursts from within you as you gag and choke. I tried very hard to will unconsciousness, but no relief came. He was too skillful to risk losing me altogether…they turned on the tap again, and again there was that nausea of rising water from inside my bodily cavity, a flood welling up from within and choking me. They alternated beatings and half-drownings for I know not how long.”
To film such scenes accurately, Teplitzky acknowledges subjecting Irvine to some uncomfortable faux-waterboarding.
“We researched it a great deal and wanted to replicate what Eric had been through. But obviously we did it in a very safe way,” the director recalls. “It’s bizarre talking about it, but what’s great about film is that you can piece it together in small bits. In rehearsal — which we did a great deal of — we tried different things and Jeremy felt he could do it for about eight seconds, but we only did it for about four seconds each time, and we controlled the water so the actor was safe. He had water in his mouth but waterboarding is about forcing water into the lungs, and obviously we weren’t doing that.”
Irvine told The Huffington Post U.K. that “there was one take when I let it go on a couple of seconds too long, and ended up throwing up a load of water…I did a lot of things I wouldn’t normally have done for a movie. I wanted to do the waterboarding sequences for real, and they were exactly as you can imagine…the whole movie rests on what he went through. It gave me a wonderful appreciation. We did it for three days, Eric went through two weeks like that, and continued to be tortured for three years.”
In a trailer, some quick scenes of torture are evident, but no waterboarding.
“My personal view on waterboarding, as it is with most institutionalized violence, is that it’s pretty abhorrent. I struggle greatly with the idea that a justification for torture is that it will give us a safer world,” Teplitzky says.
“Yes, the movie is set 50 years ago, but in some part it’s very much a story for our time.… It’s not about Americans per se, it’s about what we’re capable of doing to each other as human beings. That’s why I wanted to make this film, because it was a very succinct story about the very best and worst of what humans are capable of. Revenge and forgiveness are two fundamental emotions that define us as human beings. I wasn’t interested in pointing a finger at Americans or anyone else — I’m Australian and we very much sided with America through these last wars — it’s more about asking, ‘Is this how we need to behave?’ “
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