The (in)famous image of cig-puffing Sean Penn paddling a raft through watery New Orleans helps explain his plucking from Amerindie sea of volunteer-recruitment docu “The Third Wave” to serve as Cannes fest’s first-ever jury prexy pick. Following efforts of four unpaid relief workers, including tyro docu-helmer and trained nurse Alison Thompson, to aid destitute Sri Lankan survivors of 2004’s Asian tsunami, unimpeachably well-intentioned pic runs arguably admirable risk of diluting both sales and activist potential via downbeat midsection devoted to detailing victim irritability and missionary burnout. But its “everyone is needed” message, literally spelled out at docu’s end and appearing well-timed as catastrophic disasters persist, hits hard enough to convert charitably minded auds, fest-sidebar bookers, farsighted broadcasters, and perhaps a stateside specialty distrib, preferably one partnered with grassroots orgs.
Decently lensed DV pic, named for mild outpour of volunteer aid that followed the pair of devastating tsunami waves, spans 19 weeks in lives of variably skilled Western visitors to tribal village of Peraliya, where more than 2,500 perished. Aussie-born, New York-based Thompson, a first-response rescue worker at Ground Zero for nine months after 9/11, heeds another call for help, traveling with producer beau and fellow volunteer worker Oscar Gubernati to Sri Lanka with camcorder in tow. Joining a small handful of other independent Western humanitarians, the pair sets up a first aid station and clocks long hours at a refugee camp — these efforts made in lieu of adequate NGO support. Villager Sunil Elvitigala is recruited as co-camera operator and eventually bears the brunt of one village woman’s frustration — “All you’ve done so far is watch,” she tells him.
Tech-wise, judicious use of post-prod sweetening delivers soft images that help disguise limitations of equipment and d.p. experience. Likewise, tricky tone of good will remains smooth except in offputting sequence whose flashy editing appears to equate the thuggishness of some village boys — the proverbial few bad apples — to scarcely defined Sri Lankan religious practice. If individual villagers, too, fall short in characterization, the omission at least reflects the reality that Red Cross bonnet-wearing Thompson — whose clinic at one point serves 1,000 patients per day — can’t often stop to chat.
Among the four go-getter volunteers at pic’s center, strongest impression is made by Donald “Donnie” Paterson, a baldheaded and mustachioed Australian Army vet whose swarthy humor — there to entertain both surviving villagers and film audience — gradually turns to despair and illness as exhaustion takes its toll. Early on, God-fearing, F-bomb-dropping Paterson energetically credits the “big fella upstairs” for the grand narrative that has him orchestrating the construction of a village toilet system; later, before taking a leave of absence, he tears up on camera while thinking of wife, kids, and dog back home Down Under.
Proceeding through optimism and inspiration as opposed to guilt-tripping, pic compares quite favorably to others in the pro-charity/anti-tragedy subgenre of U.S. docus, though it pales in comparison to Darfur film “The Devil Came on Horseback” and recent Sundance Grand Jury Prize-winner “Trouble the Water,” still the tradition’s two high-water marks. Though propulsive bongo music suits the docu’s galvanizing agenda from start to finish, end-credit revelation that volunteer Bruce French has worked as tour chef to Pearl Jam yields unfortunately timed laughs. Penn, reportedly alerted to the film by representatives of the Happy Hearts Fund, receives “presented by” credit on the digital print, whose occasional Sinhalese and Tamil dialogue is subtitled in English.