The Rescue Review – Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin Dominate the Craft of Documentary

Karenna Umscheid ‘25 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

“What we had was a great story, and no way to tell it.”

In the post-screening Q&A, filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi says that it’s normally the opposite for documentaries, that there is tons of footage but not much of a story. But the story of the 13 Thai children and their soccer coach being rescued by a team of eccentric old cave divers was too fascinating to give up on. Documentaries have been carbon-copied and stale recently. Biography after biography, or a million exposes on the same topic needing the differential between different streaming platforms. But Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin don’t conform. They tell stories outside the confines of what a documentary is, their work feels effortlessly cinematic, though they always see their own room to grow.

The curation of the 2021 documentary The Rescue was met with a myriad of challenges. Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin had flights booked for Thailand in February 2020, but their production was postponed by the pandemic. They worked up to the wire to get it released, and Chai Vasarhelyi still sees room for improvement, saying she wishes there was more sound design and less score. 

The craft of documentary, specifically those released exclusively on streaming services, has become stale. Always either autobiographical or social issue-based, they only seek to squeeze emotion and response from the audience. Though they can still be effective, they often fail to make impacts that really last. Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin seek to tell stories instead. They 

The part of the film that felt most phenomenal to me was the spirituality. With the inclusion of Thai traditional stories and legends the story stays true to its Thai roots. Though skeptical Americans will disrespectfully brush off this part as coincidence or luck, Thai viewers will appreciate the respect Chai Vasarhelyi and Chin put into this film. They tell the story of the princess of Nan Nong, a tragic tale that left a princess to commit suicide over the death of her stable boy lover. The mountain range is her lying body, and her blood is the water flowing through the cave. The mothers of the boys made traditional offerings of foods and drinks to the princess, in hopes that she would return their sons to them. 

An audience member tells Chai Vasarhelyi that they think she did a great job telling the princess’ story and Thai folklore in the film. Chai Vasarhelyi explains that being biracial, with her and Chin both being Asian filmmakers, it was important to tell the story authentically in this way. 

Phra Khuva Boomchum, a Monk from Myanmar, was brought in at the request of the mothers of the children. It had been raining non stop for multiple days, then the rain stopped upon his arrival. When the team was losing hope, he told them that the boys were still alive and that they were strong. 

The editing of The Rescue was seamless, floating from re-created diving footage, to computer-generated graphics of the cave. Superby creative, the filmmaking was fantastically suffocating. It’s nearly immersive, intense despite the non-fiction of it all, where audience members already know the end result. The emotion of the film isn’t forced at all; the honesty and magic of the story draws it out naturally. 

At the Q&A, a member of the audience told Chai Vasarhelyi that he’s an EMT who’s recently realized his passion lies in visual storytelling but film school is not in the cards for him anytime soon, so he asked for advice. She tells him to try to find work as a PA (production assistant) and tells him to give her his contact information after the Q&A. The work of documentary lies largely in cooperation, and therefore in character. The genuine kindness they put into the field of filmmaking, and to aspiring filmmakers, shows in the quality of their films. 

Chai Vasarhelyi tells us that she had the opportunity to walk in the cave, and told us about the magic she felt there. That magic comes through in every way in the documentary. Honest, spiritual, emotional, and vibrant, The Rescue is everything a documentary should be.

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