The Late Movies: Eyewitnesses to Disaster

Ransom Riggs

This week's Late Movies is a bit more serious than usual. I've been really interested lately in how the ubiquity of cameras -- in phones, in iPods, small enough to tuck into a shirt pocket -- have changed the way we see the world. It's removed part of the filter of "mainstream journalism" through which we have for years been accustomed to seeing world events unfold -- if the Kennedy assassination happened today, for instance, there would be hundreds of videos of it, from all different angles, rather than just one. Seeing people's first-person, subjective, hand-held accounts of events as they happen has made them -- to me, at least -- all the more immediate, identifiable, and personal. When I was a kid, disasters and tragedies were all narrated by Peter Jennings and summed up in a few sanitized shots of somber aftermath; these days, with a few clicks on YouTube, you can find something much closer to a firsthand experience. It's made the world seem a bit smaller, and I hope that, if anything, the that could've been me quality these videos have make us more compassionate.

I started thinking about all this earlier today, when I found this newly-surfaced amateur video of the Challenger disaster, shot by an optometrist in his yard in central Florida.
(By the way, though the subject matter of these videos is intense, there is nothing super graphic in them.)

We've all seen photos and video of the aftermath of the tragic earthquake in Haiti; very few have seen footage of the actual quake itself. This is video from the US embassy's security cameras during those 30 fateful seconds that claimed the lives of thousands. If you look closely, you can actually see a building topple in the top-right of frame.

Massive, once-in-a-century dust storms swept across parts of Australia last year. This frightening amateur video shows what it's like to be in the center of one; watch the sky go from reddish to completely black in under a minute.

2009 was a bad year for natural disasters in Australia. Besides the dust storms, they also had a terrible rash of bushfires in Victoria, which claimed more than 170 lives, the largest loss ever from bushfires. This dramatic video was captured by a team of firefighters trapped in their truck as bushfires raged around them. (They were fine -- their truck was outfitted with sprinklers that kept the worst of the flames at bay.)

We've all seen footage of the horrifying Asian tsunami of 2004, but I think this video is one of the more dramatic ones. Shot by a stunned British family from the porch of their high-rise hotel, they watch helpless as a 20-foot wave rises up and crashes across the land below, sucking everything that had been there out to sea. Truly horrifying.

One of the best examples of this kind of first-person footage I can think of makes up the bulk of the documentary Trouble the Water, in which a family in the 9th ward of New Orleans rides out the hurricane -- and its frustrating aftermath -- with camera in hand. No other film or story I've seen about Katrina even comes close to matching its power.