Monday 18 November 2019

Meet the real-life Co Clare hero of The Cave - the film about astonishing rescue of 12 Thai boys

Thai-Irish director Tom Waller's new film about the astonishing cave rescue of 12 Thai boys stars Clare diver Jim Warny as himself, writes John Meagher

'The Cave' director Tom Waller on set.
'The Cave' director Tom Waller on set.
Rescuers installing a water pump inside Tham Luang Nang Non cave in June 2018
The 12 boys and their coach, Ekkapol Chantawong (left), from the Wild Boars soccer team speaking publicly for the first time after their rescue in July 2018
Reluctant hero: Belgian-born cave diver Jim Warny, who lives in Clare, says he has found it hard to get used to the spotlight
Teamwork: Jim Warny and Thai-Irish film-maker Tom Waller

You have to listen closely to Jim Warny's speech to realise he didn't grow up in Ireland. Belgium may be his native land and the place where he lived until reaching adulthood, but he speaks English with a distinct Clare accent.

The 37-year-old electrical engineer first started coming to this country as a boy thanks to his father's love of traditional Irish music, and it was here, too, that Warny discovered a passion for diving. The rugged Atlantic coast would prove the perfect training ground.

During his teens he returned every summer to dive and, at 20, he decided he wanted to stay here, especially as he had already become very accomplished at the particular skill of cave diving.

Then, last year, Jim Warny had a life-changing experience - and it came completely out of the blue. In June 2018, the world was transfixed by the story of how 12 boys from a junior football team and their coach had gone missing in a cave in northern Thailand. Heavy rains had ensured that the passageways to them had flooded and they were essentially entombed more than 3km from safety.

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Rescuers installing a water pump inside Tham Luang Nang Non cave in June 2018
Rescuers installing a water pump inside Tham Luang Nang Non cave in June 2018

It was like a script for a horror film, but this was real life played out on wall-to-wall news coverage. Many thought the children could not be saved and they would die of starvation far below ground. It was a fear that was exacerbated when a Navy Seal with the Thai military died trying to rescue them.

Back in Ireland, Warny realised he had a rare skill set that could help with the mission and he answered the Thai appeals for international expert assistance. Within days, he was in Thailand, preparing to take on the biggest challenge of his life.

His loved ones were nervous, but he felt confident in his work. "That fear [from others] is something I battle with on a weekly basis," he says of his weekends spent cave diving. "But they accept the fact that it's my passion and it drives me. Their fear was amplified by the fact that the man [the Thai Navy Seal] had died a day or two before I went out, but I thought it was the right thing to do."

Thanks to Warny - and several other cave diving experts from around the world - all the boys, and their coach, were rescued. Not one life was lost. It came to be seen as one of the great feel-good stories of 2018. And now it has been made into a dramatic feature film - with Warny playing himself. It took quite a lot of convincing, though.

"I found it very hard to get used to the attention when I got home," he says. "I'm an introvert, as such, and I tend to be very quiet at the best of times."

As well as sustained media interest in his life, Warny - like several of the other divers - had to get used to being love-bombed by film production companies, including some from Hollywood. "It didn't cross my mind that there would be that kind of interest," he says, "but when it started happening I realised that if I was going to be part of it, it would have to be with someone who was going to tell the story properly."

Reluctant hero: Belgian-born cave diver Jim Warny, who lives in Clare, says he has found it hard to get used to the spotlight
Reluctant hero: Belgian-born cave diver Jim Warny, who lives in Clare, says he has found it hard to get used to the spotlight

Enter Thai-Irish filmmaker Tom Waller. Born in Bangkok to a Thai mother and a father from just outside Nenagh, Co Tipperary, Weller was in Ireland on holiday when the cave story hit the headlines.

"Like everyone on the planet," he says, "my heart was beating watching it on the news. Every morning it was like, 'Have the kids been found or brought out of the caves alive?' I became consumed by it, partly because it was on my back doorstep. I was messaging my mother at the time and she said the whole of Thailand was gripped by it."

Waller has made a number of Thailand-set films and is comparatively well known in artistic circles there. At the time he was mulling over what his next movie project might be and as soon as he heard about Jim Warny, he know he had a compelling story on his hands. "That intrigued me," he says, "the fact that there was a man from Co Clare who had gone out there to try to help and had been part of this extraordinary mission that worked. As soon as I met Jim, I knew I just had to tell the story."

Waller got to work quickly and managed to get the green light from Thai authorities to film at the cave itself. He started shooting last October - less than four months after the last of the boys had been successfully retrieved. And the resulting film, The Cave, offers a faithful and largely gripping account of the mission. It will make its Irish debut at the Cork Film Festival tonight and Waller is hopeful that it will enjoy a nationwide release next year.

The 12 boys and their coach, Ekkapol Chantawong (left), from the Wild Boars soccer team speaking publicly for the first time after their rescue in July 2018
The 12 boys and their coach, Ekkapol Chantawong (left), from the Wild Boars soccer team speaking publicly for the first time after their rescue in July 2018

Unusually, several of those who appear in the dramatisation were actual divers on the mission last summer, including Warny. "This story does not need embellishment," Waller says. "It's an ensemble film. It's atypical in that in most films you cast an actor - they're usually well known - and you have to suspend disbelief. But in this film we've roughly a dozen real rescue personnel. And what better person to play Jim Warny than Jim himself?

"Where else," he deadpans, "was I going to find a Belgian actor with an Irish accent who knows how to cave dive?"

The Cave is very much a Thai film. Much of the dialogue is in Thai and the story is told from a non-Western vantage, although there are beautiful aerial shots of Co Clare in the part of the film where Warny is introduced. It accentuates the fact that the mission was a true international effort.

The subterranean and subaquatic scenes are filmed with great authenticity, partly because Warny and other divers insisted on it. It's about as far from the glossy Hollywood treatment as you can get and some viewers will likely find it difficult to watch certain claustrophobic scenes. "I think it will be a difficult watch for some people," the director says, "but to tell the story properly, it has to be a difficult watch."

It was while making the film that Waller really got a sense of what a herculean task it was to get the children out alive. "These kids," he says, "were stuck behind a wall of water two-and-a-half miles in the earth. For cave divers like Jim, rescue missions would usually be about recovering bodies that had drowned or going to the rescue of like-minded people - other cave divers.

Teamwork: Jim Warny and Thai-Irish film-maker Tom Waller
Teamwork: Jim Warny and Thai-Irish film-maker Tom Waller

"But this was so different. These were kids who were trapped and they had to work out how to get them out safely."

The plan was an audacious one. A cave diver who was an anaesthesiologist in his day-to-day life was tasked with sedating each of the boys. A waterproof oxygen mask would then be placed securely over their faces, and they would be brought to the surface as quickly and safely as possible.

"The authorities had decided to go ahead with this plan even though they might lose three or four of the children," Weller says. "That information was kept under wraps at the time, but the feeling was that this was the only chance they had of at least partial success."

real sense of trepidation

Jim Warny says he was not confident that the plan would work. "The fear of the drugs not working or the masks not fitting properly was always there and that fear only settled when I saw the first boy coming past. Not that we set ourselves up for failure, but that worry certainly was there."

He says there was a real sense of trepidation as the mission began. "If you've no fear, you're bound to fail anyway." But he says he did not feel his own safety was at risk. "I wasn't fearful of my own life at all really. The water was warm, it wasn't very deep, the flow had settled down. The conditions were quite mild compared to my usual diving exploratory projects."

Warny was underground on this mission for between eight and 10 hours a day. "A lot of that is spent getting ready and waiting for the kids to pass by. It wasn't all spent underwater, although it was inside the cave."

pure elation

By contrast, on a non-rescue expedition two years ago, he spent five days underground. And that was purely for the thrill of being a cave diving fanatic.

What was the overriding emotion for him when the Thai mission had concluded? "It was pure elation that it had worked and we were getting to bring those kids home," he says, "although of course we were very sorry for that man's family [the Navy Seal who perished]."

The glare of the media proved to be a tougher obstacle. Many of his fellow divers found the attention difficult to cope with and one of them, Vernon Unsworth, was drawn into a spat with Tesla owner Elon Musk: the US billionaire called Unsworth "paedo guy" on Twitter after the British diver had dismissed Musk's idea to use a mini-submarine in the rescue as publicity stunt. Musk is set to face a court trial on the matter.

The Cave may be the first film out of the can to tackle the topic, but several others are said to be in the pipeline. And Netflix has a documentary in the offing, too. It will tell the stories of each of the 12 boys and what happened to them after their ordeal.

Waller says there have been mixed views about the children and their coach in Thailand. "There has been a bit of a backlash," he says. "Some people slightly resent the fact that they have become famous and are being paid a lot of money by Netflix to be part of this TV [documentary] they are making.

"Others say it's their right - they've been through this horrendous ordeal and as the event itself is very well known, they should be allowed tell their story."

And, he feels, it won't clash with his own film. "The Cave is really from the point of view of the rescue team," he says, "and about people like Jim, who is an ordinary man, but became a hero."

Jim Warny is not one for praising himself. "I'm just glad the skills I have built up over many years could be put to good use," he says. "And I was one small part of a huge operation. More than 3,000 people were involved in all aspects."

He may be finding it hard to get used to seeing himself on the big screen, but the Belgian Clareman has no plans to quit his job for fame in front of the cameras. "I've no interest in that," he says with a chuckle. "The water and caves are the places where I feel most at home."

'The Cave' will be shown at the Cork Film Festival tonight

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