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Documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi lives in fear of not telling the full story

The documentary filmmaker Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi lives in fear of not telling a complete story. What if there is another angle to explore? More footage to uncover? Is her exploration of a topic ever really complete? Those feelings were occupying large swaths of her brain back in May when she was finally able to travel to Thailand.

Vasarhelyi, 42, and her husband, Jimmy Chin, 47, are best known for their Oscar-winning, death-defying climbing documentary, “Free Solo.” The duo had already spent three years painstakingly turning over every piece of video available to them for their new film: “The Rescue,” which opens Oct. 8 in theaters. It tracks the 2018 global effort to retrieve 12 young soccer players and their coach trapped in the flooded Tham Luang cave in Chiang Rai Province, Thailand. The filmmakers had scoured international news feeds and local Thai footage, often piecing together scenes from a slew of disparate sources. What they couldn’t find, she and Chin and the British divers who led the rescue operation recreated in a tank in Pinewood Studios in Britain.

They had essentially completed their movie. It was moving and harrowing, yet it still nagged at Vasarhelyi. It was missing the scope of the operation and some smaller, more intimate moments that underscored the gravity of the situation. But those moments were in the hands of the Thai Navy Seals, and after two years of negotiations, no amount of effort on Vasarhelyi’s part had convinced the military to share the footage with her.

Until May. When Vasarhelyi, fully vaccinated and willing to endure a two-week quarantine in Thailand, made the trek to Phuket to meet with Rear Adm. Arpakorn Youkongkaew, a Royal Thai Navy Seal commander, and his wife, Sasivimon Youkongkaew, a former television journalist who had the instinct to give the Seals cameras at the beginning of what would become an 18-day rescue operation.

“We spent three years with this story — I’d be writhing on the floor if it popped up” after the film was finished, she said, referring to any missing scene. “It’s like the code of nonfiction: if it’s out there we have to try everything to get it.”

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This time, after a long meeting when Vasarhelyi again conveyed her intention to include all sides of the story, they finally agreed. She returned to the United States with the promise of a treasure trove of footage and the assistance of Youkongkaew, who flew to New York with the 87 hours of footage in her backpack and the patience to sift through it.

“It’s like a dream come true for a nonfiction filmmaker. It was also a nightmare,” Vasarhelyi said about the arrival of all that footage after their film was supposedly finished. Their editor, Bob Eisenhardt, “knew what I was asking of him. You saw the iceberg coming. It was going to be a slow, painful crash and then no one was going to sleep all summer.”

The result of that extra effort is a visceral, heart-thumping cinematic experience, as edge-of-your-seat as Alex Honnold’s journey in “Free Solo” even though the fate of the soccer team had been well-documented. Fifteen minutes of footage from the Seals (and the Thai army) is now in the movie, providing the film with an extra layer of scope. Thanks to the rescue team cameras, viewers will see the first time the divers Rick Stanton and John Volanthan emerged from the cave having found the boys as well as shots of hundreds of people lifting stretchers containing the children out of the water.

“That stuff finally gave you a scale,” said Vasarhelyi, who admitted not understanding why so many people were required for the rescue until she saw the footage and did her own cave walk on her trip to Thailand.

“The Rescue” made its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival in early September. Three weeks later, when Vasarhelyi and Chin sat down for an interview, the movie had changed again — an additional minute had been added to highlight other crucial rescue tactics.

“The process of this has been so intense,” Chin said. “We do want to represent what was really important and we’ve been digging at this thing for three years trying to make it right.”

“I told my mom I did everything I could,” Vasarhelyi added with a laugh.

Complicating Vasarhelyi and Chin’s efforts was a complex and convoluted grab for the life rights of the people involved in the rescue. Vasarhelyi and Chin were initially attached to direct for Universal, which planned a dramatized version based on the soccer players’ stories. But rights to those stories disappeared after the Thai government got involved. Netflix then scooped them up and is currently shooting its own mini-series in Thailand.

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