Malibu filmmakers Rory Kennedy and Mark Bailey set to debut new volcano documentary on Netflix

Members of a tour group are shown inside the Whakaari volcano, on New Zealand’s White Island, right before the volcano begins to erupt in this screen shot from Netflix documentary “The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari.” Courtesy Photo.

The timing couldn’t be better — just as the Big Island of Hawaii’s Mauna Loa volcano began erupting and spewing fresh lava this past week, a new documentary about an explosive volcano eruption in 2019 on New Zealand is coming out: “The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari” by Malibu residents and filmmakers Rory Kennedy and Mark Bailey.

On Dec. 9, 2019 the active Whakaari Volcano on White Island, in New Zealand’s northeastern Bay of Plenty region, explosively erupted. The island was a popular tourist destination, known for its volcanic activity, and 47 people were on the island at the time. Twenty-two people died, either in the explosion or from injuries, including two whose bodies were never found. An additional 25 people required intensive care for severe burns. The ongoing seismic and volcanic activity in the area as well as heavy rainfall, low visibility and toxic gases hampered recovery efforts over the week following the incident.

Experts identified the event as a “phreatic” eruption: a release of steam and volcanic gases that caused an explosion, launching rock and ash into the air.

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Ash is seen spewing from the Whakaari volcano, on New Zealand’s White Island, in this screen shot from Netflix documentary “The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari.” Courtesy Photo.

The “Volcano” documentary tracks the unfolding of the volcanic eruption minute-by-minute using images, video and audio of the eruption, and its aftermath, much of which hasn’t been seen before. A group of 47 tourists and their guides were on a routine daytime sightseeing trip to White Island when the Whakaari volcano began erupting unexpectedly, trapping the group. Daring rescues were made using boats and helicopters.

The film interviews survivors that give first-hand accounts of what it was like to live through the volcanic eruption experience; as well as the folks that bravely came to the rescue.

“These men and women were tested in ways they never imagined,” Kennedy said. “We see the courage and quick-thinking of ordinary citizens who sprang to action that day – humanity at its best.”

In deciding who to interview for the film, the team focused on people with first-hand experience in the disaster, but went through a preliminary selection process of talking with each individual first to make sure they weren’t too traumatized with PTSD to relive the experience.

The seven survivor interviewees included not only tourists, but a tour guide and helicopter pilot. The seven rescuers interviewed for the film were mostly pilots and law enforcement, and there was also input from a reporter and a local Maori leader that were on the scene of the disaster.

Kennedy, an Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker, was director/producer of “Volcano,” and Bailey and Dallas Brennan Rexer, were co-writers/producers. 

The filmmakers first became aware of the story when a partner sent them an article about it in Outside magazine. 

“Mark and I both read the article and were gripped. We were fascinated by the story and shocked we hadn’t heard about it — it happened during an intensive news cycle in the U.S. and around the world,” Rory said. “We’re always looking for strong stories, but also ones that can rise to something bigger and be worthy of people’s time to watch. This had all of that in the mix; we felt very strongly and passionately about the subject early on.”

The story reminded each member of the film team about the personal moments of terror in their own lives and how they coped. For Rory and Mark, it was evacuating from the Woolsey Fire in Malibu in 2018, and then learning that the community had come together and neighbors kept their house from burning. For Dallas, it was being in New York on 9/11.

When it comes to humans being willing to help others in need, Dallas decided there was something unique about New Zealanders. 

“It’s a small island, a small community, they take care of one another and there’s a camaraderie that really shines through,” she observed.

“Kiwi culture has a ruggedness and willingness to help someone else, even if you sometimes have to put yourself in a risky situation to do so,” Kennedy added. “It’s been reassuring and affirming to be able to witness that in this story.”

The film team spent four or five weeks filming in New Zealand over several trips in 2021 and 2022.

The special sneak preview screening with in-person Q&A with Kennedy and Bailey will take place on Wednesday, Dec. 14, at the Bay Theater in the Pacific Palisades at 7 p.m. Reservations can be booked through the Malibu Film Society website.

“The Volcano: Rescue from Whakaari” releases globally on Netflix on Dec. 16.