Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Stranded . . . The Documentary

What happened in the Andes did not stay in the Andes. The entire world learned the sensational circumstances surrounding the harrowing survival of the “Christian Brothers” Uruguayan rugby team following the 1972 crash of their chartered flight high in the Latin American mountain range. Soon after their dramatic rescue, they held an emotional press conference in which they explained their food source during their long ordeal—the bodies of their fallen comrades. For some, that would be the last time they addressed the media, until a trusted friend, filmmaker Gonzalo Arijon, set out to tell their story in the documentary Stranded: I’ve Come from a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains (trailer here), opening in New York on October 22nd.

As the subject of the book and subsequent film Alive, it is hardly a spoiler to reveal the survivors’ cannibalism. Stranded more or less assumes audiences will know that much of the story coming in. Unlike the Hollywood film, which is just an okay time-killer (written by Pulitzer-Prize winning playwright John Patrick Shanley), Arijon’s documentary truly conveys a visceral sense of the survivors’ experience, leading viewers through the story step by evocative step.

One such aspect of the story better realized in Stranded is the massive scale of the snow-capped Andes and their truly remote crash site in the so-called Valley of Tears. Finding the white fuselage of the plane—their only shelter from the extreme elements—was like finding a needle in a mountain range of haystacks. En route to Chile for a match and some fun in the sun, they carried little in terms of insulating clothing and the plane was stocked with few provisions. In American pop culture terms, it was much like the fateful “three-hour tour.”

The passengers on the ill-fated flight were nearly all friends or relations. At the time, they lived within blocks of each other, and largely still do today. Clearly, those multiply-reinforced bonds of family, friendship, school, community, and cultural identity played a large part in their survival—a point which comes through in several interview segments.

Indeed, the survivors hung together, endured incredible hardships, and eventually sent the two strongest among them, Fernando “Nando” Parrado and Roberto Canessa, on an arduous trek for help, over imposing mountain peaks in a desperate route that defies belief when seen through Arijon’s lens. In telling the story, Arijon’s access to the surviving survivors, both in one-on-one interviews and during their recent reunion at the crash site, makes the film a very personal document. Arijon elicits a number of details that constitute new information for those who only know the story through Alive, the movie. Stranded is also a better film from a technical standpoint, more effectively transporting viewers to that forsaken crash-site, thanks in part to the dazzling cinematography of the recreated crash scenes by C├ęsar Charlone, another friend of several survivors, who nearly made the flight in question himself.

The human stories here are about as real as it gets. To his credit, Arijon captures the high drama of the situation, but shows admirable sensitivity for his subjects. Stranded opens Wednesday in New York at the Film Forum.