Often -- especially at Sundance -- a documentary works because it offers you a story you simply don't know; a political perspective, a personal struggle, a place in time. But occasionally, the most gripping documentaries are the ones where you knew the shape and sense of the tale beforehand, but lacked a finer understanding of its details and facts. Stranded: I've come from a plane that crashed on the mountains is one of those documentaries -- one where the boiled-down headlines and distant memories of a real event are not only expanded but explored, not merely presented as fact but shaped as art. In 1972, a Uruguayan rugby team took off on Flight 571 for a weekend in Chile, intending to mix a few games with a little sightseeing. They never made it; instead, the plane crashed in the Andes. 12 passengers and crew members among the 45 people on board died on impact or soon thereafter. Another 5 died before daybreak the second day. The remaining passengers -- young, scared, injured -- did what they could to survive. And then, after the tenth day, with the radio explaining that the air search for the plane was being called off, the remaining 25 did what they had to in order to survive.
Directed by Gonzalo Arijon, Stranded not only interviews the survivors of Flight 571 but also follows the survivors and their loved ones on a journey back to the crash site over 30 years later, and includes recreations of the flight and the struggles of the stranded youths. Stranded is neither sensational nor evasive about what the survivors did, and what they had to do as their meager food supplies ran out and they had to turn to the bodies of their fallen friends. In the current-day interviews, the survivors are careful and sensitive and judicious in discussing their experiences; at the same time, you can feel the sting of cold logic when one survivor explains how after word came that the air search was called off, "We, the Strauch cousins, prepared the meat ... "
The recreated footage is unforced, but that doesn't mean it's artless; shot by Oscar-winning cinematographer Cesar Charlone (The Constant Gardner, City of God), the newly-shot material is more impressionistic than narrative, intended to support feeling more than facts. The music is graceful and unobtrusive, letting the images and stories speak for themselves. There's no voice-over from a dry, dispassionate third party, either; the survivors speak, their relatives speak, and those involved in the search for them speak. It is their memories and feelings drive the tale. We know that the survivors survived for 72 days in brutal cold and in horrible deprivation; what we don't know, and what Stranded explains, is how they survived: The choices they made, the things they tried, the efforts that failed, and the calamities and obstacles that whittled the remaining 25 down to the 16 who emerged. While this story's been explored in other documentaries, and the 1993 feature film adaptation Alive, Stranded not only illuminates the challenges and choices that took place during that 72-day ordeal, but also shows us who these men were before the crash -- and who they were after.
Part of the achievement of Stranded comes in how it isn't merely interested in how these young men survived the crash of Flight 571; it's just as interested in how they survived what came after -- the doubts, the shock of a titillated and uncomprehending public fed by sensational news reports, and the guilt and confusion around their own survival. One survivor asks: "What is the equation that underlies this sort of logic? Why you and not me?" All of the passengers were Catholic; family and friends were among the dead. The decision to begin using the bodies of the dead as a source of food was based in horrible, brute necessity, which some of the passengers tried to view as a variation on the rite of Communion, as Jesus offered in John 6:56: "Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them." One passenger states the simple reasoning behind his decision -- simple to him, incomprehensible to us: "If I had died ... and someone else was sitting here telling you his story, I would be glad I had helped someone to live." And that sense of philosophical and moral decision-making is grounded by the surviving passenger's calm, rational discussion of terrible-yet-necessary decisions like scraping bones down with small shards of wreckage so they would have access to a source of calcium and stay alive, or ugly facts like how the two survivors who hiked desperately from the crash to find help appeared to those who found them after 72 days of survival and struggle: "Their lips were bleeding. They smelled of the grave." "No animal would go near them."
Arijon's direction is strong -- while there a few shots that, for me, tipped the story's hand a little, they're few and far between. He gets the survivors who appear in the film to share their stories -- funny stories, tragic ones, celebrations and requiems -- with frankness and grace. We sense that while these men overcame extraordinary obstacles, they carry their ordinariness -- their jobs, their families, their friends -- as a badge of honor. They're not ashamed of what they did, but you can feel their sorrow and sadness at the same time, and it's that contrast -- between what they did to live and what they do to live with that -- which pulls you in as these graying, everyday men tell the incredible story of the 72 days in their youth when they were going to die far from home. Gripping, moving, and superbly-crafted, Stranded: I've come from a plane that crashed on the mountains isn't just the story of how a group of young men chose to try and survive; it's the story of how a group of men had chosen to live.