Stranded: I Have Come from a Plane that Crashed on the Mountains is an Unforgettable Documentary

Now I am sure many of you have long since become familiar with this story. On October 13, 1972, a young ruby team from Montevideo, Uruguay, boarded a plane which was going to take them to a match in Chile. Their plane ended up crashing on a remote Andean glacier, its fuselage torn off and wings shorn. Anticipating they would be rescued, they waited in the snowy wreckage for help, but none came. When they ran out of food, they were forced to eat from the bodies of those passengers who had died. Eventually, two passengers managed to breach the treacherous Andes Mountains and brought help to their teammates left stranded in what was left of the plane. Out of the 45 passengers on that plane, only 16 survived. They were stranded on that glacier for 72 days. The fact any of them survived is nothing short of a miracle.

This story caused a sensation when first presented on the news, and many focused more on the sensational aspects of what happened, namely the cannibalism or reports of it. It was later documented in the 1973 bestselling book “Alive” written by Piers Paul Read. I have not read the book, but I did see the movie it was based on back in 1993 which starred Ethan Hawke. I remember watching it with my brother, and we both dug the seriously nasty plane crash which opened it. The movie was okay, but even with a screenplay by John Patrick Shanley of all people, it got weighed down by an endless variety of clichés. There did not seem to be any real tangible way to really get at how those rugby players truly felt while they were stranded on a glacier which they seemed destined to die on. How could they anyway?

Decades after this plane crash occurred, we got a documentary about it entitled “Stranded: I’ve Come from A Plane That Crashed on The Mountains.” This one has the advantage of having all the survivors from the crash participate participating in interviews in which they recount all the horrors they were forced to endure, and it was directed by a documentary filmmaker who also happened to be a childhood friend of theirs, Gonzalo Arijon. Through archival footage, interviews and reenactments of the events, Arijon succeeds in creating a shockingly intimate look at what these people went through in order to survive, and it puts us right into the mindset of the survivors in a way no movie or book, however well written it was, could. It proved to be one of the most astonishing cinematic portraits I have ever seen about survival, and it has stayed with me ever since I first watched more than a decade ago.

A documentary with reenactments almost sounds like an oxymoron. Certain other documentaries like “American Teen,” which came out in the same year, have been accused of restaging events that happened to the people, and it threatened to take away what felt truly real about it. The director of the movie, Nanette Burstein, admitted to restaging one event regarding a text message, and it did make for a good emotional moment, and I really do not blame her for doing so. I bring this up because the reenactments and restaging of events in “Stranded” serve to illustrate how incredibly desolate the circumstances were for these people, and they are necessary to show the way they survived. Plus, there is not a lot of archival footage for Arijon to work with, and without the reenactments, I am not sure he would have had much of a documentary.

The archival footage consists of photographs which were taken before and after the crash, and they are haunting to see as they show who these people were and what they ended up becoming. There are also some interviews shot with the survivors after they are rescued, and the audience reacted strongly when the interviewer asked them how they managed to survive. Their response to this at a later news conference brilliantly spells out why they did what they did.

The issue of cannibalism, if you really want to call it that, is handled very sensitively here. The reactions of the survivors to eating the flesh of those who have died goes through a variety of emotions from revulsion of even thinking about it to determination to survive and see their families again. But in the end, who are we to judge them for what they did? These were people pushed to the brink of madness and did whatever they could to survive, and “Stranded” puts us right in their mindset as they made their decision to eat from the bodies of their teammates. Do not even think you would have done things differently because you have not been through what they had. If you want to get cynical about it, those teammates were already dead, so they did not have a lot of say in the matter.

But the most astonishing moments in “Stranded” come from the survivors themselves. Their recollections of what they went through are still very vivid to them to this very day. The participation they gave to this project was invaluable, and we see them with their spouses and children as they go to revisit the site of the crash and go over what happened with them. What they do here is very brave, and their willingness to talk about what went on is beyond commendable. While this documentary may seem more about death than anything else, it is really more about survival and the power of the human spirit. It is also about the power of friendship and how indestructible it can be even in life’s worst moments.

With the aid of Arijon’s work, we see specifically how the survivors remember all the details of what happened. We see them lose their friends and of how they died, and of the ways they survived which included punching each other constantly so the blood would circulate better in their bodies. The moment we see those three men, which later became two, breach the Andes Mountains, we feel their desperation as well as their dwindling feeling of wanting to survive. All of these elements provide us with the most intimate portrait of this plane crash they could ever hope, or want, to get.

2008, the year in which “Stranded” was released, proved to be a tremendous year for movies set in the coldest of environments. During the summer, we got “Frozen River” which took place in the subzero weather of upstate New York. A few months later, I watched “Let the Right One In” which observed the tender relationship between a young boy and a female vampire in a frigid suburban neighborhood of Sweden. The details of these ferociously cold climates are almost completely dwarfed by the barren coldness which this documentary focuses on. Some of us are spoiled by the elongated summers we have in certain parts of the United States, but nothing we have experienced thus far will ever seem as cold as it is here.

“Stranded” gave me one of the most powerfully absorbing cinematic experiences I back in 2008. It is at turns thrilling and harrowing and, in the end, it is utterly inspiring as some of these passengers just refused to give up and die. Gonzalo Arijon brilliantly succeeds in capturing the events of this situation in a way no other filmmaker could, and it will stay with you long after you have finished watching it.

* * * * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Dragan Bjelogrlic about ‘See You in Montevideo’

Dragan Bjelogrlic photo

See You in Montevideo” was the Serbian entry in the Best Foreign Language Film for the 87th Academy Awards, and it is a sequel to “Montevideo: Taste of a Dream.” It takes us back in time to the first World Cup which was held in Montevideo, Uruguay and follows the national soccer team of Yugoslavia. These players have never been outside of their home country before, and everyone else views them as outsiders to where many of their competitors treat them with utter disdain. However, they eventually win people over thanks to their youthful enthusiasm and their love of soccer. But as the games go on, we see how their love of soccer threatens to be crushed by corrupt forces beyond their control.

Both “Montevideo: Taste of a Dream” and “See You in Montevideo” were directed by the same director, Dragan Bjelogrlic. In addition to being a filmmaker, he is also an actor who is considered by many in his country to be a “Serbian Robert Redford” as he is typically cast in roles where he plays a charismatic criminal like Čika Kure in “The Wounds.”

Bjelogrlic was in Los Angeles for a screening of “See You in Montevideo” at the Landmark Theatres back in 2015, and I was lucky enough to spend a few minutes with him afterwards to talk about it.

See You in Montevideo poster

Ben Kenber: This was a wonderful movie. I have to apologize because I haven’t seen the first movie yet.

Dragan Bjelogrlic: Oh no, no. I prefer people who have not watched the first movie because my whole idea was to make a totally independent second movie and totally independent story which is the global story. When we decided to make two movies about the same subject, I organized all of that and I said to my producer, “What do you think? Maybe I’ll make the first movie and then get something else to make the second movie.” But after the success of the first movie he said, “No, no! You must! Just forget about the first movie and try to make something else.” So I like spectators who didn’t watch the first movie (laughs). No really! And you’re right, (if you have) watched the first movie you will feel more comfortable.

BK: That’s a good point because this movie does feel like it stands on its own. I also found it fascinating how the movie chronicles the love of the sport and how it gets corrupted by greed and politics towards the end. How did you go about researching all this project?

DB: I read a lot of articles and a lot of books which were made about soccer. It’s the most popular sport. And there were a lot of journalists that wrote about it, and people didn’t read it back then. There were some people who were aware of what things were going on. There was the enthusiastic period where they were pioneers, and the people who created it first were very enthusiastic and it was good. The first World Cup was very good, but when 100,000 people come it’s some big plan. Okay let’s make some compromise, but it’s really very sad. We are witnesses now.

BK: Regarding the actors who played the soccer players, did you want real soccer players cast or were you just comfortable casting actors whether they had soccer experience or not?

DB: They are actors. At the beginning some of them were students and some of them were actors, but I try to combine actors and athletes. Thanks to God, we Serbs are good at both (laughs). We had a lot to choose from so it was not a difficult choice. That’s something which was not such a big problem. The only problem was the bind. Like somebody said, “Oh people in Uruguay, they will not like this.” It was a problem for me, but they find this fact that the policeman gave back the ball and somebody covered that. I said aha, this could be a subject. Who knows in which kind of sports football will be developed? That’s something which was my idea.

BK: In the process of turning this true story into a movie, did you have to take any dramatic license with the facts at any time?

DB: No. We just followed the facts and we tried to be precise with all facts especially with the match between Yugoslavia and Uruguay. What has happened? Who got the first goal? Who was the referee who canceled the first goal? It’s all the facts you can find in articles. There is my concession that the facts are facts.

BK: What’s up next for you?

DB: I don’t know. I have a lot of opportunities. My main job is as an actor, that’s my main profession. I like to act a little. This may be comfortable for me, but it’s not necessary for me to direct. If I find something which I feel (strongly about), I will direct.

Big thanks to Dragan Bjelogrlic for taking the time to talk with me. “See You in Montevideo” is now available to own and rent on DVD, Blu-ray and Digital.