A film for these times: “STRANDED: The Andes Crash Survivors in their own words”

Last night I happened to watch an extraordinary movie that speaks to the cultivation of exactly what is of most value during these times when all-hell-might-break-loose-at-any-moment-and-what-in-hell-are-we-going-to-do-about-it?

Buy guns and learn how to shoot? Hoard everything within reach and barricade our doors? Scuttle out to a rural “intentional community” and barricade their gates? We are all stranded, folks, inside our minds which are full of fears about the unknown, but whatever it is, it’s bound to be bad. So we think. And we sure can’t trust each other, so we must fend for ourselves.

In high contrast to this attitude is the story of a small plane full of high spirited young men, and a few women, who found themselves crashed and alone together, high in the Andes mountains. For months.

This is one of the most riveting and remarkable films I have ever seen. Many of the words that come out of the mouths of the participants, who are recalling the crash and its aftermath 30 years later, I wanted hold in my mind forever, as examples of the best of the human spirit, both individual and collective, when faced with unforeseen, extraordinary, and ultimately soul-illuminating circumstances.

Their mutual trust and interdependence evolved to higher and higher stages, ultimately becoming so acute that, as one of them said, and I paraphrase: “We became like one being, a 19-person organism.”

Here’s one review of the film:

The Film: Stranded: The Andes Plane Crash Survivors

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“Now and then, we thought we might go wild and start killing each other. We had to do things I don’t think any animal is capable of….”

—Survivor Roberto Canessa

On Friday, October 13, in 1972, charter flight 571 took off from Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital city, carrying a boisterous team of wealthy college athletes to a rugby match in Chile. But what was supposed to be a first taste of freedom away from home turned out to be a much more sinister and life-altering journey.

Two men and one woman sit huddled against a fuselage with snow at their feet and a suitcase in the foreground

STRANDED: The Andes Plane Crash Survivors is the tale of flight 571, which never made it to Chile. Instead, the plane crash-landed in a desolate glacial valley, high in the Andean cordillera—a chain of rugged, snow-covered peaks stretching from Bogata, Colombia to Punta Arenas, Chile.

Fifteen people died, including the pilot. Five were badly wounded. But—miracle of miracles—29 lived. “How arbitrary it was! Why had some people been destroyed, while others had escaped with just a black eye?” asks survivor Jose Luis “Coche” Inciarte. As the survivors learn during their ordeal, there are no easy answers.

Three decades after the crash, the 16 survivors, interviewed in the film, revive long-buried emotions and intimate memories. They take viewers, moment by agonizing moment, through their suffering, as hope turns into despair and as hours stretch into days and weeks. And finally, just before disbelief hardens into bitterness and fear turns to madness, the unexpected happens.

Up on the mountain, a new kind of social order forms amongst the survivors, making the best use of everyone’s individual energy and talents. One person sews a sleeping bag from the airplane’s insulation; another dispenses a dollop of toothpaste every night as their “dessert.” Someone else works the radio—where they hear the dreadful news that the search for their downed plane has been called off.

With death by starvation drawing ever nearer, the survivors arrive at a universal conclusion—that in order to live, they must break a taboo: They must find their nourishment in the flesh of their teammates who have died alongside them in the snowy wilderness. The group closes ranks around the terrible, life-saving decision: a decision that sustains them over the 72-day odyssey and helps them fuse into one organism dedicated to one purpose—survival.

Before he perishes in an avalanche halfway through their ordeal, rugby team captain Marcelo urges his fellow players to think of this necessary sacrilege as “holy communion.” Ultimately, each man still clearly wrestles with the act more than 30 years after the fact. “We all found it hard. What we were doing was unthinkable. But I made up my mind; I chose to live,” says Alvaro Mangino.

The story of these survivors is a parable about the human condition and the possibilities contained within it. The group’s strength comes from the solidarity of purpose and the extraordinary sacrifices made by individuals to benefit the whole. When the two strongest survivors, their knapsack packed with frozen human flesh, embark on the final, grueling, 10-day expedition, crossing miles of ice fields, crevices and peaks to find help for their stranded companions, they are sustained by their teammates’ trust and faith in them. On their frail shoulders rides the collective fate of all they hold most dear.

Update

Filmmaker Gonzalo Arijón provided an update on what the people featured in STRANDED have been doing since filming ended:

The survivors have been doing more or less the same thing they were doing before the film started; they are living their lives. They all live within a three-kilometer (2.3 mile) radius of each other in the same neighborhood of Montevideo. They see each other a lot.

They all have professional, well-paying jobs—the kind of professions they were destined to have before the accident. So, none of these fantasies about them becoming Tibetan monks or Jesus Christ or whatever has happened—none of that.

And they have set up a foundation. The idea had been going around for a while in their heads, and when the film was made, they decided it really was time that their experience should do something useful. So they created the Viven Foundation (“Alive” Foundation), which is beginning to help people with micro credits and sports in Uruguay.

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