One of the most striking documentaries premiering at this year’s Sundance Film Festival was Gonzalo Arijon’s Stranded: I Have Come From a Plane That Crashed in the Mountains, a first-hand documentation of the 1972 plane crash that left 29 young men from Uruguay struggling against the elements and their hunger for 72 days, as they were left stranded in a remote valley in the Andes Mountains. It’s a fascinating movie, told entirely by the remaining survivors with amazing recreations that keeps you riveted to their every word, and it’s up there with some of the best documentaries of the year.
One advantage that Arijon had over most documentary filmmakers is that he already knew many of the survivors, having grown up in the same region of Montevideo, Uruguay, so he was able to tell their personal story in a way that was comprehensive and truthful, but also tasteful and sensitive both to those who survived and those who lost their lives in the horrifying ordeal.
Since so much of the movie is based on interviews with the survivors, there’s obviously a lot of talking in the movie, and as ComingSoon.net found out when we sat down with the South American director, he could talk quite a bit himself, so that we really only had to ask a few questions during our half-hour interview.
ComingSoon.net: I understand that you’re from Montevideo and knew some of the people who were on the plane that crashed, but did you know them back when the crash happened?
Gonzalo Arijon: Some of the survivors I knew them from before the crash, like Roberto, Carnessa, Gustavo, Sarvino, Carlito. They are older then me but Montevideo is a very little city and we know each other. I don’t play rugby, but I play football, and some of them play football, too (soccer), and then I know some of them from before. I felt the accident very close and I lost some friends on the plane, and when they reappeared two and a half months after, I was so shocked, like all the people. During all these years, I became closer to five or six survivors, perhaps because I lived through it and because I was so impressed and so moved by the experience. Then I became a filmmaker, then time passed. Talking with them a lot, because some of them need to speak a lot, like Roberto and Nando, trying to understand what really happened and why destiny put them in this radical experience. I realized that they’re making an extraordinary work with this story, and I tried to understand in a better way in a symbolic way, in a philosophical way, and then I felt that all these levels of the story, nobody really caught that. I said to myself, one day I must do this film, but I was not in a hurry and for me, it was very important to work with the whole group. I didn’t know the whole group at this time, then I said to myself, “One day I will do it.”
Then five years ago when they decided to celebrate in a way the 30 years of this tragedy, going together with their families from Montevideo to Santiago by plane, the same trip to finally play, in a symbolic way of coursethey were 50-somethingthe rugby game they never played, they invited me, because I became closer and closer. I was a documentary filmmaker for a long time, so they knew that I have this project. They said, “Gonzalo, come and be with us this Sunday in Santiago.” It was a very moving Sunday, and I realized that Sunday when I saw the 16 survivors going inside the field to play this match, I felt that the whole group was ready.
Then I started working on my proposal to the group and it took a lot of time to convince the whole group. Some of them, two or three, never talk and (thought) “Why relive this today?” It was funny because about 12 survivors were with me and they pushed the others and put pressure on them in a good way, “Let’s do it together once. Perhaps this time, we will be happier” because the book is a very good book, Piers Paul Read wrote this just after the fact. Then the Hollywood film came, and the survivors put a lot of hope in the film, and in the end, they said, “Okay, it’s a nice film, the film treats the delicate parts of our story in a good way, but it’s just that. It’s an entertainment film.” In a way, they were looking for how to transmit in a better way their experience. They said, “Okay, perhaps Gonzalo, who is close to us and he’s Uruguayan, so perhaps it’s a matter of culture, because this story was always treated by North America or Europe, then let’s try.” I spent about four years of my life searching for the finances, convincing the group, filming, editing for around one year. It was a very huge experience for me.
CS: Were the survivors looking for some sort of closure by making the film with you?
Arijon: Yes, I think in a way, for them, it was, “Let’s try to make a serious work with Gonzalo, who is very motivated and he understands us, and let’s close that.” The material I have is so rich and powerful that I can tell the story in many different ways. I decided to tell the story in this way. For instance, I have a great sequence about the first night up there. At the end of editing, I cut it because you have to cut some things and the first night doesn’t exist. How the relatives lived during this period of being anxious, I decided finally to focus on the group, then I have just very few statements from outside of the group. In a sense, I can say that all these different films are good and true, but I decided to go into the film in this way. I had huge decisions to make in the editing room, because they trusted me totally and I had the feeling they were naked in front of my camera. Sometimes, they told me some things, nothing extraordinary, nothing secretthere are no secrets. One of the biggest points of this story is there are no secrets, because a lot of time, people can imagine… “Yeah, but we don’t know all the things that happened up there.” There are no secrets. There are just delicate points. I managed these delicate points with my ethics. For instance, one of the rules they had was never to say which bodies were used and which bodies weren’t. I remember two survivors in a very natural way told me who was the first body, and then I decided not to put in the movie. It’s not important. Then a lot of choices like this but it was a very huge experience. For me, one of the challenges was after making the film, trying to be closer to them and be more friends with them. It’s the point today. They support the film a lot and we are closer. This was one of my challenges of the film.
CS: As far as visiting the site where the plane crashed and where they were stranded, was that a mutual decision? I noticed you did do some interviews there, so were those all done separately or always together as a group?
Arijon: Ah, yeah. This kind of trip, they started to do it a few years ago. The first thirty years, nobody thought about returning to this horrible place. The only exception was Nando who lost his mother and his sister, and then he visited the common grave up there. He went every year, either alone or with his father, by foot or by horse. You can reach this place by horse; it’s a two-day extraordinary trip from the Argentine side in the summer time.
CS: There’s no easier way to get there now with all the modern transport in the last 30 years?
Arijon: Just by horse and just one person can allow you to go up there. They protect the place. For me, it was very important when I saw that they returned more and more often with their relatives, trying to perhaps find something on this place. It could seem strange, because I remember in my film, they said that when they were finally on the helicopters, they were very happy because one of the most extraordinary moments of their life was when they returned to life. At the same time, they were thinking that they’re going from a place where they lived (and where) very strong things and important things (happened) for them. Perhaps, they’re returning there to try and reach this other experience and share this with their daughters and sons. There are a few sequences that are very moving in the film on this site. Up there, I filmed three very important sequences. The sequence when they are in front of the common grave, it was very moving for me to be there. It was a very intimate situation and it was a gift they give to me to be there, to be part of this moment. It was a very strong moment of the film, and a lot of the general sense of the film passes through this sequence.
There’s also the sequence with the survivors and their daughters and sons, very interesting ones. I wanted to sit them at the exact place where the plane was, but the mountain guides were very nervous because it was a little bit dangerous. Now, the plane is inside the ice, but with the photograph and GPS, we put them exactly in the place because I wanted them to connect to the place between them. The four survivors that made this trip with me, when I told them to sit thereit was a very open spacethey sat very close one to the other. They were sitting just like they were sitting on the plane, then I made a corrective sequence where they talked all together, and it was a very interesting way of talking about the story (by having them together, rather than separately.)
CS: Can you talk about the recreations you did to tell their story? Did you actually go back to the original location and do some shooting there in that exact valley?
Arijon: (chuckles) I always imagined that I needed in this film some kind of footage that is not really documentary, but not reenactments. There is no dialogue or actions. It’s just like fragments of their memories, just to put the viewer in the good climax to really appreciate and feel better how the survivors are talking to us. I took this freedom and I was lucky that I did it with a very well known director of photography, who is very close to me and to the survivors, César Charlone, he was the director of photography of “Blindness,” of “City of God,” of “The Constant Gardener.” He was supposed to be on this plane, but he missed it because he was in love with a Brazilian girl and he missed the plane, so I proposed to him that he must make this film with me. He said, “Of course, yes, I must.” My first idea was to put a broken fuselage on the mountains, but I don’t have money, it was just a documentary budget, but I was trying and trying and it didn’t work. Then César came and said, “Gonzalo, you don’t have money. In Latin America in general we don’t have money but we must have ideas but if not, we cannot make films. The general spirit of the images you want to do are very expressionistic and very over-exposed and like a dream or a nightmare, then it’s not important. Stop thinking to put this on the mountain and put this plane wherever you can. We must find a solution.” Then I have the idea to put the plane on a beach in Uruguay and César said, “Great!” Because without any visual FX, just opening the frame of the camera, the sand became snow, then 90% of this film we shot on the beach, trying not to shoot the water and the trees and have problems with the ecologists who don’t like we put a plane in a dune. 10%, the final expedition, we did it in the Andes, very close to the real place, without fuselage, only with three young actors.
CS: You were in Uruguay at the time when this movie happened, so what was going on for those two and a half months when they were lost? We see some of the search for them and then finding them at the end but there’s all this time in between. Did most people just give up on them and they just showed up one day? What happened and what was going on back home?
Arijon: A lot of relatives of theirs, after they stopped searching, and mostly one of them who is in the film, Carlito’s father, he didn’t stop searching. He searched the whole time and some other fathers, too. This is the other side of the story. They found planes, they made a lot of flights, they made expeditions by horse, they consulted with psychics, and some of them didn’t stop searching. A lot of the mothers had very strong feelings that their sons were alive, and one of them felt her son was alive but one day, she felt he’s not alive anymore. Very interesting, but this is another film, and I focused on the group and on this close world with some little statements from the outside.
CS: Do you have another film in you to show the other side that could accompany this film? Or have you already spent enough time on this story?
Arijon: I think yes, I did my work on this story. I did my best and I have to move to another subject now, but it was a very huge experience for me, as a man and a filmmaker and it was very different from the other films I’ve done before. I never realized that the feedback from the public at all these festivals around the world could be so great, so powerful. One of my friends said to me, “Perhaps you will make a lot of extraordinary films from now, but the quality and power of the feedback for this film is very difficult to have twice in a life.”
CS: Did the survivors want to see the movie or did they already feel like they had relived it and closed that chapter?
Arijon: Yes, they did, but they were a little bit nervous when they see the condition was that they see the movie, just the survivors, the director of photography and me, and nobody else in a cinema in Montevideo. It was a difficult moment for them, because they gave me all, and (they wondered) “What did Gonzalo do with all this?” No matter that we like him or we love him, but what will be this film? They were very moved. We hugged each other, we cried together, and from this day, they support my work. They travel with me sometimes.
CS: How many of them went to Sundance when the film premiered there?
Arijon: Just one of them. Roberto went to Sundance and then Fito is here with me in New York. I think around ten or twelve survivors were with the film around the world in South Africa, Spain, Brazil, Chile, Japan, where it’s at this moment at the Tokyo Film Festival. I’m very unhappy when I can’t go to a festival but a survivor said, “I’ll go and support you.” The life of the film is very interesting, how the film goes out to the world and how the survivors feel this film.
CS: At the screening you mentioned, were the families of the survivors there, too, or just the survivors?
Arijon: Just the survivors. I didn’t want the families, and they, too. We agreed on this part, because I was a little bit afraid if their wives were there because 16 characters are too much for a film, and the 16 characters are not at the same level in the film. Then egos can come into it, I imagined the wife telling the husband, “You are just a few minutes…” Little things that then I wanted just the group and they, too. They don’t want the relatives and we talked about some delicate sequences. I argued why they were there and I didn’t cut that, but they had respect of my work and their experience, and they accepted my position, so it has a happy ending.
CS: When people know what the movie is about, they might get a little nervous about seeing it, but the cannibalism aspect of their story is handled very tastefully. Has the movie actually screened in Montevideo yet?
Arijon: Not yet, because the group has the right to decide if this film will be shown in Uruguay or not, because of the sensitivity to the other families and all this, so we waited, but now the group has decided to show the movie in Uruguay, so I think the movie will open there in cinemas next March, and all of Latin America, too.
Stranded: I Have Come From a Plane That Crashed in the Mountains is now playing in New York at the Film Forum. Gonzalo will be at the 6:40pm screening on Friday, October 24 if you have any further questions.