‘Stranded’ documents triumph over tragedy
September 24, 2008
ASPEN ” In the recent documentary “Encounters at the End of the World,” filmmaker Werner Herzog puts himself in the middle of the action by guiding, narrating and offering a point of view on the human activity around McMurdo Station, in Antarctica. Expect Bill Maher to take a similar approach, though with a far different tone, in “Religulous,” which has Maher traveling to the world’s holy sites to talk to people about religion. (“Religulous,” directed by Larry Charles, showed this past week at Aspen Filmfest, and opens in limited national release on Oct. 1.)
Gonzalo Arijon plays no such role in “Stranded: I Have Come from a Plane that Crashed in the Mountains.” The 49-year-old Uruguayan cannot be heard or seen in his documentary about the 1972 plane crash that left 45 people, mostly members of an amateur rugby team, on a snowy mountaintop in the Andes. Nor does Arijon inject his thoughts on the episode into the movie. There is a distinctive cinematic flair to “Stranded,” in the hazy, evocative scenes that re-create both the action and the sense of disorientation. But from the viewer’s perspective, he leaves himself well outside of the story.
Or does he? In fact, Arijon comes a lot closer to putting himself in the frame than might be sensed. The director is not telling the story from a far remove. Arijon grew up in the same upper-class Montevideo neighborhood as most of the crash victims and, though he was a decade younger, knew many of them from local soccer games. So the film’s distinguishing characteristic ” the deep reflective thinking on the incident that raises “Stranded” to a meditation on death, faith and human connections ” comes directly from the way Arijon relates to his interview subjects, the men who survived the crash.
“They trust me a lot. They put all their confidence in me. They said, ‘Gonzalo, we’ll talk about all,'” said Arijon by phone from California.
Arijon seems to have spent nearly as much time contemplating the crash as the survivors have. A filmmaker with a specialty in sports videos, and based in Paris the last 20 years, he interviewed the survivors in 2002, on the 30th anniversary of the episode. Satisfied that they were prepared to look back in a meaningful way, he conducted on-camera interviews in a setting meant to draw out memories and reflections.
“I ask them to give me 24 hours of their time, each of them,” said Arijon, who spent the last four years solid on “Stranded.” “I took them to a very peaceful place in Uruguay and we worked together. It was like a retreat for them. It wasn’t like an interview, but like a conversation. They tell me they are naked, that they talked to me like they never talked before.”
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Even the settings for those talks were calculated. Most of them took place outdoors, in view of mountains. Some topics were filmed during daytime, others at night, depending on the effect Arijon wanted to evoke. Arijon asked the subjects to wait 30 seconds before answering a question. “This kind of conversation, this friendship, is quite exceptional, this quality of statement,” he said.
The topics that emerge ” physical hardship, fear, and the big taboo of cannibalism ” are predictable. But they are addressed in an extraordinary way.
“It’s very philosophical,” said Arijon. “They transformed the experience. Because we talk about all the very important things ” friendship, solidarity, love. And how life can win the battle against death. It’s got all the elements of a universal tragedy. After two hours, you not only hear from them, you support them, you are like them.”
For a film about a plane crash, “Stranded” doesn’t play much like a horror tale.
“For me, it was not the point,” said Arijon. “The point was telling the story in a spiritual way and not entering into the horrible things. Life is much more important than death in this story.”