Gonzalo Arijon: "It's About Miracles"

By David D'Arcy

Gonzalo ArijonThere's a grim painting from 1793-4 in Madrid by Francisco de Goya called The Shipwreck that shows the survivors of a wreck, mostly sprawled out on rocks, with others crawling to safety from the water. A woman with elegant clothes that have been turned to rags lifts her arms up to the stormy sky, more out of despair than out of faith. These are survivors, but for how long?

It reminds you of a photograph from Gonzalo Arijon's documentary Stranded: I've Come from a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains, that shows the snow-covered side of a mountain, with ten survivors of the crash of the October 1972 flight that was taking 29 Uruguayans to a rugby match in Chile. The men - privileged kids from a suburb of Montevideo that defined comfort - are looking up at the helicopter where someone with a camera is taking their picture. A staggering story will follow.

Stranded brings a page from the Book of Job to the image of The Shipwreck. Once the plane crashed, the snow kept rescue planes away, and an avalanche in the middle of the night killed eight of those who lived after the plane slammed into the mountainside. When food ran out, the survivors drew on their dead friends for sustenance. How's that for teamwork. We all know the story. The horror and the novelty spawned the overnight bestseller, Alive, in 1973, and a Hollywood film, and finally this documentary that premiered at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam in 2007 that gallows humorists are calling Eating Raoul II.

Arijon's expansion of a much-told story re-enacts the flight from Montevideo over the Andes, avoiding the sentimentality or self-importance or exaggeration. The men who are around now to tell that story aren't railing against their misfortune. Shaking their heads, as perplexed as they have been for the last 30 years to have lived when their closest friends died, they view their survival after 70 days of being stranded as much as a mystery as it was a miracle.

Yet the documentary about a subject that already proved it could reach a huge audience hasn't reached one in its first few weeks of a commercial release - in spite of the fact that it can play in English or Spanish. If Lost can be a big enough television hit to have saved ABC and Disney from financial losses, what happened to Stranded in the marketplace?

Of course, all isn't lost. Far from it. Stranded is still playing in New York and Los Angeles. Before the release, I caught up with Gonzalo Arijon last month at the Middle East International Film Festival, where Stranded made its regional premiere.

StrandedWhy make a film about events that the entire world has known about?

The reason to make this film is not because I have a revelation or another version of the facts. The story is the story that the very famous book, Alive, told. In general terms, it is the same story. For me, the real reason to do it is to share a lot of time with them, because they are my friends, talking about this experience, a lot of days and nights, during a lot of years. I realized that they tried to understand the deep meaning of this experience, why destiny put them in this situation, and what is the moral of this story. I saw them trying to share this experience with their relatives, with their families, with their daughters and sons. It's a philosophical tale.

On one level you have the facts. There are no revelations. But I feel that we are speaking about a lot of very important subjects, like solidarity, friendship, love, about how strong life is against death, about the importance of a group. I was looking at all these other works about the incident, and I was hoping that perhaps one guy would understand the whole meaning of the story. And then time passed, and we finally decided to do it. For me, it's the same story in a totally different way. The book was very good. It was very good, but it was written right after the facts, and it was just the facts. But afterward, the survivors said, "Okay, but what about our feelings."

Of course, feelings can be difficult, and take time to be expressed. When they decided to celebrate the 30th anniversary of this tragedy, playing the symbolic game they never played, because they took this plane to play a rugby match. They were around 55, five years ago, and they went all together to Santiago de Chile in one plane, crossing the same cordillera to play in this symbolic game. I was there with my camera, because they invited me, and I felt the group is ready, the whole group is ready because it was very important to make the film with the whole group, and not only with some characters.

Couldn't you have told the story through any one of those characters?

I found, of course, a lot of side stories. I think, through this work, the book and the film and the news coverage, that I know all the stories out there. There are no mysteries for me. I decided not to put certain thoughts into the films, because it's my film, and I have my own moral to this story. And even if, in a moment of friendship, they shared with me a delicate point, I have the right to make the decision to show this to the audience or not. It's not enough that they shared it with me. I don't automatically have the right to share that with the audience. I have my own idea of what's private, and what is not.

Of course, I decided not to share certain details. With this footage, I could have made 30 different films. And this is not even the official story. I can make 20 stories like this. I could have chosen to concentrate on the first night. I didn't because it would have been much longer. I could have focused on the crash, on the relationship of Javier and his wife, on how the relatives dealt with all of this time in the dark - in the first version, I had a section on the mother of Marcelo, the captain of the team; finally I cut it, because I was focusing on the group. I had a lot. I can make a very huge bonus track.
 

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