Humans in the Snow
“I don’t know if there was some dark force that decided, instead of using guinea pigs, to put some humans in the snow,” Roberto Canessa says. “We will put young people who will be more resilient, from a certain social and cultural background, mainly university students and athletes, in order to see how long this social group, which is quite privileged in terms of physical endurance, education, and religious convictions… could manage or hold out.” He’s remembering a plane crash on 13 October, 1972. He and 44 rugby teammates, along with coaches, family members, and friends, went down in the Aire Forde twin turboprop just south of Curicó, over the Andes. Only 14 survived.
Their story became famous, not only because they were found 72 days after the crash—having survived horrific weather conditions, physical injuries, and emotional distress—but also because they admitted to eating their teammates’ bodies in order to live. The ordeal of the “Christian Brothers” rugby team is recounted in Gonzalo Arijón’s provocative documentary Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed in the Mountains, premiering as part of Independent Lens19 May. As they look back on their journey—from Montevideo’s Old Carrasco Airport to the mountain (they were en route to Santiago, Chile, where they were to play in a match), is at once a riveting adventure and deeply moving meditation on existence and will.
“I have a very vivid memory of the day we left,” says Gustavo Zerbino. Teammate Roy Harley remembers that he “had left without saying goodbye to my mother, we had quarreled because of some silly thing I had done.” Javier Methol was on the plane “by accident,” he says, in an unexpectedly spare seat, and anticipated “a nice little holiday.” Eduardo Strauch says, “I had never had any real problems in my life until then. I led a peaceful, smooth, pleasant life.” And as Canessa recalls, “We were like frisky young colts starting out in life who imagine the entire world to be like their native valley,” the film shows tranquil suburban streets: homes with lawns, children on bicycles.
Their story has been the focus of Piers Paul Read’s book, Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors as well as Frank Marshall’s 1993 film Alive, starring Ethan Hawke. Stranded gives the survivors a chance to speak “for themselves,” but as they speak, it’s clear that their feelings about the trauma remain conflicted. Twelve people died in the crash or soon after. By the following morning, five more were dead of their injuries, another a week later. Zerbino says, “I opened my eyes. Less than a foot away from me was a body… to get out, I had to step on her chest. I had become a primitive being from another culture or place.” The 27 survivors looked out on snow as far as they could see. Adolfo Stauch remembers his first reaction: “When I came to, I thought I was at home in bed at my parents’ home.” The film shows his fantasy, a reenactment glimpsed through a window, smudged and distant. “I rejected that reality,” he remembers, as José-Luis Inciarte describes what faced them in the mountains: “You want to cover your eyes and ears, get the hell out of the place, but when you turn to run out, you see the plane is gone. There’s nothing behind you. In the back, my friend Gaston is gone. There’s a big hole. All you see is snow. It’s snowing.”
The endless whiteness of their new environment would come to reflect and affect the survivors’ evolving “society”—whose number would dwindle to 14 by the time they were rescued two days before Christmas (this only when Canessa and Fernando Parrado walked 44 miles from the crash site to be discovered by a Chilean shepherd). They took a couple of photographs—one on board the plane as it took off, another at the crash site (named the Valley of Tears). These are eerier than the film’s conventionally ghostly reenactments, which offer blurry figures at a distance, illegibly intense close-ups of hands or eyes. In the still photos take on another sort of life as the frame moves over them restlessly, grainy close-ups of faces turned to the camera, suggesting a different sort of self-awareness. Whether posing for the trip’s start, full of hope, or documenting their survival, both shots suggest the subjects imagined a future audience, though they could never have conjured the events that lay ahead.
As in Kevin Macdonald’s Touching the Void, the reenactments illustrate subjective states—what it felt like to move a corpse, how isolated each man felt when a 29 October avalanche buried the fuselage they had come to see as shelter (eight more people died on this night, including their charismatic team captain, Marcelo Perez). (This and other avalanches, Zerbino notes, were the mountain’s “way of showing us it wasn’t lifeless, that it was alive.”) These impressionistic images don’t provide plot or solicit sympathy so much as they evoke anxiety: as Javier Methol remembers removing his wife Liliana’s body from the plane, the film reenacts his kneeling by her lifeless form in long shot, their edges indistinct, as if being swallowed by the overwhelming whiteness all around them. “I saw her there about three days,” he narrates, before she was buried by another avalanche. “I never saw her again, she’s inside now,” the present day Methol says, pointing to his heart.
As disturbing as the reenactments may be, they can hardly represent the feelings of men wrestling with their choice to eat human flesh. Listening to a radio they found in the wreckage, the teammates realized that, after several days, the searchers were unable to continue because of severe weather. Parrado says, “I realized we were doomed, they had not found us, we would never get out. They had put men on the moon, but they couldn’t find us in four days.”
Dismayed and depleted, the men contemplated a next step. Canessa says, “We also saw that we were gradually moving away from the world we had known. The rupture that began with the accident was growing. We were forced to make choices that we would have never made before. A new society was developing in which money was paper, water had to be created, in which a dead body could become the food that I needed.” Zerbino remembers his first bite of flesh, “I went like this,” he imitates retching, then falls out of the film’s frame, “and I swallowed it.”
Canessa observes, “At that moment, we were taking a leap into the unknown, into uncertainty. We had no idea if we had reached a terribly sophisticated level of civilization or we were on our way to becoming primitive savages.” The film doesn’t judge their decision. Rather, it presents the survivors’ memories of anguish and responsibility, fear and community. It doesn’t ponder the accuracy of those memories, but presents them in unsettling and elusive images, subjective truths made unnervingly visible.