“I have a very vivid memory of the day we left,” says Gustavo Zerbino. That day was 13 October, 1972 and, as recounted in Stranded: I’ve Come From a Plane That Crashed in the Mountains, the “Christian Brothers” rugby team was on its way from Montevideo’s Old Carrasco Airport to Santiago, Chile, where they were to play in a match. 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 recalls, “I had never had any real problems in my life until then. I led a peaceful, smooth, pleasant life.” As Roberto Canessa smiles, “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.
The Aire Forde twin turboprop carried 45 players, coaches, family members, and friends. Just south of Curicó, over the Andes, the plane went down. The 14 survivors’ story would become famous, not only because they would be found 72 days later, but also because they admitted to eating their teammates’ bodies in order to live.
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 grants the survivors a chance to speak directly to the camera: Canessa contemplates the randomness of what happened. “I don’t know if there was some dark force that decided, instead of using guinea pigs, to put some humans in the snow,” he 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.”
The conditions for such “managing” were cruel. 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 (blurry figures at a distance, illegibly intense close-ups of hands or eyes), reshaped in the film’s mobile frame into grainy close-ups, each face 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 imply self-awareness, a sense of a future audience.
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.”
As dismayed as they were, the young 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 either way. Rather, it presents the survivors’ memories of trauma and responsibility, of fear and unity. It doesn’t ponder the accuracy of those memories, but renders them as unsettling, elusive, subjective truths.