"It was my destiny to direct this movie."
Out of the mouths of most directors, a statement like that might sound like the height of Hollywood glibness. Coming from Gonzalo Arijon, the Uruguayan documentarian behind "Stranded: I've Come From a Plane That Crashed on the Mountains" (which opened theatrically Friday), however, such an utterance arrives with the smack of truth. By dint of his connection to his subjects, the Paris-based filmmaker was in all likelihood the only person capable of shedding new light on a harrowing real-life survival ordeal that seems to have lost little of its lurid infamy or inspirational power after 36 years in the public consciousness.
The story told in "Stranded" is already a cause celebre, the subject of two feature films and an international bestseller. In 1972, a small plane carrying a high school-affiliated rugby team from Montevideo, Uruguay, to Santiago, Chile, crash-landed on a remote glacier in the Andes mountains. Almost half its passengers died upon impact and the mostly teenage survivors were forced to endure unspeakable hardships -- avalanches and starvation, abject hopelessness and deadly cold. Of the 25 who did not initially perish, 16 people survived more than 10 weeks in the freezing wilderness by doing the unthinkable: They subsisted on the flesh of their teammates and loved ones. In the end, survivors Roberto Canessa and Fernando "Nando" Parrado had to walk 44 miles, cresting summits as high as 13,000 feet, to locate help.
In his award-winning film, which was an official selection at the Sundance Film Festival this year, Arijon interviews every one of the survivors, and stands out as the only person ever to obtain complete cooperation from the entire group. He coaxed new testimonials about how they came to view cannibalism -- what time and again in "Stranded" is referred to as "taking food" -- as something more than just a necessary evil; it was a rite akin to taking Holy Communion. And for the first time, he got the survivors to talk about how they implemented a societal order in the midst of chaos to prevent themselves from losing their humanity.
"We saw that we were gradually moving away from the world we had known," Canessa says in "Stranded." "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.
"We had no idea if we had reached a terribly sophisticated level of civilization or we were on our way to becoming primitive savages."
In the world of documentaries, access is everything. And it turns out that Arijon (whose filmography is largely composed of serious-minded documentaries such as "Brazil: Managing a Dream" and "The Dark Side of Milosevic") counts four of the men who survived the crash among his best friends. A fellow Montevideo native, he befriended them as a young teenager, bonding with them over soccer.
In 2002, on the 30th anniversary of the tragedy, Arijon's friends invited him to film a rugby match against the Chilean team they had been en route to play when their plane crashed. All 16 survivors would be taking the same journey from Montevideo to Santiago, flying over the cordillera that had claimed their family and friends, to play a symbolic game (footage of it can be seen under the credits in "Stranded"). When Arijon got to Santiago, the director and some of the survivors realized the larger opportunity at hand.
"They said, 'Gonzalo, you must make a film. You have everyone you need,' " Arijon recalled. "The same helicopter with the rescue pilots and the shepherd who found [Canessa and Parrado] wandering on the mountain was there. I had the whole group. It was a good time to officially propose it."
But some in the tightknit group were initially wary. Less complete versions of their story had been told several times before, after all: in British writer Piers Paul Read's 1974 international bestseller "Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors," the low-budget Mexican-produced exploitation film "Survive!" (1976) and, most memorably, in the 1993 Ethan Hawke-starring drama "Alive." Arijon cites that Frank Marshall-directed movie in particular as having caused a fissure among the survivors.
"That film wasn't good for the group," Arijon said, seated by the pool of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. "Nando became an advisor. But not everyone became a character in 'Alive,' some were left out. And they were not very happy because this delicate subject became an entertainment. I don't go into this in my film, but money changed their relationship."
Nonetheless, he landed the cooperation of 11 survivors and began filming with the help of another person intimately acquainted with the group; Cesar Charlone, "Stranded's" Oscar-nominated cinematographer, grew up in Montevideo with many of the survivors and counts "Nando" Parrado as one of his best friends. Charlone ("City of God," "The Constant Gardener") was on the passenger list for the doomed flight but, traveling from Brazil at the time, he missed his connection.
"When I proposed to him to shoot this film, he can't say no even if he had a lot of other work and money," Arijon said.
Those who had been interviewed pressured the holdouts to cooperate with the filmmakers; in time, all the survivors consented to go in front of the camera. Arijon explained that some of them valued the chance to reevaluate and amplify their testimonies, some not having spoken publicly of their experiences on the mountain since speaking to Read for "Alive" more than three decades earlier. "The survivors told me the book became their story," Arijon explained. "That if it wasn't in the book, it wasn't true even if it was in their minds."
In one of the last scenes in "Stranded," a small group of the survivors visits the common grave at the crash site, also known as the Valley of Tears. With them are their sons and daughters, to whom the survivors explain the bond they retain to the departed. ("The spirit of my dead friends isn't inside me," Canessa says, ". . . I can feel them floating around me.") The message about cannibalism is explicit: Death resulted in the creation of new life.
"They are still trying to understand the meaning of this experience. But if you think about it, there are all the ingredients of a Greek tragedy, of a philosophical extreme," Arijon said. "They broke a taboo and went to another dimension. They crossed a border. Destiny put them in this horrible situation. And from this horrible story, they made a love story."