Just watched the 2007 documentary Stranded on dvd with my friend Dave. The movie chronicles the 72 days a Uruguayan rugby team spent stranded in the Andes when their airplane crashed in 1972. Their remarkable story—sensationalized back in the 1970s because survivors ate the flesh of their dead friends, out of necessity—depicts the power of cooperation and hope in desperate circumstances.
I didn’t expect to like the film as much as I did. The re-enactments blend seamlessly with interviews (conducted by filmmaker Gonzalo Arijon, a longtime friend of the men) and photographs and film footage from the early seventies. And, while not shrinking from the horrifying details of the hard decisions forced on the young men, the movie manages not to exploit the lurid aspects of the tale, mainly by keeping its focus on the vivid sense details recalled by those who experienced them.
What especially impresses me in the film is its nearly Bressonian spirituality, as the men look back on the pivotal point in their lives, when they feared and even came to accept that their young lives were over.
What kept them alive? Apparently, a number of things—faith, anger, brotherly love, scientific knowledge, ingenuity, pugnacity, level-headedness, courage, realism, empathy, collaboration, sacrifice, sense of destiny, fear, despair, logic, and love of life.
I suppose what meant the most to me was how the men formed a makeshift society, instinctively sensing that individually they were powerless against overwhelming circumstances—the plane crash itself, starvation, severe cold, avalanches, and diminishing hopes of outside rescue or divine intervention. Whereas most survivor stories focus on individual resilience or providence, this film emphasizes relationships.
Several of the interviewees use the word “society” over and over to describe the bonds they formed, almost by animal instinct, to survive. Sometimes they even divided their two-month ordeal along lines of “pre-avalanche society” versus “post-avalanche society,” emphasizing the constant transformation of the group dynamic to suit each new challenge.
The society shifted quickly from hierarchy (with all eyes turning to the rugby team captain for leadership) to egalitarian interdependence. Sometimes their actions were instinctual—as when, after the avalanche, they clambered over each other like ants attempting to rescue as many of their comrades as possible. Sometimes they built consensus—as when, in reaching the hard decision to eat the dead, the sense of what must be done spread gradually and those who opposed such action as sacrilege came to be persuaded by their own values, that pragmatic usage of the human body was not inconsistent with the Christian eucharist. Sometimes they pooled together, deliberately strengthening a select few to pursue missions that would benefit them all, pampering them “like racehorces,” willingly sacrificing their independent interests for the common good.
The movie does not luxuriate in emotion. Instead, with the same stoic, firm resolve that drove the rugby players, it accepts the ravages of chance and nature—it honors the victims and finds humility in the heroes … and dignity in the midst of unspeakable horror.