They crashed in the mountains and turned to cannibalism. He focuses on the humanity
In October 1972, a plane carrying members of a rugby team from Uruguay, among others, crashed in the Andes.
A group of survivors lived through the plane crash, only to face the frigid cold and snow of the mountains, avalanches and, most famously, a lack of food.
As they fought for their lives for more than two months, they fed themselves by cannibalizing the bodies of those who had already died.
This story of the crash and its aftermath has been told before, but in the hands of director Juan Antonio Bayona, who based his film Society of the Snow on the book of the same name, we see a uniquely human side of the survivors.
Bayona spoke with All Things Considered host Scott Detrow about trying to capture the survivors' spirits and the "very transcendental act" of how they lived.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Juan Antonio Bayona: So the first thing I did was to go to the Valley of the Tears, in the Argentinian side of the Andes where the plane crashed. And I was there at the same time of the year. So I was able to sleep there in a small camp and to experience the altitude sickness, to experience the sense of loneliness that you have there. It was very impressive. I was very impressed, not only about the sight of those mountains — this is the biggest mountain range on earth — but also about the silence. When you are there, there's nothing alive, so the only thing that you can hear is yourself.
Scott Detrow: Yeah, the muffling of the snow and and the visuals too. I mean, there's so many scenes in the movie where it seems like they're almost specks against an entirely white backdrop and you can just feel the the isolation of the survivors just out there by themselves with no other living thing in sight. I want to ask about about the dead for a moment, because I introduced this story the way it's most often told: through the survivors, the people who made it back. But most of the people in that flight died, and your film is very intentional about incorporating their stories into it. Why was that so important to you?
Bayona: Well, actually, it was the survivors who decided 36 years after the plane crash to write another book, because they didn't recognize themselves in the tale. The tale, basically, was all about the rugby team, the heroes that came back from the mountain, the cannibalism. Which, the story is about that, but when you read the book that they wrote, it's a small part of a story — it's about love, about generosity in the most extreme way. So it was like a story written against the story, you know, that was in the popular minds.
Detrow: I mean, there's a lot of spirituality in the movie. Many of the people trying to survive are deeply religious. But as the movie goes on, you see more and more of a faith in each other, a faith in their community that really comes to comes to bear in terms of what they say, but also what they do, how they treat each other.
Bayona: Which is more about the spirituality, more than religion. I think there is something beautiful in the way these people gave themselves to the other ones, that kind of like ritual where they offer their bodies in case their friends needed it. It's a very transcendental act, you know, like this extreme way of generosity. There's something transcendental about that idea. So to me, it's more about a spirituality and finding that God could be everywhere.
Detrow: I mean, you're talking about about one of the elements of their story that is the most famous, the fact that the survivors decided, in order to stay alive, they they had to eat the bodies of the people who had died. You show the characters struggle with that decision. You show them thinking about it, putting it off, going through the guilt that comes with it. But you as a filmmaker also had to make decisions of how to show that on screen. And the most horrific part of it, the cutting up the bodies, mostly happens off screen. You talked before about being respectful of their stories. How did you think through how to show this important part of the story in the right way?
Bayona: To me, it was all about getting into their minds and trying to feel the story the way they felt it in the mountain. These people, the first day they did that, they felt miserable. They felt terrible, the most miserable people on earth. The day after they were done, a queue, a line to get their portions of food. So the taboo was broken very fast because they were starving in a way that we cannot understand. It's the kind of hunger that you have after being five days, six days, not eating anything and knowing that there is nothing to eat.
And actually, it was very interesting to get into their minds. These guys were people that were in college — some of them were studying medicine, some of them were studying law — and they approached the subject matter from all the perspective in a very calm way, talking about everything, all of them together. And then after days, they decided that they had to do it because there was no option, which is very interesting, the way they get to this massive consensus between all of them. I think that's what makes the experience so remarkable the way they talk about things, listening to everybody, and not forcing anybody to do anything against their will.
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Detrow: You talked to these survivors. You included them in the process. What was it they wanted the most from this film? Going into it, given all of the other ways it's been portrayed over the years, what did they tell you was most important to them?
Bayona: For them it was very important that the film will pay justice to the experience they went through. I think at the end what is in there is this idea that we are all part of the same thing. There is this line, someone telling Roberto Canessa, "You have the strongest legs. You need to walk for us." And to me, in that line, there is the unconscious realization that you and I are the same thing. And by doing so, I think you're touching something transcendental as we were talking before. This way of understanding that we are all part of the same thing. There's no one more important than the other ones here in the plane. So to me, that was at the end what puts these people in common. The way they gave to the other ones, they offered to the other ones, knowing that they were all part of the same thing.
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