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'Society of the Snow' director on his framing of the plane crash survival story


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. The 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. He told me that visiting the crash site was essential to understanding the survivors' stories.

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 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. And it was very impressive, you know? To me, 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.

DETROW: Yeah. The muffling of the snow - and the visuals, too. I mean, there are 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 isolation of the survivors just out there by themselves with no other living thing in sight. I mean, you know, I want to ask 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 on 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 themself in the tale. The tale basically was all about the rugby team, the heroes that came back from the mountain, the cannibalism, you know, which...


BAYONA: ...The story is about that, but that's - when you read the book that they wrote, it's a small part of a story that is 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 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 they - these people gave themselves to the other ones, that kind of, like, ritual where they offered their bodies in case - if their friends needed it. It's kind of like - it's a very transcendental act - you know? - like, this extreme way of generosity. You know, 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 one of the elements of their story that is the most famous, the fact that the survivors decided, in order to stay alive, 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 just, you know, kind of the guilt that comes with it. But you, as a filmmaker, also had to make decisions of how to show that on-screen. And a lot of - I mean, 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 try 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 doing 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. So there was only one chance, you know?

And actually, it was very interesting to get into their minds. These guys were people that were in college, so some of them were studying medicine. Some of them were studying law. And they approached this subject matter from all the perspective, in a very calm way, talking about everything, all of them together. And then after this, 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, you know, 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.

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 was very important that the film will pay justice to the experience they went through. I think at the end, what isn't 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 - you know? - 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, you know? So to me, that was, at the end, what puts these people in common - you know? - the way they gave to the other ones, they offered the - to the other ones, knowing that they were all part of the same thing.

DETROW: That's Juan Antonio Bayona, director of "Society Of The Snow." It's out on Netflix now. Thank you so much.

BAYONA: Thank you so much, Scott. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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