Flying Solo

Tonight, I watched two hours about survivors. No, it did not involve immunity challenges, tribal councils, or Jeff Probst’s “the tribe has spoken.” It was the premiere of a documentary I found out about last week. Entitled Sole Survivor, it documents plane crash sole survivor George Lamson Jr.’s quest to find and connect with other sole survivors of plane crashes – according to the documentary, there are fourteen people currently living who share this unusual experience.

Here’s a rundown of who he found:

  • Jim Polehinke of Kentucky, a pilot who survived a plane crash in his home state
  • Bahia Bakari of Paris, France, a teenager who survived a plane crash in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Comoros
  • Cecelia Cichan of New York City, a woman who survived a plane crash in Michigan as a young girl

Each of them recounted different experiences. George Lamson, Jr., who is reaching out to seek contact and help others. His daughter Hannah plays a large role in the film, and gets more screen time than the other survivors. Jim Polehinke lost both of his legs in the crash, in addition to passengers. As a pilot, he feels guilty for causing their deaths even though there were not enough traffic controllers on duty to help guide the plane. Seeing the trial which basically gave him all the blame and only a minor amount of compensation was shocking. There’s obviously no system in place on how to address reparations in court, simply because there have been so few cases. Bahia Bakari, whose accident was in the recent past (five years ago), lost her mother, but also spoke publicly and published a book about herself. This self-promotion was unique to her. In the beginning of the movie, she appears with a French diplomat who flew her back to France after the crash, and things are very awkward. I don’t know if it’s race, age, or gender, but she looks completely uninterested when on the screen with him, unlike with George, for whom she comes out of her shell despite the obvious language barrier. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cecelia Cichan has been completely silent about her experience. This film was the first time she spoke publicly, now a twenty-something who lives in New York. For someone talking about this moment that has defined her life, she’s remarkably unassuming about it, even opening with comments that she feels inferior to people like Bakari, who floated on airplane wreckage for hours without a life vest, or Juliane Koepke, another sole survivor who kept herself alive in the jungle for several days before finding civilization, whereas she – as a four-year-old – did nothing and was just found and sent to a hospital. That made me cringe a little; part of me wants to say, “give yourself some credit,” but the other part of me realizes that she was shielded from this by her family for most of her life (smart move) and that formulating something to say so publicly when she is still discovering her own identity is probably one of the most uncomfortable sensations; knowing that millions of people are going to see this and you’ve kept it private for all these years brings even more pressure to the event.

My favorite part of the film was George and Hannah’s journey from Reno to meet Bahia and her father Kassim in Paris. Even though George most likely has flown since the plane crash, back in the 1970s when he was a teenager, just watching him do the mundane acts of walking down the aisle and sitting in the seat are eerie, imagining all the nightmares he must have had. From the moment George and Bahia meet, they have a connection that’s really striking. The father-daughter connections seemed a little producer-forced at times, but even so, they are very touching scenes to watch. According to the film’s closing moments, George has invited Bahia and Kassim to come visit them in Reno.

What bugged me but intrigued me at the same time was how several of the secondary characters came off as ignorant or clueless. Obviously, the French diplomat who Bahia Bakari constantly refutes seems to be on his high horse, as well as the chairman of the Jim Polehinke trial, who comes off as a complete jerk. Yes, the NTSB’s job is to establish a cause in order to move on, don’t say asinine and mildly insulting things to the survivor’s face and the face of the wife of the deceased pilot. The translator in the scenes where George is in France seems out of place as well. The relatives of the survivors of the Michigan crash are respectful, but it’s clear that they largely do not have a connection with Cecelia Cichan and speak of her without having any more information than the rest of the world.

Overall, this was definitely worth every minute, despite a lot of filler. Thinking critically, it makes perfect sense that no two stories would be alike. But they all seem to be willing, on level, to share their stories communally in a way that they wouldn’t do alone. Even Cecelia Cichan, who did not appear alongside the others, cooperated with this project when it would have been just as easy to say no; probably something about the auspices of the framing of her story among others, creating a synthesis where the focus would be on her just as much as it would not be on her – thereby accomplishing, in effect, George Lamson’s goal of establishing community.