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By  January 7, 2014 12:32 pm

Chicago filmmaker talks about her latest subject: sole survivors of commercial airline crashes

Ky Dickens, credit: Brian Sorg

Ky Dickens, credit: Brian Sorg

Note: The following interview was originally published on September 13, 2013

Filmmaker Ky Dickens’ newest documentary, “Sole Survivor,” was three years in the making and examines how four lone survivors of large commercial airline crashes have dealt with their respective tragedies. Suffice it to say some have fared far better than others — emotionally and otherwise. Victims’ family members and friends share their thoughts as well.

Several months after showings at the Gene Siskel Film Center and the Midwest Independent Film Festival in Fall 2013, CNN Films will air the doc Thursday, January 9 at 8 p.m. CT.

A director at Chicago’s MK Films Group and the force behind 2009’s award-winning doc “Fish Out of Water,” which examines the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality, Dickens’ inspiration to make “Sole Survivor” came in part from a personal tragedy that occurred years ago. When she was 16 and in high school, a good friend of hers died after the car in which he was riding shotgun spun into a pole. Dickens was in the car behind him and watched it happen. Moments earlier, they had decided to switch places — the victim could have been her. “I kind of realized when I was in my late 20s and early 30s that I was always plagued by this need to do something really important all the time,” Dickens says. “And I thought about it and I realized it was the survivor’s guilt that was still following me from that accident in high school, and those ‘why?’ questions.”

A month or so later, she read about a sole survivor (there are only 14 known ones worldwide) in the newspaper and wondered, “How does someone heal from something like that if I can’t even totally get over my small thing?” The answers, she now knows, are gradually and often painfully — or maybe not at all.

After tracking down and earning the trust of Reno, Nevada-based George Lamson Jr., the lone survivor of a 1985 Galaxy Airlines disaster and “Sole Survivor’s” central character, Dickens’ journey began in earnest. She talked about its challenges and rewards.

Sun-Times: Making “Sole Survivor” had to be an emotional roller coaster of sorts for you, dealing with all of these different people.

Ky Dickens: Yeah, it was difficult, especially the [2006] Comair 5191 disaster, because there are so many difficult human emotions within that crash. Obviously, the families know that the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] decided it was pilots’ error, and a lot of families are still stuck in the angry stage of grief and have a lot of anger towards Jim Polehinke [the flight’s first

Jim Polehinke, via solesurvivorfilm.comJim Polehinke, via solesurvivorfilm.com

officer and only survivor, who has wrestled with personal demons since the crash]. And I was trying to manage that while also forming a friendship with Jim and his wife, Ida, and seeing what they go through. They’re good people and Jim really was a dedicated pilot and he’s a great man, [but] you’re just helpless. You’re witnessing such a tragedy in so many people’s lives and you can’t do anything to put it together. And it was tough. I would come home and there’d be weekends when I’d be totally wiped out. Or something I’d just come home from the airport and cry, because it soaks in. It seeps in deeply.

Q: You’ve been doing documentaries for a long time, but did you feel like even more of a voyeur with a subject that’s this emotionally charged?

KD: It was definitely the most difficult situation I’ve ever been in as a filmmaker, exactly for the reason you said. The events that transpire in the film are some of the most difficult, devastating, terrifying things that people can go through. And one of the things I was most concerned about the whole time was making sure we didn’t create a film that was exploitive or that sensationalized these tragedies or that offered some sort of crash pornography out there for the world. I really wanted it to be an emotional journey of a survivor’s story, and for people to learn from that. It’s not that they’re lucky. It’s a completely different situation and experience than how I think the public perceives it to be. But in order to capture that story, of course I had to go to memorials and shoot as they’re showing me some of their most precious possessions from people who were lost on the plane crash, and it was hard. And there were a lot of times when we just shut off the camera. Normally, you don’t want to do that. I try to keep it running even though things might be uncomfortable. But this was different and I felt myself kind of breaking my own rule and turning off the cameras way more than I ever had before, just because it felt necessary and it felt like some moments needed to be sacred and hallowed and connective.

Q: It must have been hard for you to shift between being a documentary maker and a human being who wants to help these people but has to stay removed.

KD: That’s very tough. Because you have to have enough of a relationship that people know you care about them and they can trust you. So there’s a certain amount of intimacy that has to be there. But at the same time, especially with George, I had to see him fail and make mistakes and worry about things and just kind of bite my tongue. You do care about these people and you want to jump in. I feel like a good metaphor is what parents must feel like when they know that if their child does [a certain thing], it’s going to hurt [laughs]. Obviously these people aren’t my children or my responsibility, but you can’t jump in. Especially in the case of a lot of the survivors and all the people involved with the [Comair] 5191 tragedy, I would get a lot of phone calls where people would really want to talk through some of their emotional burdens and their memories and their thoughts. I’ll always pick up the phone and be there for anything, but you have to stay neutral enough that you’re not impacting the story from afar.

Q: What did the survivors tell you about how this film helped or didn’t help them work through their issues?

George Lamson Jr., via solesurvivorfilm.comGeorge Lamson Jr., via solesurvivorfilm.com

KD: The most beautiful thing I think I’ve ever witnessed in my life was at the Minneapolis premiere of the film. Everyone who died on George’s flight was from the Minneapolis area. And so at the premiere there, there were lots and lots of families and nephews and grandsons and cousins—so many people who knew someone who died in the crash. And during the Q&A, what happened was not a Q&A. One after another, people would stand up and say, “George, every single year we think about you. We always say a prayer for you at Christmas. You are part of our family and I just want you to know we’re happy you’re here.” And someone else would stand up and say, “You coming back here is just one more piece in our closure and thank you for living.” And it went on for about 35 minutes. It was like “Sole Survivor Part 2,” but in live-action. It was happening right in front of our eyes. And I was really stirred by that, because I knew how much George needed to hear that. But having a room say it over and over and over was beautiful. After that, I think George really got the closure that he needed to move on.

Q: While going through this process, did you have any revelations about what you went through in high school with your friend?

KD: I think I did. The one thing I kept thinking to myself when watching the survivors struggle with their own guilt was, “It’s not your fault. You lived. Just enjoy and live each day. Love the people you love and don’t worry about it. You’ll never have the answers. You’ll never know why. And so you have to just focus on the now.” And I ingested that advice myself at some point and realized, “You have to live for today and just love and value the people you have while they’re here, because you never know what’s going to happen.” It can be so tantalizing and interesting to think about the ‘why?’ questions, but to be obsessed with them and to have them pull you down is not helpful.

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