'Nossa Chape': Documenting a Plane Crash That Brought Down a Soccer Team

'Nossa Chape,' from co-directors Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, follows the Chapecoense football club as it recovers from a devastating tragedy.

In 2016, a little soccer team was slated to become the world's biggest underdog. Hailing from the city of Chapecó in Brazil, the Chapecoense Football Club made it to the Copa Sudamericana finals in Colombia for the first time since 1978. The entire country watched as the team boarded LaMia Flight 2933 headed to Medellin. Thenabruptly, tragicallythe story came to an end. The plane crashed, killing 71 of 77 people on board. (Miraculously, three players survived with critical injuries.)

There is little in life more private than grief, yet the family and friends of the Chapecoense team were tasked with grieving on the world stage. Nossa Chape, a new documentary from The Two Escobars filmmakers Jeff and Michael Zimbalist, is a window into this public grieving process. While the shock is still fresh, the club's management decides to rebuild the team in time for the 2017 season, only two months away; meanwhile, an investigation is underway that will ultimately reveal the now-defunct airline's gross negligence.

Nossa Chape sheds light on the complex grieving process, both individual and communal, and all its variegated expressions. Above all, though, it is a tale of resilience. No Film School caught up with Michael Zimbalist to discuss the challenges associated with filming grieving subjects, tips for shooting cinema verite, his comprehensive way of organizing footage, and more.

No Film School: How did you decide to make a film about the Chapecoense soccer team?

Michael Zimbalist: I've lived on and off for the last 10 years in Medellin, Colombia, where the Chapecoense team had their tragic plane crash. My brother and I both have lived and worked in Brazil, so we had both been following the story of the crash closely at the end of 2016. Then, Dave Spencer of FOX Sports reached out. He was very affected by the news of the crash because, among other things, FOX said six of their correspondents passed away on that flight.

Gabe asked if we would be interested in doing a documentary on the response from the team. At that point, we didn't know whether the team was going to decide to close its doors or continue on and rebuild, which is ultimately what they decided. We had some conversations with the remaining members of the soccer club just a few weeks after the crash. We presented who we were and what our intentions were—why we were different than the mainstream news media. They were on board, and by the time everybody showed up back to the [soccer] facilities in Chapecoense, we were there with our cameras rolling.

The initial plan was to film for about a month or so to see how that initial decision from the club went. And then, once they decided to rebuild, we were going to stay on and film up until their first match. But by the time [the match] came around, there were so many narratives that we were following that were unfinished that we felt that we really needed to continue filming. And fortunately, the subjects were on board. The club was on board. FOX really believed in the project and were able to expand the scope of the film and shoot for the better part of 2017.

"A lot of our subjects would need time away from the camera as a part of that grieving process."

NFS: You and your brother shot the film together. Did you divide and conquer and follow different narratives? Or was it kind of a cohesive process where you were constantly jumping between different storylines?

Zimbalist: We knew from the onset that we wanted this story to be bigger than just the team and the sports side of it. We were very interested, as filmmakers, in this question: “How does a family or community respond to the loss of a loved one?" In this case, of 71 loved ones passed away. For us that meant, from the onset, devising a production plan that was going to allow us to set up multiple cameras filming with multiple different subjects.

We wanted to follow the survivors—the three players who survived the crash—two of whom decided to try and get back on the field during the 2017 season. We wanted to follow new players that came on to rebuild the team, the new coach, the new board [members], and the new president. But, also, the mayor of the city of Chapecoense, who was really heavily involved in the team before and after the crash. Also, the fan club was very much a part of the family of the team. And, of course, the widows and the families of the deceased.

"We wanted to make sure that we were striking the right balance of understanding what happened in the crash, but also not having that be the dominant part of the story."

NFS: How did you decide which characters to spend more time with?

Zimbalist: It's a good question. I think because this was a cinema verite approach—meaning we didn't know how the story lines were going to develop—everything was a surprise. The fact that they decided to rebuild the club and get a team back on the field within a matter of less than two months after the crash…that had never been done before. That was very exhilarating from a narrative standpoint, because we genuinely were flies on the wall, trying to capture as much of what was going on as possible. And, simultaneously, trying to be as respectful as possible of the grieving process. Because, in spite of the colossal mission that this club had in front of them, they were all still in the process of grieving. A ton of people were direct family members, or teammates, or close friends of those had passed away.

As it went along, we were looking at our three-act structure and saying, “How does this narrative unfold?" That was a constantly evolving process. Ultimately, as we got towards the end of production, we saw that there was this trip that the team was going to make from Brazil to Medellin to play the final of the Maricopa, which was one of the top tournaments in all of South America, that the previous year’s team had qualified for. So, here was the 2017 team, making the same trip that the 2016 team had made when their plane crashed, to play the game that the deceased team had qualified for. To us, that felt like, “This is it. This is going to be the act three climax.”

'Nossa Chape'Credit: FOX
Zimbalist: We were surprised that for everybody, including the team itself, the trip to Medellin took a backseat narratively and emotionally to a [different] trip that was made to the crash site by the survivors. During this trip, the team visited all of the first responders from the local community who had tracked through the rain in the middle of the night for two hours to get to this very remote location in the mountains and find everybody who had survived the crash. And they got them to the hospital. It was also interesting to see the connective tissue that was formed among these two different cultures, Brazil and Colombia. It really felt like they had become family through this experience of going through the crash. So this other trip became a much bigger and more impactful climax that shifted the way that the narrative was approached for us.

I think it also answered one of the most prominent questions in the film. Really, the story was looking at this question of, “How do you grieve?” The community was divided among those who felt that we should honor the dead at every step of the way, and those that felt we need to push forward with our own lives. There was a lot of tension between those groups—lawsuits and so forth.

It was after this trip to Colombia that the humanistic connection came. I think there was a larger recognition among the community that all ways of grieving are the right ones. Maybe what's important, instead, is that we stay unified as a family, which was the value that was upheld by those who passed away.

NFS: As a filmmaker, how did you respectfully navigate that grieving process with specific subjects?

Zimbalist: As it always is in documentary film, the first step was sitting down and talking with the people who you're going to be filming and explaining who you are and what your intentions are. You listen to what their interests are and what their fears are, and try and decide whether it’s a mutually beneficial experience. In this case, a lot of people wanted to participate in the film because, amongst all of the news media that were coming in for quick stories, this felt like something much more substantial. People felt it could pay homage to those who had passed away.  They felt it had a very deep meaning and mission.

"People felt [this film] could pay homage to those who had passed away.  They felt it had a very deep meaning and mission."

The majority of our crew are Brazilian and Colombian. Our co-director, Julián Duque, is Colombian. Our editor, Luis Dechtiar, is Brazilian. Right down the line, from DP to the producers, there was a real sense that we wanted to offer a lot of honor to those who passed away, while simultaneously doing our job as journalists and as filmmakers to remain neutral and to push for access to the extent that we could in a respectful way.

What ended up happening is a lot of our subjects would need time away from the camera as a part of that grieving process. It was really about the constant sea of us being present, having our cameras there, and people being comfortable with us enough to say, “Hey, I'm not going to be filming this week. I kind of need this week to be with my close family or spend time grieving." It was an on-again, off-again process. When you look at it, it was a very natural process, as far as the velocity and manners in which different individuals grieve.

'Nossa Chape'Credit: FOX
NFS: Do you have any tips for filmmakers who are looking to shoot a cinema verite doc?

Zimbalist: It's hard. It’s a very challenging format—particularly when you have multiple subjects. And boy, it's tough even when you just have one subject, because the amount of film that you're racking up is colossal. You're shooting hours and hours a day for many weeks or months on end.

For us, it’s about [having] good organization. And that doesn't necessarily mean that every frame is logged and captured and exists in a database. But it does mean that things are categorized. You have various search mechanisms that you can use within your editing software, as well as spreadsheets and documents that you can search.

"We've never used interpreters on any of our films. It’s kind of baffling to me that people can do that."

For this film, we created some pretty elaborate spreadsheets. Each column was assigned a date, a scene, the primary characters, the secondary characters. You could do sorts to see what are all the scenes that this character appeared in, primarily and secondarily, and who else was there, and what was the content of the scene. And then we had a column about field notes that paraphrased what was in the scene. If it was a strong scene, we pulled transcripts of the scene and then we'd also have tech notes—what was the lighting, what time of day. This is important because when you're cutting a cinema verite doc together, you don't want to be jumping day to night all over the place.

All of that stuff became key to creating what became probably a 130-page paper outline. This went to the Assistant Editors before it even went to the editor so that the AE’s could do these long string-outs. I think we had a ten-hour string-out. The narrative chronology was two-fold because we’re intercutting from present to past. So ten hours sounds like a lot, but if you can get it down to your best material, ordered according to more or less how you see the chronology of the narrative film, it's a real benefit to the editor that. Otherwise, it’s 5,000 hours of footage for the editor to comb through and figure out how to meet the director’s vision.

NFS: How involved were you in the editing process?

Zimbalist: Very involved. Our editor, Luis Dechtiar, has been editing for us for many years. He did such phenomenal work on this film. We decided that it was important for Luis to come down to Brazil and be present for some of the interviews that we did and some of the shooting that was done towards the end of production. This was with two objectives. One, for him to get familiar with the characters and the story. Two, he was there taking his own notes, promoting his own ideas, and starting to sort of work off the outlines that we created and talk it through with us. He had a real ownership going in and was able to put together proposals for how the narratives could be told.

'Nossa Chape'Credit: FOX

NFS: There was an investigative element to this film, in terms of depicting the illegal scheme that undermined the entire flight and then brought it down. Did you do any investigative work in that direction?

Zimbalist: Our whole crew is cut from the fabric of investigative journalism. A lot of the work that we do is straight investigative journalism. In this case, I think there were much fewer elements of investigative journalism than there was just cinema verite entrenchment and diligence.

But there was a lot of archival collection. We got footage from the club’s videographer, who'd been traveling with the team the previous year. We got footage from all the families and subjects that we filmed—we were given personal archives and Instagram videos. There are always gems that come out of never-before-seen footage. It helps to tie together and bring to life a certain narrative element.

And, of course, we went out to all the local and international broadcasters to pull out the footage of the investigation around the negligence and criminality committed by the airline, La Mia. The investigation had already been conducted by the judicial system that was in charge of that. The news had covered it.

Another film we did—The Two Escobars—is investigative journalism. Who killed Andre Escobar had never been explored in that depth. We’re also doing a doc series right now that's just about to be announced. It's pure investigative journalism. It really strives to have exposes—to break new ground on stories. Maybe it's a crime that's never been solved or it's looking under the hood in a way that hasn't been done before. revealing new facts that change the way people see events. In the case of Nossa Chape, this wasn't our primary objective. We were fortunate that other people did that [work], so it was really just a matter of bringing out the discoveries and chronology that made sense of our narratives.

We do a lot of focus grouping when we make a film. For the first group, we invite our friends and family. We bring them into the screening room and show them early cuts. We create detailed questionnaires and conversations to try and get feedback. For Nossa Chape, one of the things we wanted to make sure of was that we were striking the right balance of understanding what happened in the crash, but also not having that be the dominant part of the story. Because to us, that wasn’t the story. But we got feedback from people saying, “Ah, I really wanted to know more about what happened in the crash. Do the guys that survived remember anything?” Then, we went back in and tried to add that into the edit.

NFS: Can you tell me a little bit about the Brazilian film industry and filming in the country?

Zimbalist: [My brother and I] made the film Favela Rising in 2005, about the cultural movement in the Favelas of Rio. Then, we did Pele, which was a narrative film about the soccer legend's formative years. We shot both in Brazil. We’ve done other smaller projects in Brazil as well.

When you're filming anywhere, you're never completely independent of locals. The language element is super important. If you're going to be filming with somebody for months on end, you become a part of their life. You don't want that all to be through an interpreter. I can say, to date, that we've never used interpreters on any of our films. It’s kind of baffling to me that people can do that. I think, particularly in documentary, that's really important.     

For more information on ''Nossa Chape,'  click here.

Your Comment