Tragedy On The Screen: Sometimes Art Imitates Life



On Saturday, August 25th at 9am I stepped into a post-production office for a screening of a rough cut of the latest documentary film by Ky Dickens. About 15 people squeezed into the small room, using every square inch of sitting space on the two couches and covering most of the floor. They included all of the producers, Ky the director, the editor, and a large, friendly dog.

Actually, let me back up to just 10 minutes before that. While everyone was in the other room grabbing bagels and juice, I grabbed a moment alone with the editor, Anna Patel, as she hooked up her hard drive and loaded the film into Final Cut for the screening.  I gave her a hug and asked her how she was doing. Anna is an old friend of mine who moved from Chicago to Los Angeles a few years ago, where her post house has another office. She was in town to finish editing the film and was staying with her parents, when her mother died suddenly and unexpectedly.

After our hug she burst into tears and in short sentence fragments put together a scene I can hardly imagine experiencing:

“We found her slumped over,” “…massive aneurysm.” “…blood thinners made it worse.” “…doctors said… she would never recover.” “…taken off life support.” “…we sat there and watched her die.” “it took 12 hours.” “…she kept gasping for air… for 12 hours after life support was shut off…”

What do you do when someone you care about has been through something so heart wrenching and as desperately sad as losing a loved one so suddenly and so recently? I stood there contemplating what I could possibly do or say next when that large, friendly dog entered the room as the first one to find a seat for the screening. We laughed at the absurdity of a dog suddenly walking into her office. “Here comes my therapy dog,” she joked. We scratched him behind his ears and pat him on the head. She wiped the smeared mascara off her cheeks, and we got ready to watch the film.

“Sole Survivor” is a documentary film about a small handful of people who are the sole survivors of major commercial plane crashes. To be honest, I had no idea what to expect, what the film would focus on, or what new knowledge or insight I would walk away with after seeing this film. I had heard of plane crashes with one survivor before, but it sounds so mythical, how could an entire film be based on that?

There have been 14 commercial plane crashes in the history of aviation where only one, single, lone human being emerged from the wreckage. And Ky Dickens has hunted them down for this film.

Ky Dickens directed the 2009 documentary “Fish out of Water,” which deconstructed the seven Bible verses used to condemn homosexuality. Winning four festival prizes, the film secured North American distribution by First Run Features immediately after its initial release. Ky recently joined Rock the Vote & Equality Illinois to direct the Vote Naked Illinois campaign, which resulted in over 500,000 absentee ballot requests in Illinois and dramatically impacted midterm elections.

Ky is one of the few people I can honestly say was born to make documentary films. She monitors everything around her and thinks about what it means, analyzes where things are shifting, and constantly talks to people she doesn’t even know about what they think of it. She’s an intent listener, intense thinker, and an amazing storyteller. Those are some damn good qualities to have in a filmmaker.

And she definitely uses every one of those qualities to put together “Sole Survivor.” The film analyzes the lives of a handful of these sole survivors of fatal plane crashes as they reflect on their experiences, the meaning behind the events that changed their lives, and what to do with their lives now. Many of these people have not spoken publicly about their lives and their experiences until Ky knocked on their doors.

One survivor went through his ordeal as a teenager, basked for a while in the limelight of his 15 minutes of fame and lived off the adrenaline of the experience, until slowly fizzling into depression and a search for meaning, which translated into a search for other sole survivors like him. Another character in the film was a child when she survived the plane crash that killed her parents and young brother, and she was raised completely out of the public eye by family members, showing her face to no public camera before Ky interviewed her. Another sole survivor profiled was the co-pilot of a plane he wish he died in: sharing such brutal details about the guilt felt from not going down with his ship, and the frustration felt by the pilot’s wife when she learns that the NTSB attributes the crash to pilot error, even when other professionals disagree with the verdict.

“Sole Survivor” successfully completed a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $21,000 in finishing funds, won IndieWire’s Project of the Week and is now in the running for Project of the Month. As a PMD, I keep my eyes peeled for new films that look like they’ve got legs. And this film has legs. I predict a great festival run, quick distribution, and a long lifespan for this film. Personally, I would love to see a small theatrical tour with Q&A sessions with the filmmakers and characters, then a TV sale that exposes it to prime viewership to boost DVD sales. But that’s just me watching the rough cut with my PMD hat on…

Everyone in Anna’s office watching that rough cut was glued to the screen for the entirety of the film. We walked away from that room feeling like we really knew these sole survivors- like we had just made new friends and had a real understanding of their happiness and their pain. Before I watched the film I couldn’t fathom what I would have in common with the sole survivor of a plane crash, but I get it now. The pain they feel, the loss, the frustration, the epiphanies, and the joy and revelation: they’re all the raw human sensations each one of us has both the fortune and misfortune to experience in our own ways, in our own lifetimes.

Anna’s mother died on the 25th anniversary of NW Flight 255’s crash- one of the plane crashes with a sole survivor profiled in the film. Ky and Anna finished editing the film at Anna’s father’s dining room table so they could stay with him and keep the family company, taking breaks from editing to answer the door for flower deliveries, cook each other meals, and sleep on couches and floors to wake up the next morning and start again. That feeling of connectedness to the people on the screen and the events in the film isn’t just a feeling. It’s a real, tangible thing.


Michelle Kaffko is a Chicago-based marketing professional with several years of B2B, B2C, and entertainment marketing and promotional experience.  With independent film credits as Producer of Marketing and Distribution (PMD), she works with fellow artists in promoting their work through consulting, education, and outreach.  She also owns her own photography studio in Chicago, and a small craft-based business making reusable coffee cup sleeves with snarky phrases on them.  Find out more at and


Be sure to read Michelle’s other Film Courage article
‘A PMD battle cry: 10,000 fans or bust!’