DOWNTOWN — When she was 16, Ky Dickens got into an argument with a friend about who would sit shotgun in a friend’s car.
Five minutes later, Dickens watched in horror as the car hit a pole, killing her friend instantly.
“He won the argument, and then he was gone,” said Dickens.
That searing experience in west suburban Oak Brook — and its profound impact on Dickens’ life — planted the seed that would eventually lead her to make “Sole Survivor,” a documentary that chronicles the lives of 14 people who were the only survivors of major airplane crashes.
“I didn’t even realize I had survivor’s guilt until I was in my mid-20s,” said Dickens, who is now 35 and living in North Park. “I was so insanely driven. I felt like I had to make sure that my life mattered, because I lived and my friend didn’t.”
The feature-length film will be shown on CNN in early 2014 as part of the cable news channel’s new emphasis on documentary storytelling.
After reading about a 9-year-old boy who was the only person to survive a plane crash in Libya, Dickens curiosity was piqued — and discovered a community of lone survivors trying to remake their lives in the face of shattering tragedy.
“People think these survivors are the lucky ones, but they don’t feel lucky,” Dickens said.
The film strives to put an honest face on what it means to survive such a traumatic event — and to struggle with unanswerable questions about why they were spared when so many died, and how to move on, Dickens said.
“There is no answer to that question of why,” Dickens said. “You just have to live your life.”
The documentary follows George Lamson, who survived the crash of Galaxy Airlines Flight 203 in January 1985, which killed 73 people. Lamson was 17 — one of several children who were the only ones to survive large plane crashes.
Dickens and her production crew traveled to 11 countries and shot more than 270 hours of footage over two years before it was edited into the final 90-minute film. Partially funded by two successful Kickstarter campaigns, the film cost $400,000 to make.
The pressure to tell the stories of the survivors — some of whom had never spoken publicly before — was unlike anything Dickens had felt before, she said.
“The weight was crushing,” Dickens said, adding that she did not want the documentary to be “crash porn” or exploitative.
“With every setback, I felt like I was letting them down,” Dickens said, recalling her relief when the documentary was acquired by CNN Films. “I just didn’t want it only to be available on the website.”
Dickens said it was also tough to maintain a professional relationship with the subjects of the documentary, since she identified with them so strongly.
“We had to build an incredible amount of trust and friendship and intimacy,” Dickens said. “We couldn’t have made this film otherwise. But I couldn’t jump in, because that would have compromised the film.”
The Chicago premiere of the film will be a joyful occasion, with most of the Chicago-based crew in the audience, Dickens said.
“It is uplifting,” Dickens said, noting that she wasn’t sure when she started filming that her documentary would have a happy ending. “Many of the survivors turn their lives around, and come out better on the other end.”
Making the documentary also helped ease the pain Dickens still felt over her friend's unexpected death, which left her unable to take a nap without feeling like she was wasting her life.
“I’ve taken it down about 20 million notches,” Dickens said, adding that she hopes it helps others struggling with similar issues. “Making this film helped me be more at peace. I learned you just have to stop trying to please everyone and just live your life.”
Tickets are sold out for the screening Saturday, which will be followed by a question and answer session with Dickens, producer Amy McIntyre former National Transportation Safety Board investigator Shawn Pruchnicki as well as crash survivors George Lamson and Jim Polehinke, who appear in the film. WBEZ culture reporter Alison Cuddy will moderate the discussion.
Tickets are still available for another screening on Sept. 26 at the Gene Siskel Film Center and plans are in the works to add another screening Nov. 5. For more information, go to the film’s website, solesurvivorfilm.com.