Life is full of ‘sliding door’ moments: a list of inconsequential decisions made, often without a second thought, that somehow change everything. For many of us, they are the moments that lead to an unexpected relationship or new place to live, but for a select few who are the focus of new documentary Saved By A Stranger, one of these simple choices transformed their lives, and in some cases, made the difference between life and death.
As British presenter Anita Rani discovers throughout the 4-part series, unthinkable circumstances can see a complete stranger become one of the most important people in your life, as you are thrown together by shared experiences of grief and trauma, and a reliance on one another for survival. The stories she uncovers of unlikely pairs bonded by the situations they have encountered reveal exceptional acts of bravery and affirm the basic goodness within humanity, but also the guilt that comes with being unable to repay such kindness.
While we’ve all had people come into our lives in unexpected ways, these are unimaginable scenarios that will leave you wondering what you would do if faced with the same, and moved by the unbreakable connections created by these selfless acts of altruism.
The first episode follows the story of Karl, who could never have anticipated the carnage that was about to unfold around him when he made the fateful decision to board London’s Piccadilly Line on 7 July 2005. What came next was something the then 23-year-old could never have prepared himself for. The detonation of a bomb just metres from where he sat killed 26 people in his carriage and he was plunged into darkness, unsure if he would make it out alive.
As Karl so powerfully captures in his interview with Rani, there was an overwhelming sense in the aftermath of the explosion that he was completely alone. Everything about that day, from the time it took to get to the tube line, and even his choice of carriage, set in motion a series of events that had led him to this point, but it was that same series of decisions that also placed him within earshot of a mystery woman. As he lay crying among the rubble, she heard his sobbing and reassured him while they waited for help, staying calm and holding his hand in spite of her own fear. Though he couldn’t see her face, Karl was immediately comforted by her presence and both eventually made it to safety but never met each other.
A desire to reconnect after more than 15 years is not just motivated by a need to say thank you and finally put a face to the voice that got him through those awful moments underground; it’s a chance for Karl to make the apology he feels he owes. It’s hard at times to understand his guilt, but such is the case with so many of these stories. Finding these strangers is about so much more than just catching up with someone who you crossed paths with at some point or another throughout your life. It’s being reunited with the person who got you through an exceptionally challenging time, making for the most emotional of meetings.
The complexity that comes with reuniting is impossible to comprehend second-hand, but for these survivors, it’s an essential part of coming to terms with their residual trauma and making sense of their experiences. Through their conversations, we see how healing it can be to revisit these events with someone who knows exactly what it was like and can relate entirely to how you are feeling.
In the second half of the first episode, we meet Emina, a now Nottingham-based researcher who, like Karl, is searching for the stranger whose kindness altered the course of her and her family’s life forever. Caught up in the Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War when she was only a child, Emina and her family knew they would have to flee their war-torn country and risk their lives in doing so. Their situation was made all the more urgent by the vulnerability of her newly born sister Edina, who was diagnosed with Down’s syndrome. It was a paediatric doctor, Nataša Savić, who fought for them to be prioritised for immediate medical evacuation, an act of kindness that ultimately changed their future.
As Emina returns to the city almost 20 years on with a goal to meet Nataša and offer her thanks, it’s clear that finding these strangers is a challenge in itself. Memory is, after all, fallible and it can be difficult to know where to begin in tracking down these good samaritans. Throughout, Rani serves as much more than just a host, with a personal interest in finding a resolution for the individuals in front of her, evident both in the empathy that underpins her interviews with them, but also as she rolls up her sleeves to join the search whenever she can.
The series is a timely and much-needed reminder of the unbelievable kindness that exists within humanity, even when it is that same humanity that creates these horrific situations in the first place. It’s a kindness that is all the more remarkable because of these incredibly trying circumstances in which it makes itself known and because of the lasting impact that it has on the lives that are touched by it.
As more stories emerge throughout the series, set against such backdrops as the Holocaust, the AIDS crisis and the Falkland’s War, you will be amazed by these ordinary individuals who proved themselves to be extraordinary when someone needed them most.
Four-part series Saved By A Stranger premieres at 8:30pm on SBS, Monday 11 October. Episodes are available to stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast.