VIFF 2017 Interview: GABRIEL AND THE MOUNTAIN director Fellipe Barbosa
By Jason Whyte
Posted 10/01/17 12:06:04
"GABRIEL AND THE MOUNTAIN traces the last 70 days of my childhood friend Gabriel Buchmann in Africa, until his disappearance on the mythical Mount Mulanje, Malawi, in July 2009. He had been travelling the world for almost one year, in preparation for a PhD in public policies for developing countries, on a very tight budget, living with the people he met. The film recreates Gabriel's last encounters with the real characters who crossed his path, from Kenya to Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi, and follows his footsteps on two great mountains he climbed." Director Fellipe Barbosa on GABRIEL AND THE MOUNTAIN which screens at VIFF 2017!
Is this your first VIFF experience and will you be in Vancouver to attend your screenings?
Yes, and I am looking forward to that. While studying film in NY, I had a roomate for 3 years from Vancouver, Nick Citton. I'm very excited to present the film with him in the audience.
Awesome! Tell me a bit about yourself and your background!
The best answer to that question is my first fiction film CASA GRANDE from 2014. I come from an upper class family from Rio and studied at a very catholic school, Colegio de Sao Bento, where I met Gabriel. It was a conservative environment, the only all-boy school that still exists in Brazil. "Casa Grande" is about how I tried to break out of this bubble, represented by the family house and the school, as my parents were going bankrupt. It's also about class and race relations in a divided country, during a moment of social awakening.
I always wanted to study film, even though there was no film in Brazil back then. Things changed: we went from 1 film per year in the 90s to around 150 today. I remember that when I first said that I wanted to make movies, my classmates laughed out loud. I guess I wanted to prove them wrong after that. So when I was 19, I left Rio to study film at Hofstra University in the US, on a Fulbright scholarship. From there I went straight to Columbia, NY, where I did my MFA (with Nick). Then I worked as an editor for a couple of years, until I feel in love and came back to Rio to be with my wife, producer and assistant director, Clara Linhart. That was September 2008, a few months after Gabriel started his trip around the world. I had lost contact with him during my time in NY, so making this film was a way of reconnecting with him again.
How did GABRIEL come together for you?
The idea to turn his story into a film started soon after the news of his disappearance in July 2009, when there was still hope he would be alive to tell us his story. The Mulanje locals Luka White and Bernard Nyove found his body 19 days later with all his belongings, and his photo camera was the starting point of my research. He left us with many unanswered questions, so my impulse to make this film was also a desire to find some answers.
Researching Gabriel's journey was very intense work, but also extremely rewarding. There were two different research trips: first in 2011, when I travelled from Kampala to Malawi with my brother, and then to Tanzania with Clara Linhart, assistant director and one of the producers. Then in 2015, with Clara and Vincho Nchogu, co-producer from Kenya who helped a lot in finding the people who then became the characters in the film. Every time we found another real character that Gabriel had met 7 years before, I felt his presence and I knew we were on the right path. I really liked these people. It was as if Gabriel had put together an amazing cast.
Our main source was Cristina Reis, Gabriel's girlfriend at the time, who travelled through Tanzania and Zambia with him. She helped me a lot with the script, and their relationship makes for almost the entire second act of the film.
Working with the mix of professional and non-professional actors was easier than I had feared. Joao Pedro Zappa and Caroline Abras, the professional actors who play Gabriel and Cristina, had the script, and we rehearsed in Rio before the shoot, with the help of casting director Amanda Gabriel. So even if they improvised a lot, they delivered the scenes I had written.
With the locals, I didn't share the script. Since they aren't trained actors, I didn't want them to memorize text. I treated the scenes very naturally, as if they were easy, since the scenes were very simple and involved actions they were used to. So the biggest challenge was to transmit a sense of calm and faith to them, and not let them see my anxiety, which was always there of course. Most of them really loved Gabriel, so they were happy to relive the moments they shared.
On a personal level, the most difficult part was the editing. Fortunately, I worked with three great professionals: French editor Theo Lichtenberger, French producer Yohann Cornu and Brazilian sound editor Waldir Xavier -- who helped me find some objectivity and tell the best possible story. Also crucial was the help from my two cowriters, Lucas Paraizo and Kirill Milhanovsky. I did not want to idealize Gabriel. He wasn't always an easy person, after all, and to confront that in the film was not easy either.
While you are working on a movie, what keeps you going? What drives you, creatively? How much coffee?
Not much coffee, maybe something to smoke. What keeps me going is the next scene. We have to shoot a lot of scenes that will add up to a movie, and that's the beauty of it. In GABRIEL this road was long: six thousand km through four countries and two big mountains, following Gabriel's steps scene after scene.
What was your biggest challenge with this project, and how did you over-come it?
The biggest challenge was climbing the Kilimanjaro, highest peak in Africa at 5850 meters, with an actor who had to get there and a heroic crew of 13 people. Impossible to describe the the freezing night attack to the summit, the lack of oxigen, the difficulty to think. The route that Gabriel climbed has 40% of success rate. Yet, everyone from the crew who started the ascent arrived at the top. It was a film crew, not a mountain one. Our DP Pedro Sotero is asthmatic. Up there, one is advised to stay no longer than 15 minutes, and we had a long scene to shoot. Our situation was pitiable; some started to fall asleep, which is very dangerous, one was throwing up blood, but nobody wanted to descend before we were done. Gabriel must have helped us, it's the most plausible explanation. We had a tacit feeling that we were doing a spiritual work above all. I will be forever grateful to the crew for their faith in this crazy proposition to shoot at the real places where Gabriel had been, no matter how far they were.
If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?
The last day. As I said, we shot at the real places, with the real people. We also used some of Gabriel's real clothes and objects. Some items we didn't have, like his gloves. Only one from the pair had been found with his body in 2009. So the costume designer produced a similar pair for the shoot. On the second to last day, our art assistant Pedro Von Tiesenhausen lost the costume gloves, while we were shooting Gabriel getting lost in the Mulanje fog, where locals say the spirits live. On the last day, we walked four hours to the nest under the skewed rock where Gabriel's body was found in August 2009. Pedro stayed behind in the hut/shelter looking for the gloves, without my knowledge. In the middle of the way, I was asked if he could join us even though he hadn't found the gloves, and I said yes, please. He was our Macgyver and guardian angel, he had to be with us until the end. When Pedro arrived, he gave me a hug, apologized for the gloves and asked to get into the improvised nest. His job was to cover the set with the plants that protected and camouflaged Gabriel within nature, complicating the search for his body. Pedro meditated under the rock, buried his hand on the ground where Gabriel slept for the last time and felt something under the earth. Then, he left the nest holding Gabriel's second and real glove, seven years later. With tears in his eyes, he said "Gabriel came to say goodbye".
For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film!
The film was shot on a Red Dragon, because it was the best and most resistant camera on our budget level. We needed a camera that could get to the peak of Kilimanjaro and shoot. The Red did the job, and at the end of the shoot, we all kissed it in gratitude, led our brilliant camera assistant Nicolau Saldanha, who had too much gear to look out for and brought everything back safe to Brazil. Nico also had a back up Sony Alpha, which we used for very few night exteriors, a brand new Movi, which we rarely used, a beautiful Angenieux 28-76, which we used a lot, and a Zeiss super speed kit. Our Key Grip Israel Basso used to be a mountain guide and he doubled as Gaffer. He had four pieces of light, including a couple of LED panels. One vanished at the Masai territory; not the LED, wasn't a big deal, it was just too early in the shoot to lose a quarter of the lights. Some grip stuff from Sao Paulo and Nairobi; not much, what could fit in our truck, with all of us in it, but he did have a portable crane that we intended to use for the opening shot, carried for hours on Mulanje, but ended up not using: not enough time, we stuck to the Pan, usually left to right, on a tripod, the purest way of doing it. The language of the film had to be as pure as the character's search. This was revealed as we were shooting. I have always liked the simplest way. It's as if it is the only possible way. The DP Pedro Sotero and I see eye to eye on this: we usually agree very fast on where to put the camera. This was our third film together, we know each other very well, we agree on what's beautiful.
Where is this movie going to show next?
GABRIEL first opened in France, where it's arriving at 70 thousand tickets sold in its fifth week. After Canada, it will open in Brazil on November 2nd, All Souls' Day. I made this film thinking of the big screen. I hope it works on the smaller ones.
If you could show your movie in any theater in the world, which one would you choose and why?
Cine Odeon in Rio, which will happen on October 11 during the Rio Film Festival. It's the oldest theater in the city dating from the early century, with two stages and 600 seats. I am also excited to show it at Sao Luiz in Recife, one of the most beautiful theaters in the world, with over 1000 seats. Google its image. It'll happen on November 4 during a very special festival organized by Kleber Mendonca Filho, Janela do Recife.
Movie theaters are the best place to see a movie, but sometimes they can be distracting! What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?
"Please, would you be so kind to stop?" I would try to do it with a smile, but no guarantees.
There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews for inspiration. If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?
The same I used to tell my students! Don't try to emulate something you love. Instead, try to find out what you do best and fall in love with this new discovered style.
And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?
My favorite festival experience was actually Hot Docs, where I screened my documentary LAURA in 2012. That festival was a trip. I'll never forget the huge audience queuing around the museum in Toronto to watch my film. Plus, the selection was truly inspiring. Sometimes when we are at a fiction festival, the rhythms get predictable. That was never the case at Hot Docs; each film was a different, original, independent trip. The highlights that year were the discovery of LES ORDERS by Michel Brault, a masterpiece, and the Mexican DROUGHT by Everardo Gonzales. The best film I have seen this year at a festival was THE WORK, a doc by Jairus McLeary, in Sarajevo. Can't remember the best film I ever watched at a festival, but it could be LES ORDERS.
This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 28th to October 13th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to www.viff.org.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte