Fellipe Barbosa Follows Dead Friend’s Footsteps on the Mountain

Interview: Fellipe Barbosa

Gabriel and the Mountain tells the story of Gabriel Buchmann, a 28-year-old Fulbright scholar who perished on Mulanje Mountain in Malawi in 2009. Former classmate and Brazilian filmmaker Fellipe Barbosa says he didn’t want to make an ode to his old friend, but an honest account of his beautiful contradictions.

By Katherine Monk

VANCOUVER, BC — Fellipe Barbosa’s first memory of Gabriel Buchmann was as a seven-year-old, studying at an all-boys Catholic school in Rio de Janeiro. “He was looking at me from a distance. He was very observant. He would study emotions. He was more shy, then.” Barbosa hesitates. “Eventually… I went to the U.S. to study film at the age of 19, and we lost touch.”

They would never have the chance to reconnect in the flesh. Buchmann died of exposure climbing Mulanje Mountain in Malawi in 2009. His tragic death became a headline that captured the hearts and minds of Brazilians: A Fulbright Scholar heads to Africa in the hopes of learning about others, only to get lost in the fog and freeze in the middle of the summer. Now, showered with posthumous awards and heading toward social-media sainthood, Buchmann’s ghost gets a new closeup thanks to his old classmate in Gabriel and the Mountain, a dramatic feature that retraces the fatal last leg of Buchmann’s epic African odyssey.

The movie played the Vancouver International Film Festival prior to its current theatrical release, which is where The Ex-Press caught up with Barbosa as he continues to process what turned into a strangely spiritual voyage.

“Gabriel was a spiritual person,” says Barbosa. “I know he liked Saint Francis. He also travelled with many saints. He loved all religions. Even though his name is Jewish, he practiced everything. On schedule. Christianity one day. Buddhism or Islam the next… He was very interested in these ideas. But he wasn’t perfect. And I think in some ways, this film is a reaction to saint he’s been turned since his tragic death. He was far from a saint.”

Barbosa’s brown eyes twinkle with a gentle tone. He’s not throwing shade on his dead friend. “He was a good man. This is clear. But I wanted to show he was also complex. He was full of deep contradictions,” he says. “I’m not upset at how he’s been turned into a saint and that he’s seen as the messenger of peace. When there was a moment of silence for him at the Maracana when his favourite football team played, I was so happy to see it. I am also curious about it.”

Barbosa wanted to know what people were identifying with in Gabriel’s story, and the best way to begin was to follow Gabriel.

“Gabriel was a spiritual person… He was very interested in these ideas. But he wasn’t perfect. And I think in some ways, this film is a reaction to saint he’s been turned since his tragic death. He was far from a saint.”

Thanks to letters home and his own recorded diary, much of the story was already on the page. Yet, over the course of the 72-shoot through Africa, from taking a 13-person crew to the peak of Mount Kilimanjaro to the death nest on Mulanji — with a scenic safari thrown in for authenticity’s sake — the crew walked miles in Buchmann’s shoes.

For lead actor Joao Pedro Zappa, the experience was literal. They used Buchmann’s own sandals for the shoot, as well as several items from his own wardrobe. Barbosa says it all got a little surreal, especially on the day they thought they had lost the gloves made by the costume department — partly because Buchmann’s body was found without gloves.

“The guy who thought he lost them found them. Later, that same guy — he was like a MacGyver this guy, he could fix anything. He was in the place where Gabriel died — which is now a mythical place, because normally you disappear and you are never found — but he was in this place because we were going to shoot there, and he stuck his hands in the dirt, and he pulled out Gabriel’s original pair. They were right there… so many years later.”

Barbosa likes to tell that story at screenings. But it wasn’t just the gloves that Barbosa found along the way. He also found the people who met and befriended Gabriel, including the guide, John Goodluck, and many others. Somehow, the right people got the message in time and showed up on Barbosa’s doorstep moments before the shooting was slated to begin.

“They get to play themselves,” says Barbosa. “They also get to play. They get to make some money. And do something that isn’t so repetitive.”

Ask Barbosa if any of the participants were upset in retracing such an ill-fated trip, and again, he smiles. “They don’t think about death the same way we do. They have witnessed genocides and survived things we cannot imagine. When they talk about death, they do it with a smile on their face.”

Barbosa says he and Buchmann were both fascinated by Africa, and both made independent treks across the continent. “It could have been me,” says Barbosa. “I kept thinking about that while I was there, really. I’m not sure why we were both so interested in travelling there when most Brazilians go somewhere else — like Florida.”

Yet, Brazil was largely populated by Africans through the slave trade, which continued in Brazil long after other nations made it illegal. “Brazil was the last country to outlaw slavery,” says Barbosa. “We like to have this romantic notion that Brazil doesn’t see colour. But we do see class, and where you live, and what kind of clothes you wear. Whether you live by the sea or in a favela matters more than the colour of your skin.”

“It could have been me… I kept thinking about that while I was there, really.”

Buchmann wanted to transcend boundaries, and to better understand the forces that separate us. It was why he was pursuing his doctoral degree in economics at UCLA, says Barbosa.

“I think what I discovered was how Gabriel lived — I mean, really lived his life. He wanted to learn and engage with other people. He was not afraid of others. He did not travel with a weapon. He had no fear… and we had to follow him.”

Barbosa says he couldn’t really think too much about any given obstacle because he didn’t have the time or money to ponder. In essence, he had to live in the moment — which is where he found the essence of his subject, and the heart of his friend who fell asleep in the cold at 28.

“The Gabriel I met when I was a child was shy and distant. The Gabriel I met when I was travelling was full of life and hope. He touched people. They remembered him,” he says. “There was one night, after a long search… that we found John Goodluck. He brought us to his family home, and we met his father — who was an old man. We all felt Gabriel’s presence then so strongly. We all started to cry.”

It’s easy to be carried away by the emotion of the story, but Barbosa says he was intent on creating a real drama, with conflict and character, to truly capture the spirit of Gabriel Buchmann.

“I didn’t want to write an ode. An ode is always positive. A movie is something else. And Gabriel had many sides. That was the beauty of him. He could hold so many contradictions within him, and still remain who he was. I think if he can teach us anything, it’s to accept these differences in others — but in yourself, too. He was at peace with who he was. In this way, he was a messenger of peace.”

Barbosa says every person he encountered along the way saw the inquisitive and self-assured side of Gabriel, the man. Yet, he still carried the memory of the little kid staring at him in class, distant and shy.

“I felt throughout the process that no matter if it worked or not, that just making the film was in some way spiritual work. And not spiritual because of the tragedy of his death, dying at such a young age. It was spiritual because it made us live in the moment… and not deconstruct the facts. So much is out of our control. You have to do what Gabriel did, and live the mystery.”

Gabriel and the Mountain is playing in Toronto and Vancouver, with other cities to follow.

Photo above: Fellipe Barbosa directs Joao Pedro Zappa courtesy of Unifrance.


THE EX-PRESS, November 14, 2017


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