Gabriel García doesn’t simply find stories wherever he goes; he often stumbles right into them. Two months ago, he was walking around his hometown of Buenos Aires, only a few blocks from an apartment he’d recently bought. In the portside neighborhood of La Boca, he noticed a bank that had been abandoned since Argentina’s recent economic crisis. It was one of those ornate, marble-floored places from the turn of the century that stand like ruined temples to the country’s past glory.
“The door is open and I see a huge wall with a painting of Che Guevara,” he recalls. “So I walk in and see it’s a barbecue with people eating chorizos, and I think, What is this? This is surreal. They tell me, ‘You have to talk with the person in charge.’ So I say to him, ‘I see you’ve reopened the bank,’ and he says, ‘Yeah, this is our bank now.’
“So 17 families are living inside the bank, and their clothes are hanging there and kids are playing. Then I see this little guy with no teeth and dressed in a full uniform with medals from the Malvinas War, and he says, ‘See my legit’s all metal.’ He’s drinking mate, and he starts crying. He says the government never helped him.” García relishes this retelling. It’s the way of many people raised in Buenos Aires, even longtime expatriates like García: recounting the absurdities and setbacks of daily life in a city that always seems on the brink of something worse. It makes the average porteño into a superb storyteller.
But García, 52, isn’t your average porteño: For the past 20 years, he has done his best storytelling behind the lens. That day in La Boca, he shot some video footage on the spot, assuring the Malvinas vet that the camera wasn’t on even though it was. He hopes to return soon to get moreperhaps enough for an entire documentary about the bank-turned-commune.
That’s another project, though, for another day. Just now, García is focused on a film he’s much closer to finishing. This one started with an idea the filmmaker had during last year’s Franco-American spat over Iraq. “I thought, What happened during the American Revolution? The French helped with Lafayette, but what about the Spanish? So I decided to write a fiction about the Hispanics helping George Washington.”
Not long after, García got a call from Hector Diaz, a Puerto Rican colonial re-enactor who’d heard about his project. Diaz said there were solid, if obscure, facts that supported the filmmaker’s surmise. He brought a stack of books and documents to García’s Van Ness apartment that revealed a chapter that had been left out of the standard histories of the Revolutionary War: In 1781, after six long years of war that had drained both sides of the conflict, a group of wealthy Cubans decided to funnel private funds to the Continental Army by French frigates.
A parchment document from 1782, stashed in the archives of a Havana museum, details the crucial financial boost this donation gave to the Americans on the eve of the last major engagement of the war, listing 26 individuals and the more than 4 million reales they provided.
There were other forms of assistance from the Spaniards, but what intrigued García was this story of espionage and clandestine wartime aid from the country that would later become such a steadfast villain in the eyes of the United States. “I thought, This is fantastic,” he says. “Two hundred years ago, there were Cubans helping the revolution in the United States! Some people, if they are American and right-wing, when I was telling them the money came from Havana, they would say, ‘This is ridiculous. What are you talking about?’ and they would totally deny it. So I would show them the documents and say, ‘I’m sorry, but it’s true.’”
These heated denials spurred García to conceive Timeless, a movie about the events that he filmed last summer in and around Washington, using his own money and the help of the local Hispanic film and theater community.
Set in the days leading up to the Battle of Yorktown, the film is presented as a series of flashbacks by the main character, a Cuban envoy played by Gala Hispanic Theatre Producing Artistic Director Hugo Medrano. The envoy, on a mission relaying money to Gen. Washington, becomes embroiled in a love affair that leads to murder.
All of Medrano’s scenes were shot in a confessional, a prop García had built by a Salvadoran carpenter from materials bought at a Home Depot. It was one of many ways that the director cut corners to realize his vision. His lead actor, like everyone involved in the film, worked for free. “We’ve known each other for many, many years,” says Medrano. “We consider ourselves brothers. We come from the same background in Argentina, and we have the same ideals.”
The only hint García will reveal about the ultralow budget is that it was “extraordinary.” Shooting locations included the canal tow path near Georgetown, the woods of Rock Creek Park, and old-town Leesburg. To give the movie a more authentic feel, García found some local colonial re-enactors who donated their time and period costumes. “They were great,” he says. “They hadn’t heard of [the Cuban-aid] story, either, so they volunteered to help out.”
Filming a costume drama in the middle of a Washington summer has its drawbacks, though. In the tangled underbrush of Rock Creek Park, during a scene that called for two horses and a crew of 20, a nest of hornets was jostled and fell to the ground amid the filmmakers. Nobody escaped the fury of the resulting swarm, including the horses.
“Everybody started to scream and yell and run,” recalls García. “And the only thing I wanted to do was keep rolling the tape, because it was getting dark and I needed to do that scene. Everybody had a different opinion about what to do. My costume designer started to scream, ‘Get cigarettes, because [tobacco] is good for the stings!’ and someone said, ‘No, you have to urinate on them,’ and another one said, ‘No, no, no, you have to put saliva on.’ There were 20 different solutions. And the producer started to scream, ‘Stop, let’s get out of here!’ and I was screaming, ‘The light! The light! Come on! We have to keep shooting!’ and the horse took off and we had to run and get the horse back.”
That’s not the kind of shoot García is accustomed to. Back in Buenos Aires, he graduated from the Escuela Superior de Arte Dramatico and won a scholarship to study at the International University of Paris. After school, he settled in Boston, where he produced a Hispanic show, Aquí, for a local TV station. In 1984, he won an Emmy for The Promised Land, a documentary about a government crackdown (and subsequent coverup) against a group of Puerto Rican New Yorkers who retuned to their homeland to found an egalitarian community in the late ’60s. The Puerto Rican government declared that they were illegal tenants on public property and subsequently wiped them off the map in an armed raid.
“It was an amazing story,” says García, who made 10 trips to the island to film the project. “Even the Puerto Rican people didn’t know too much about it. The government attacked [the settlers] with helicopters; they gassed them and shot them, hundreds of families. At night, they brought in bulldozers and they made an enormous hole and they pushed everything in. And they covered everything and they planted trees and built a park. The government said, ‘We’re going to erase you,’ and they did.”
For the past three years, García has lived in Washington, where he has produced documentaries on health and social issues relating to the Hispanic community and worked as a theater director and producer. (He helms a production of the Chilean play The Angel of Guilt for Gala through Dec. 21; see Curtain Calls, p. 50.) Timeless is only his second foray into fictional filmmaking. The first was an early short he made in Buenos Aires, Tango Libre, about an imaginary taxi cab encounter between Argentine author Jorge Luis Borges and tango legend Carlos Gardel.
“Documentaries are what I usually do, but this time the reality is more interesting than the fiction, and the fiction can help the documentary aspect,” he says. “I want people to have doubts about my storyDid that really happen? Did the Spanish really help George Washington?so the audience will wonder and decide, Well, we better find out. If I do it as fiction, people will think. Then I can create an extra motivation for the audience to explore and ask questions.”
To that end, García utilized footage he shot at last summer’s Fourth of July parade on MacArthur Boulevard in Palisades, tossing his cast in period dress into a street scene that also includes cars and contemporary spectators. “I went with three cameras, and you see the actors mixing in with the parade, and you see George Washington as a clown,” he says. “It was wild. We had tried to film the downtown parade at the Mall, but it was impossible because of the security.”
That juxtaposition of past and present also underscores what García says is the central theme of Timeless: that the struggle for social justice is an ongoing one. “This love story, which is really the love of us all for a cause, this love has traversed time,” says Carol Bidault de l’Isle, a local producer who plans to show the 30-minute Spanish-language film at several festivals around the United States this spring, and maybe at Cannes.
But even if the movie gains little notice, García says he’s satisfied with it. “Everybody wanted to help with this film,” he says. “I think it was as many as 50 peopleone of the first productions in Washington produced and directed and acted by local Hispanics, so that’s a historical event in itself. It was the most extraordinary experience in my life. And that’s saying a lot, because I lived in Honduras for eight years.” CP