Bob Gallagher’s short documentary El Vuelo Imposible del Guijarro (The Impossible Flight of The Stone) will premiere at this year’s Galway Film Fleadh.. The film, which was made in Cuba as part of a ten-day workshop with Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog, is a glimpse into the life of Yoel Gorrin, the barber of the small town of San Antonio De Los Banos, who is also a talented self-trained oil painter. Bob, who was the sole Irish participant selected for the workshop, spent his time filming in the small barber shop getting to know Yoel and his customers.
Bob gives Film Ireland an inside look at his experience.
What can you tell us your involvement in El Vuelo Imposible del Guijarro?
We were basically told to turn up with a camera, microphone and editing software, and that we should be totally self sufficient as filmmakers. We did two days scouting around San Antonio for cast and locations. Unsure if we were doing documentary or fiction. Werner gave us a basic set up of ‘through a window’ and encouraged us to find ourselves drawn into somewhere that intrigued us. I had a vague plan of doing a drama set in a barbershop so I was brought to Yoel’s, which is also his home. I was out of my depth with Spanish so was very relieved when he spoke perfect English. The first thing he asked me after I said where I was from was if I knew George Bernard Shaw and hurling. He’s a very well read man, really inquisitive and insightful. We got along instantly. He showed me his paintings and they were fascinating so I just dropped the idea of making a drama and asked him if I could make a film with him instead.
How did the project originally come about?
The workshop was run by Black Factory Cinema, who had previously done similar workshops with Abbas Kiarostami. 55 international filmmakers were selected to attend and it’s the only time Herzog has given a practical workshop. He insisted that he could teach us nothing except how to pick locks and forge documents, and as it happens, I was already adept at picking locks. He was adamant that filmmaking couldn’t be taught and that everyone had to learn for themselves, but I think a lot of the lessons were in taking his suggestions and putting them into practice on your own. In the case of my film, I showed Werner a rough cut and he suggested a line of dialogue. It was a documentary, so inserting dialogue isn’t something I would have thought to attempt in that context but he said, ‘All the best documentaries are staged.
What was it like working with Werner Herzog?
I filmed in Yoel’s barbershop where he also hangs his paintings, which are these overtly sexual surrealist pieces. Herzog told me to choose the right customer and get Yoel to ask, ‘Would you hang this painting in your house?’ and then instruct the customer to reply with something like ‘No, what if my mother saw this?!’. Herzog laughed wildly at this idea and then told me to go off and film it, which I did a little reluctantly. It really put the customer on the spot and the first two takes were really forced and didn’t work at all. It was funny though and on the third try once the nerves died down a bit it worked really well. Those lines are in the film and even though it was staged it worked brilliantly and unlocked a new element to the film where Yoel was comfortable having conversations with his customers about his paintings. A lot of the customers didn’t even realise he was the painter before that.
Working with Herzog was amazing because he’s a master but he’s also incredibly generous with his time and with ideas and has a boundless curiosity. He was encouraging but would also challenge you to always act in the best interest of the film. We disagreed a little over how I should end mine. He wanted a very abrupt ending to make something more mysterious and said, ‘Abbas Kiarostami would end the film here’, to which I had to reply that I’m not Abbas Kiarostami. I had a longer more convoluted ending in place but I went away and tried to pare it down to something more simple and essential. I cut in some footage Werner hadn’t seen and he really liked it, so in the end we were both happy with how it turned out. I think it hangs onto the air of the mystery that he liked but I also felt that it fulfilled my obligation to Yoel to show his work and give him a more rounded portrait.
On the final day, we had to screen our films. I credited it as ‘A conspiracy between Bob Gallagher and Yoel Gorrin’, which Herzog liked. He said ‘tell me about your conspiracy’. I talked about how the difficult part was trying to fit everything in, and how I realised how impossible it is to do justice to someone’s life in 300 seconds. Werner interrupted and said, ‘yes you had only 300 seconds but you used them beautifully!’ Even though we’d gotten used to being around him by that stage it was still very disarming to hear him talk directly about your work. It was a very positive end to our collaboration, one of those moments where I had to remind myself that I wasn’t just imagining the whole thing.
What was it like filming in Cuba?
The film is my first attempt at documentary so definitely a learning experience for me. Werner and Yoel were both very inspiring people, as were the other filmmakers I met. Some really amazing work came out of that group, and Cuba is an extraordinary place to film. The people of San Antonio were incredibly open and warm and accommodating. It was also fascinating to see how many interesting people and stories there were in this one small town that warranted films being made about them. It was a great lesson to see what was there to be discovered with open eyes. I feel very grateful to have been a part of it, and I’m delighted people are going to be able to see the film and experience Yoel’s work in Galway.
El Vuelo Imposible del Guijarro screens at the 29th Galway Film Fleadh as part of New Irish Shorts 8: Documentaries on Sunday, 16th July at the Town Hall Theatre at 10:00.
The 29th Galway Film Fleadh runs 11 – 16 July 2017