How a friend’s tragic death inspired ‘Gabriel and the Mountain’
When Brazilian director Fellipe Barbosa set out to make a film about how his childhood friend ended up dead on a mountaintop in southeast Africa, he went to exhausting lengths to get it exactly right.
“On the last day of the shoot, we walked four hours to arrive at the place where his body was found,” says Barbosa, whose movie, “Gabriel and the Mountain,” is out Friday.
In 2009, Barbosa’s late friend, Gabriel Buchmann, took cover under a large boulder after getting lost hiking on Malawi’s Mount Mulanje. He was eventually found dead by the large rock, two weeks after he was first reported missing, with most of his possessions but only one of his gloves.
“People were questioning me — ‘why did we walk all this way? How can we be sure this is the rock?’ ” says Barbosa, who was determined to find the right one. Fortunately, among the group hiking with Barbosa were the two men who’d actually found Buchmann’s body, and they knew where the location was. He’d hired them as set dressers, and, like most of the unconventional cast and crew, they were brought on because they had been part of Buchmann’s life. But, that day, they found more than just a boulder.
“We got under the rock, to see how we should film it,” says the director, on the phone with The Post from Rio. “And one of them puts his hand under the earth, and he feels something. And it is the second glove.”
It was one of many emotional behind-the-scenes moments. To make the film, Barbosa crisscrossed several African countries to re-create the last year of Buchmann’s life as the adventurous friend traveled around the continent. Actor João Pedro Zappa stars as Buchmann, but he’s one of the few professional actors in the film; Barbosa cast many of the real-life people his friend met on his journey as themselves.
Barbosa, 37, knew Buchmann from an early age. “We went to school together since we were 7, and then we studied economics together at university,” he says. “We had many close friends in common — it was a very tight group of friends from childhood.”
In 2008 and 2009, Buchmann spent a year traveling before he was set to start studying for a doctorate in economics at UCLA. An adventurous idealist interested in researching global poverty, he aimed to immerse himself in the places he visited and get far beyond the tourist experience. And he largely succeeded: One group of friends even made him an honorary Maasai member, gifting him a tunic he wore as he continued around the continent.
Barbosa found that some people who’d known Buchmann hadn’t heard about his death.
“Sometimes,” he says, “I had to break the news to them.” Almost everyone was immediately onboard to be a part of the film. “They were very excited about reenacting these moments with Gabriel. It was like having his prophecy fulfilled, in a way, because he’d told all of them he would be back.”
The one holdout was the last guide who’d taken Buchmann up Mount Mulanje. Buchmann had insisted on going further than the guide advised, and the man was reluctant to revisit that moment.
“I did an audition with him — the scene where Gabriel leaves him,” says Barbosa, who played Gabriel while the man played himself. “And he wouldn’t let me go. We were playing the scene for 15 minutes. And I felt for him at that point. I understood his pain, how he was trying to rewrite history.”
Barbosa also wanted to de-mythologize his friend, painted in Brazilian media as a wonderful guy who’d just had some bad luck.
“He made some very poor choices. As smart as he could be, he could also be very stupid,” he says. “And I understand that. When you’re traveling, you can feel so strong. You feel invincible.”
Barbosa doesn’t know if the film has brought him closure, exactly, but thinks it may have helped Buchmann’s spirit find peace.
“He died of exposure. It’s a very sweet death, you go to sleep and don’t wake up,” he says. “I [have] this feeling he went to sleep thinking he was going to wake up. I feel like I was helping him come to terms with what happened.”