Pioneers are always mistrusted. And much more so if the pioneer grew up in the surroundings of a remote Galician village at the end of the 19th century, where it was easy for his ideas to be taken for the extravagances of a crazy person. But José Gil (Rubiós, As Neves, 1870 – Vigo, 1937), was tenacious in pursuing his dream: making movies. The conquest of this dream and his devastating final nightmare are the origin of the exhaustive biography the enchanted days of augustthe work of Manolo González, which is being published these days by Editorial Galaxia and takes the title of one of the films by this filmmaker, which he always shot in that month.
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González, a reference prescriber in the history of Galician cinema, whether as a teacher, historian or promoter of new filmmakers, has dedicated decades of his life to investigating the life and work of this fascinating and little-known character. “We owe Gil an endless list of things in which he has been the first. In making documentaries, in setting up a laboratory or in creating a relationship with America, founding the ‘correspondence cinema’ for emigration”, contextualizes the author of the book about what he considers to be “the first audiovisual artist to live in Galicia”. .
First as a photographer who drank from the current of pictorialism, a clever publicist when this word did not exist, an innovative inventor, the first representative of Ford vehicles and, above all, the first filmmaker to cite the idea of ”a Galician regional cinema”, with his Galician film production company. If we add to this the personal tragedy that he experienced with the death of his three daughters and the painful last days of him, ruined and devastated, the circumstances turn Gil into a character that arouses a mixture of admiration and compassion.
“The personal and the professional mix organically in him; One cannot be explained without the other”, writes the biographer in the prologue. “Gil made himself. He is not an intellectual, he is not Meliès nor does he have that poetry, but he painted great, his photos are very interesting and marks the beginning of the story”, explains Manolo González, who between 1989 and 2002 searched the world for Galician centers and film libraries in countries like Cuba, Uruguay or Argentina, looking for traces of the first cans of films shot in Galicia. Despite the fact that there are 151 Gil films documented, only 7 cans were located. Something similar happens with his photographs. He may have made thousands, but there are barely a hundred originals located. “The cans are deposited in the CGAI, the Galician film library, a place abandoned by the Xunta, without direction or director for years, with absolute insouciance,” criticizes the discoverer of many of these works.
González arrived at the figure of Gil through a chain of curious coincidences. There was hardly any private information about him, he had not left any descendants or legacy any files. There was only trace of him in publications of the time. The historian began to kick the referential places in Gil’s life and it seemed that chance always placed the right person on the road. He knew that Gil had run the Royalty Cinema in the twenties in Ponteareas. He got there one day in 1986 and the first woman he met, Mrs. Maruxa, gave him a shocking testimony: “I was a girl and Don Pepe and his wife, Mrs. Trini, invited me to go to their cinema. They spent the afternoons projecting the films where their three daughters, who had died, came out ”, this woman told him, who would never forget the inconsolable sobs of the couple in the darkness of Royalty.
The narration impacted Manolo González, who searched for more for years and ended up delivering this book, in which the two passions of the author converge: cinema and history. “I was fascinated by Gil because of his lone sniper profile and because he was so unknown. In his day I spoke with historians like Carlos Velo or Arturo Cuadrado and they didn’t even know he existed, ”he recalls.
Being very young, at the end of the 19th century, José Gil moved to the Mondariz spa, where he began to develop his technique as a portrait photographer, under the protection of the high society that flourished around thermalism. He read professional magazines, was aware of photographic currents and was looking for an artistic intention. Gil followed the premises of pictorialism, “which seeks to incorporate pictorial techniques into photography, with elaborate settings and studied poses,” explains González. There he portrayed and met figures of the time such as the writer Carlos Arniches, the inventor of the submarine, Isaac Peral, or Emilia Pardo Bazán, who wrote to him years later about a portrait: “After a beautiful age, each portrait is a displeasure and the artist is not to blame”.
Gil later set up a studio in Ourense, but it was when he moved to Vigo in 1905 that his work took on a new dimension. His friend Jaime Solá named him the first artistic director of Galician life, a reference graphic publication in the Galician and Spanish press. The then thriving industrial bourgeoisie from Vigo, wealthy and refined, entrusted Gil with photos of him, “because having a photo of him gave social prestige.” explains his biographer.
The photographic business is booming, but Gil continues to dream of making movies. “I always wanted to innovate. He bought an expensive Lumière equipment that operated as a camera and a projector and began to make traveling cinema ”, González. He took the first moving images to the fairs, then an entertainment number that was mixed with acrobats, strongmen or camel vendors of crecepelo, but he also began to develop intelligent lines of business: industry and emigration.
The ‘correspondence cinema’
In 1913 more than 45,000 people left Vigo, more than half of them for Argentina, and Gil was the first to explore the path of ‘correspondence cinema’: cinematographic letters crossed between America and Galicia. Our parties there (1928), shot in the Val Miñor or Galicia and Buenos Aires (1931), made in O Condado, are documented examples of this type of work, “which existed until the 1960s,” explains González. José Gil is also cited as director of Miss Ledya, considered the first Galician fiction, filmed in 1916, in which Castelao even has a role, something that his biographer flatly denies: “It is a historical error. Gil participated as a cameraman and was there, but the director and scriptwriter was Rafael López de Haro from Madrid”.
Always an entrepreneur, José Gil took over the representation of the Ford brand. In 1914 he himself bought the first of these vehicles in Galicia and had the idea of filming a spots unusual in the bullring of Pontevedra. He put bullfighters and picadors in vehicles and from there they faced the calves. In one of the surviving photographs you can see a bizarre image: a picador puncturing a calf from the car, in what he calls “the mechanical picador”. “Gil sent a copy of the film to Henry Ford himself in Detroit, and he returned a letter from him congratulating him,” González recounts in his biography, which includes other episodes. For example, when he got into the wall of Lugo’s car adapted for filming and made a circular trolley around the wall with the camera on top of the car. “It would be wonderful to have those images today, but there is only one photo that documents it,” laments the historian, who adds that Gil patented vehicles such as the Autocine or the Reclame-Cinemóvil truck. The first was a car with a projector built into the cabin and the second, a kind of traveling cinema-truck that functioned as an advertising medium.
Endowed with ingenuity for publicity, his advertisements in the press are surprising for the time. “Make a movie of your loved ones and you will discover that they can never die that way,” said one of them. Another advertising phrase in which he describes his intentions is also anthology: “Gil does not work for the aggrandizement of his pocket, only for the aggrandizement of our land.”
Despite his intentions to magnify Galicia, Gil did not obtain the support of the Galician sector. “Galicianism initially ignored the cinema. It should not be understood as contempt, but simply that it was a novelty that was not in his field of interest. Fernández del Riego will recognize it later”, explains González, who provides a piece of information: in 139 issues of the magazine Us the word cinema does not appear, “a resounding absence”. However, a few years later, in June 1936, the Galician Party resorted to the Reclame-Cinemóvil Truck to use it as propaganda in the campaign in favor of the Statute of Autonomy.
the personal nightmare
At that point, life had already punished Gil with a chain of misfortunes. His only son died 15 days after birth and his three daughters did so in a period of just seven years, one after the other. They were all between the ages of 17 and 20 and all fell ill with tuberculosis. María, the first of them, called to follow her father’s trade, died in 1917. Gil commissioned the sculptor Francisco Asorey, the most prestigious of the moment, a large funerary sculpture for the grave of his eldest daughter in the Vigo cemetery of Pereiró. Rosita died in 1922 and Pepita in 1924.
Always tenacious, Gil tried to take flight in Vigo, where he shot several films with the help, once again, of the industrial bourgeoisie. The irruption of talkies and fiction, in which he had a project, came at the wrong time for José Gil. “He becomes an almost spectral image, dejected and wandering the streets of Vigo with his obsolete camera,” says Manolo González who, however, believes that the filmmaker still had things to contribute. “It’s a shame we don’t keep his latest films because in the written chronicles there is talk of a formal renewal of his work,” he explains. At that time, he says, with the premiere in Spain in 1925 of the founding work of the documentary, Nanook the Eskimo by Robert J. Flaherty, all documentalists are influenced.
The last years of his life were hard for Gil. Sick and depressed, in order to survive he put up ads to sell off his remaining belongings, including his prized laboratory and his movie-ready car. Without living descendants, estranged from his wife, Trinidad Sarabia, and from his brothers-in-law, also photographers, Gil knew that he was in the final stretch of the road. He continued to visit the Rubiós family home, but no longer with the opulent image of his Ford of yesteryear, but on a regular bus, “scruffy and abstracted”, according to the testimonies of several neighbors. In 1937, he got tired of living. He wanted to be in the pantheon of the Pereiró cemetery and for his ashes to rest next to his daughters, under the sculpture of Asorey. From being a celebrity, he went to ostracism, to invisibility under a white tombstone that does not even bear his name, “as if the epilogue were a simple blank screen,” says Manolo González.