“This movie happened by accident.” The first idea, claims an opening title card in Vuelve a la vida (Back to Life), was to do research for a fiction film about a “legendary shark hunt.” But upon meeting the subjects, the filmmakers changed course: “We realized it would be best if they told their own story.”
The result is a remarkable documentary, screening 21 June at Stranger Than Fiction at the IFC Center, followed by a Q&A with director Carlos Hagerman. The film not only tells this story, of a shark hunt, or even multiple stories, but also stories about storytelling.
As soon as people start talking, you see why Hagerman might have adjusted his thinking. In Acapulco, everyone knows the saga of Hilario Martinez Valdivia, also known as “Long Dog,” fearless, fun-loving, and endlessly charismatic. A scuba diver by trade, “He had an extraordinary talent for it,” exults an elderly man with a gorgeous white mustache, sitting so the sea and sky stretch behind him. “He could be underwater four or five minutes with no equipment!” Indeed, Hilario once instructed the Kennedy brothers and Johnny Weissmuller — a bit of history accompanied by photographs that aren’t precisely illustrative, the Kennedy boys looking typically tanned and glamour shots of Tarzan. The legend is the point, the memory, not the documentation.
“He always carried a knife when he dove,” remembers one of Hilario’s children: “Like this!” –and he holds his hand close to his hip, as if ready to slash. The man with the mustache recalls too that Hilario had a special relationship with a giant stingray whose name was Ophelia: “She was his girlfriend.” A veteran fisherman, perched on a bright blue boat, confirms: “It’s true, I saw it with my own eyes,” he says, widening them for effect. “She would hover over him.”
It’s plain that Hilario, who died in 2002, is beloved by all who knew him. Moreover, he inspires in his friends and family all manner of narrative, by turns poetic, dramatic, and expansive. In Hilario, they see themselves reflected, their good times, their losses, and their joy in life. His wife Robyn Sidney — once a fashion model in New York (“I had gotten into the modeling profession,” she says, “making a lot of money, Vogue, Harper’s, all those great magazines”) says she was won over almost immediately. She had come to Acapulco, she remembers, to escape “some personal problems in my marriage,” and lo, she found Hilario. Yes, she learned late that he had “two women and eight children,” but he wasn’t married. And they were in love.
Hilario, says Robyn, was “muy romantico.” And so she packed up and moved to Mexico, with her young son John Grillo. Today, he’s rather like Hilario, singing the same songs while playing his guitar. Back then, he was confused, John explains, feeling American and Mexican at once, “never fitting in, neither here nor there.” John’s grandmother remembers how sad it was when the little boy saw his own father just before the move. “He took you someplace, you had ice cream, he brought you back,” she says, over home movies of a child in sunlight. “You laid down on the floor, curled up like a little ball and you wouldn’t move.” As she tried to comfort him, she says, “I kept talking to you, I got you off he floor and gave you something to eat, but you were very sad.” She told John, “These things leave marks on you. And anyway, you went to Mexico.”
These things leave marks on you. Surprises and traumas, pleasures and tragedies. And as John remembers Hilario’s generosity and warmth, he’s moved to this day. At first, he says, he didn’t know what to call this man, tall and athletic and so different from his new son, who was pale and freckled like his mother. Hilario helped him to feel part of a large, new family, lots of kids who ran in the sun, who swam in blue water, who shared stories.
Such sharing is the focus of Vuelve de la vida, structured much like the ceviche for which it is named, a fish stew made with whatever fresh catch is available on a given day (it is also, notes the film, a renowned cure for a hangover). The storytelling is a group activity, as the film cuts from one speaker to another, each filling in pieces of memories, sometimes matching, other times not exactly. In rethinking what a documentary might do, focusing less on ascertaining what happened than how it felt, the film is not so much about that shark, the one Hilario and his community were able to bring to shore, by coming together. It’s more about the coming together.