Saturday, February 5, 2011

Among Wolves: Director's Personal Tale Of Search For Man Who Grew Up In The Wild As Intriguing As His Film

EntreLobos (AmongWolves), the excellent new movie by Spanish director Gerardo Olivares, tells the remarkable story of a poor country boy named Marcos, who at the age of 7 is handed over to his father's employer, a rich landowner, who in turn delivers him to a life of labor with a hermitic goatherd in an isolated valley. The old man, who lives in a cave, is unused to human company and at first seems not very interested in having a live-in apprentice. The boy, who was abused by his parents, is frightened and equally aloof initially. Despite this, the shepherd begins teaching Marcos how to herd the goats, as well as how to care for himself and how to survive in the wilderness by trapping and fishing.

The two develop an affection for each other, and the boy befriends the goatherd's animal companions: a ferret, a civet, and an owl. Unfortunately, the goatherd soon becomes ill and dies, leaving Marcos to fend for himself. For the next twelve years he has virtually no contact with human beings, but does make additional animal friends - the wolves of a nearby den.

This beautiful film is based on the incredible experiences of Marcos Rodríguez Pantoja, who lived alone in the Sierra Morena mountains from 1953 to 1965, when he was captured by members of Spain's Guardia Civil and returned to civilization at 19 years of age. But there's another intriguing narrative connected to all of this: the story of how the director found his hero.

According to a post on Olivares' blog, he came across the story in January 2007, after reading in a newspaper about a girl who spent twenty years lost in the Cambodian jungle. The article contained the web address, a site with more accounts of children who grew up with animals. Being in the story telling business, Olivares clicked on the link thinking it might be a good place to find an interesting tale.

There he found more than 100 documented cases of children who were either confined by their parents, abandoned, or lost in the wild, but who lived thanks to their instinct for survival. These reports included that of 7 year old Traian Caldaro, a Romanian boy who hid in the mountains of Transylvania for three years in order to escape an abusive home, and the story of Reverend Joseph Singh, a missionary in India who discovered feral twin girls living with a pack of wolves in the jungle.

Olivares was reading through the histories on the list when he noticed a Spanish name, Marcos Pantoja, followed by the location Sierra Morena, Spain. Sensing that a good story might be hiding behind these details, he clicked over to a page full of information that he soon realized contained the perfect ingredients for a movie script.

Olivares says that when he finished reading the report, he put his head in his hands, and hoped Pantoja was still alive. If the information was correct, he would have been 62 years old.

He saw a small black and white photo on the top right hand side of the page, and below that a box with the words "Learn more about Marcos Pantoja at ..." and the title of a book: "Marcos: Wild Child of the Sierra Morena." He clicked and found the name of the author, Gabriel Janer Manila, the publisher, Prometheus Books, and a link to purchase it. He ordered a second-hand copy for $6 from a bookstore in Portland, Oregon, then typed the name of Marcos Pantoja in Google, but nothing came up. Next he tried entering the name of the book's author, and found him listed as a professor of anthropology and sociology at the University of the Balearic Islands. He sent the professor an email asking if they could meet, and received a reply a few days later inviting Olivares to come to his office in Palma de Mallorca.

The meeting with Dr. Manila shored up the amazing details of the story, supported by the anthropologist's doctoral thesis, the subsequently published book, and the fact that British playwright Kevin Lewis had written a play called Marcos, about the young man's social reintegration process.

Nevertheless, as incredible as the tale was, it had seemed to have fallen into oblivion. Not only was there not much of a trace on the web, but Dr. Manila had not heard any news of Pantoja for 15 years, and thought he might be dead. "Gerard, Marcos was a very fragile man who suffered much, so do not be surprised if his life has ended tragically," he told the director.

A few weeks later Olivares was sitting in the office of the mayor of Añora, the town where Pantoja was born. The mayor had never heard his story, and initially had difficulty believing it. However, she did a little research and came up with his birth certificate, the address of the house where he had been born and even a family member, who told Olivares that the last time she had heard of her cousin had been 13 years earlier. At that time he was living in a cave near Alhaurín, in the Andalusian province of Malaga. She had gone to look for him, but could not find him and was told by someone who worked in a bar he frequented that he had not been seen around there in a while.
Olivares worried that perhaps like the cousin he had reached a dead end in his search – but he was not ready to give up. He was planning to continue his research by visiting Alhaurín when his producer José María Morales suggested hiring a private detective.

Apparently Morales knew a woman who had recently hired an investigator to find out if her husband was having an affair, and within 24 hours of doing so was presented with photographs of him in a compromising situation. Olivares thought, "Why not," called the detective, and gave him the pertinent information. Later that same night he received a call telling him not to bother going to Alhaurín because Pantoja was living in the town of Orense, in the region of Galica - and here was his phone number. Olivares says that he was so thrilled by the news that when he hung up the phone his hands were shaking.

Here is a translation of his description of what happened when he called the number:
The phone rang several times before someone with a Galician accent answered on the other end. I introduced myself and asked if Marcos, the man who was isolated in the Sierra Morena for 12 years, lived there. The man was silent for a few seconds before answering.
"Yes, he lives here, but what do you want?
I explained in detail that after discovering his story I had spent almost a year looking for him, about Gabriel the anthropologist, about visiting his house in Añora, and that there were family members who wanted to know how he was.
"I don't know if he will want to talk to you, but call back in ten minutes."
I didn't wait even three minutes before calling back, I was so anxious to talk to Marcos.
It was him, and on hearing his voice at last, I choked up. I felt a lump in my throat and could hardly speak.

"Hello paisano, I've spent nearly a year looking for you ... Finally I've found you."
Marcos let out a laugh.
"I've met some of your family who have also been trying to find you..."
He was silent and then replied:
"Well, my life has been hard..."
"I know. I'd like to meet you and talk at length."
"Then come around here, I live in... But how did you find me?"
"Tomorrow I can tell you the whole story in person, if it's not inconvenient"
"Tomorrow? Okay, no problem for me."
I hung up the phone and sat in silence, just smiling for a while. The next day, I was finally going to meet Marcos.
Ten months had passed since Olivares had first read about the little Spanish boy who found himself alone in the wild and survived thanks to the lessons of a destitute goatherd and the friendship of wolves. Over the next two years Marcos Rodríguez Pantoja cooperated with the director on the filming of his fascinating story. He appears in the last scene of the movie, as himself - happily playing with a wolf on a mountainside.

EntreLobos (Among Wolves), 2010, written and directed by Gerardo Olivares, starring Juan José Ballesta, Carlos Bardem, and Manuel Camacho. Music by Klaus Bedelt and Andrew Reiher.

Cross posted at Carloz Newsvine. Comments accepted there.