Jewish Bulletin of Northern California
July 16, 1999

S.F. couple's documentary uncovers a gripping story of social injustice

Bulletin Correspondent

When is a Puerto Rican teenager an instrument of tikkun olam, repair of the world?

When he is seen through the lens of documentary filmmaker Gary Weimberg.

"For me, making television about human beings with human problems is very much about redemption," the 42-year-old San Francisco resident said last week. "As a teenager, I wanted to be a rabbi -- to spend all my days caring about people and trying to make the world a better place.

"Making documentary films lets me do all the things I wanted to do as a rabbi, except now I can reach millions of people."

Weimberg's latest film, made with Catherine Ryan, his partner in life and work for the past 20 years, will be aired Friday, July 30 on KQED-TV Channel 9. "The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez" already has won Best Documentary at the San Antonio Cinefestival, the Athens Film Festival and the Big Muddy Film Festival.

This true story of a Puerto Rican boy, born Guillermo Morales but raised in Mexico under another name, raises issues of identity, immigration and cultural conflict as well as concerns about the justice system.

Guillermo's parents, both Puerto Rican revolutionaries, sent their infant son away in order to protect him. Eventually the boy, now known as Ernesto Gomez Gomez, learns the truth about his origins and, at 15, sets out on a remarkable odyssey to reconstruct his history and, hopefully, integrate the disparate elements of his life.

Hunted by the U.S. authorities, the father, Guillermo Sr., escaped to Cuba, and was essentially lost to his son. Dylcia Pagan, his mother, had been sentenced to a federal prison and was serving a term of 55 years.

The boy's journey takes him from his home in Chihuahua, Mexico, to Northern California, where he gains American citizenship and becomes involved in the movement to free Puerto Rican Independistas from U.S. jails.

It was at this point that Weimberg and Ryan, both multiple Emmy Award-winners, came into the picture.

"We've kind of established a reputation for working for good causes," Weimberg explained. "When Ernesto came to town he was very lonely. The woman who was taking care of him knew that he had an interest in photography and thought he would benefit from some adults taking him to the movies or something.

"She had heard about us and called us cold. Simple as that. So we did it. We pretty much became friends right away and, when he saw some of our earlier videos, he said: 'I would like to make a film that would help to free my mother.'

"Now why would a Jewish guy want to make a film about a woman who is essentially the Puerto Rican Nelson Mandela?" he continued. "Well, I grew up with a lot of privileges. The Puerto Ricans don't have the time or money to tell their story. It was something I could do."

He hopes the film will have an impact. It already has been brought to the attention of Vice President Al Gore.

"There are more people in prison in California than any state or country in the world," Weimberg noted. "When I met Ernesto, his mother was serving a sentence just 60 miles away from me [in Dublin]. I didn't know.

"When I was growing up in Southern California, I was very active in a Reform Jewish youth group. We learned a lot about the Holocaust and I kept wondering how the Germans could let it happen; how they could say: 'I didn't know'."

"Part of what I was doing in this documentary is what I wished they had done in Germany -- to say 'Hey, wake up and pay attention to people.'"

"The Double Life of Ernesto Gomez Gomez" airs at 10 p.m. Friday, July 30 on POV, KQED-TV Channel 9.