A forgotten man and his photographs are brought back from oblivion in the fascinating docu “Jacques Leonard, el Payo Chac.” The remarkable life story of the titular photographer, writer and adventurer is told largely through his stunning photos of the gypsy community in which he chose to live. Pic compresses enough into its short running time to merit twice its length as it touches lightly on memory and forgetfulness, the breakdown of cultural barriers and the search for one’s roots, all universal themes that should help this well-crafted, evocative item find a deserved home in fest sidebars.
In 2010, thousands of photographic negatives were rescued by Leonard’s sons Santiago and Alex, the film’s main interviewees, from boxes in the attic of the house where Leonard, a talented but private man who had cared little for marketing his considerable skills, died in 1995. (Helmer Yago Leonard is the photog’s grandson.)
Along with Leonard’s unpublished memoir, the photos tell the story of a life spent traveling the globe, working as a furniture restorer and film editor (with Abel Gance, according to one interviewee), becoming part of the Madrid intelligentsia after the Spanish Civil War, and meeting and falling in love in 1952 with Rosario Amaya, a beautiful Barcelona gypsy whom he married — and who proudly turned down an offer to pose for Salvador Dali, glimpsed in some of the photos. The development of their relationship is described via wonderfully evocative extracts from Leonard’s memoir.
Docu is structured achronologically, so that secrets from Leonard’s past are revealed only after viewers feel they’ve gotten to know him. The explanation of why he chose to marry into a community where non-gypsies are at best unwelcome reps an authentic surprise, as does another family development that yields the pic’s most emotionally intense scenes.
Footage mainly consists of reminiscences with family and friends, but the black-and-white images depicting a Romany way of life that’s now largely disappeared haunt most. Beautiful as art and invaluable as testimony, Leonard’s shots are rare period examples of photographs taken from within the community, free of the eroticizing tendencies that mar other records of gypsy people at the time. Inevitably prevalent among them are dozens of images of the striking Amaya.
The attractive flamenco-based music by Lisandro Rodriguez, sometimes jaunty and sometimes lyrical, is crucial to defining the mood. Regarding the title, “El Payo Chac” was Leonard’s gypsy name, and literally means “Chac (Jacques), the non-gypsy.”