By Fran Guijarro
Feb 11, 2013
San Franciscans pass by panhandlers every day. Some give change. A few smile. Fewer still strike up a conversation. It's likely that only one has ever formed a relationship with a panhandler strong enough to lead to years of documentary filmmaking and, perhaps most unlikely of all, a real friendship. But that is the story of Fran Guijarro, a 30-year-old filmmaker from Malaga, Spain, who teaches at the Academy of Art University, and Alvin Carbins, 57, known as "Moses" for his wisdom and the long white beard he keeps together with a ponytail holder.
The men's lives intersected in 2007 outside a Starbucks on New Montgomery Street in downtown San Francisco. Carbins has been a regular there for 20 years - "my office, I call it," he said on a recent morning at Guijarro's kitchen table in the Haight. Until recently, Carbins spent a couple of hours panhandling most evenings and usually scored $10 or $15 a night to supplement his Social Security check. "I don't lie," he said proudly. "I don't carry signs. I don't carry cups. I just talk to people one-on-one." Now, the unusual pairing is at a crossroads, with Carbins vowing to make healthier choices and Guijarro trying to finish his film, "Moses," but needing money to do it.
Five years ago, Guijarro was a student on a scholarship from Spain to study advertising and filmmaking at the Academy of Art. He had the idea for a short film called "I Wish." The central character was a panhandler, and he wanted to find a real one to be his star. He couldn't make inroads with anybody - until he stumbled on Carbins after leaving class one evening. Carbins cracked a joke neither of them can remember. That would be the first of hundreds of meetings between the two men, and Guijarro began bringing his camera along each time. Carbins eventually agreed to be the star of "I Wish," which the two made in 2008. The film takes place at the Martin Luther King Jr. monument in Yerba Buena Gardens and shows a panhandler being ignored by tourists who toss coins into the monument's fountain to make wishes, but can't be bothered to give change to him. At the film's conclusion, he makes a small replica of the fountain, with water pumped through it, and finally gets tourists' attention - and change.
In 2009, Guijarro entered the film in a Spanish film festival and, ever the advertiser, also created a series of online film vignettes to promote it. The story spread through the Spanish national media, and a Spanish ad agency tried flying the two to the 2010 festival where "I Wish" won an award. Carbins, however, had no passport. U.S. Rep. Nancy Pelosi's office stepped in, but the volcano in Iceland that spewed ash over the Atlantic meant their flight was canceled.
One man's story
By then, Guijarro had countless hours of footage of Carbins' daily life and decided that was the real film project. "I needed to make a documentary on Moses." Carbins grew up in Flint, Mich., as one of five children. He never knew his father, and his mother struggled to support the family. He started getting in trouble as a teenager, and when he was 15, his mother sent him to live with his older brother in San Francisco. He joined the local painters' union and played the guitar in a band. He was in a long-term relationship with a woman, and the two had a baby girl and bought a home in the Excelsior district. He blames his friends for getting him into drugs of "every kind." He split with his partner, and he hasn't seen their daughter, now in her 30s, since she was 4. He said he is bipolar and suffers from sciatica, and he could no longer keep a job. "I basically just was alive, not living," he said.
He spent years on the streets, sleeping under freeway overpasses and panhandling. A city homeless outreach team eventually got him inside a Tenderloin SRO hotel four years ago, but he said that just made scoring drugs easier.
"Just being alone and having the money available, I smoked crack," he said. "It's a vicious hook."
Carbins allowed Guijarro to spend a few nights at his hotel, where he smoked marijuana and crack and popped pain medication on camera. Guijarro said that was the most difficult part of filming - to record all the bad choices his friend was making. Other parts of filmmaking were more fun, including finally traveling to Spain together last year. Carbins saw Picasso's "Guernica," ate paella and met Guijarro's family. They also went to Chicago for a Carbins family reunion orchestrated by Carbins' brother, who lives in Redwood City, and is slowly reconciling with the panhandler he'd long given up for dead.
Now, both filmmaker and subject are at a fork in the road.
Guijarro recently quit his job at an advertising agency to devote his time to finishing "Moses," but needs $50,000 to do it.
He also finally persuaded Carbins to enter a three-month rehab program on the Peninsula. Guijarro allowed him to spend a few nights in his Haight apartment before entering rehab so he could remain clean for the required three days. Carbins has now been in rehab for a few weeks. Guijarro admitted he's become more friend than filmmaker, which can muddy a documentary. "I'm making things happen, yeah, you might put it that way," he said. "But that's my friend part. It's first Moses and then the movie." Guijarro has visited Carbins in rehab once so far, and said his friend has put on weight and is keeping a journal and writing a song for his long-lost daughter. Two days before entering rehab, Carbins said he's finally realized he has friends and family pushing for his recovery. "That's what's waking me up. If you have that, anything can grow," he said. "It's the most fertile soil in life."
Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Moses-filmmaker-changes-S-F-panhandler-s-life-3657119.php#ixzz2Kb8jjFuX