“Radio Bandido” is a recent documentary directed by Pepe Urquijo about the mysterious death of his friend Oscar Gomez in 1994. Gomez was a DJ at the UC Davis college radio station who came to visit UCSB. He was later found dead on an Isla Vista beach shore with blunt head trauma. The official explanation for the death was that Gomez got drunk and fell off a cliff, but that didn’t seem to be a satisfactory explanation for Urquijo or Gomez’s family. The film is a sort of biography/mystery narrative, with scenes showing the devotion Gomez had to his Chicano community and his radio show, as well as Urquijo trying to find out what really killed Oscar. Was it a fight with a friend’s roommate? Was it a crazy racist skinhead? Was it a conspiracy?
On the one hand, this is a highly personal film that was obviously made out of love, passion and dedication, and that is to be commended. While the director answered questions, I could see the tears forming in his eyes as he talked about the subject of Gomez’s death, saying that “even after 17 years, I still remember him.” This is a film made from the heart, and every frame is soaked with the kind of energy that can only come out of true love.
It’s a story that Urquijo obviously feels needs to be told. And, in a lot of ways, the death of Oscar Gomez touches on a variety of issues, such as coping with loss, the power of family ties and friendship, and, in a broader sense, the subjugation of the Chicano community. Oscar was a prolific radio DJ on a Chicano music station at UC Davis, and he was very involved in the activism of the era, which was shown vis-a-vis voiceovers of his radio show. The use of home movie footage also hit some emotional notes during the viewing.
However, this passion and love was perhaps also the documentary’s biggest weakness. There was a lot that was assumed to be true, rather than shown. Unfortunately, the average viewer, like me, did not know Gomez, so much of the film did not strike as much of an emotional chord in me as it could have if I had gotten to know him first, and understood why he impacted so many people and why he has become a symbolic figure.
The other main issue of the film is Urquijo, shown on screen, trying to actively find closure for the death. There is an investigative aspect to the narrative that I felt simply did not work. It didn’t help to make Oscar sympathetic (some versions of the story involve him getting in a drunken fight over drugs rather than simply being drunk) and, worse, it didn’t go anywhere (they find no answers).
However, this is a rough cut (with inter-titles for uncut footage and everything), so there’s a chance edits will be made. If so, my suggestion is to focus on what made Oscar special besides his radio show, or at least emphasize what his radio show accomplished in more concrete terms that someone like me — who didn’t know him — can relate to. Secondly, Urquijo should drop the “detective” thread of trying to find closure in my opinion. As tragic as his death was, Gomez is gone, and I feel that trying to find out how he died isn’t as important as celebrating how he lived, and this thread of the documentary undercuts rather than underscores that point.
Urquijo is able to dole out information in a way that is interesting — even those detective moments — and the documentary is never boring or dull. His closeness to the subject matter is obvious, and will hopefully touch a chord in those who are involved in activism, who seek justice and who have experienced loss.