Every year thousands of people travel to Spain to embark on a pilgrimage across the trail of El Camino de Santiago to the shrine of the apostle St. James. Director Tristan Cook, along with his crew and cellist Dane Johansen, invite us to join them on El Camino in Strangers on the Earth.
Although walking El Camino has a religious beginning, many people undertake the pilgrimage for a myriad of reasons. Some people do it it as a vacation, others are looking for answers to life’s questions, and others decide to go after seeing the film The Way.
El Camino extends across 600km, which makes for a long, quiet journey. The journey for Johansen began from an idea to walk El Camino with his cello on his back, performing Bach’s Suites for Solo Cello in 36 churches along the route. As the film and the journey progress, Johansen and others on the trail talk about their reasons for making the pilgrimage. The soundtrack to their journey is a mix of nature sounds and Johansen’s cello. The images of El Camino, the pilgrims’ testimonials, and the cello music round up the experience of what this journey is about… introspection.
At the premiere of the film in Toronto this past weekend, Cook was present for a Q&A session. The audience in attendance was truly impressed with the film. Many in attendance were previous El Camino pilgrims or pilgrims-to-be. Someone asked Cook about his own journey on El Camino; to which he replied this film is not his own pilgrimage. His experience was that of the guide between us and those on the trail. He was “a fly on the wall” so to speak.
His goal was to take the viewers “inside the brain of someone walking… to listen to what they were experiencing internally [as they walked the Camino]”. Cook describes Strangers on the Earth as an “experiential documentary.” This description of the film is spot on.
As I had a moment to ask Cook my own questions, we discussed the idea of the experiential documentary. It is my opinion that the Spanish narration, by Gonzalo F. Gonzalez-Cayon, early on sets the tone for the film. Cook agreed, he described the narration as “quickly and efficiently [setting] the table for people who do not know what El Camino is.”
We also discussed how Cook and the team organized itself for the journey. Once the ball started running, there was no turning back. Part of the funding for the film came from a Kickstarter campaign; the rest of the funding was obtained via private donations. This allowed for the crew of 9 to get a production vehicle in which to carry the equipment. The crew took turns walking El Camino and being in the production vehicle. Cinematographer Iskra Valtcheva was Cook’s eyes on the road, while he was inside the vehicle. Valtcheva’s frames beautifully complement the mood of the film.
In order to include other pilgrims’ experiences in the film, the crew in the vehicle would go ahead to the next town to arrange interviews with other pilgrims. The interviews aimed to include as many perspectives as possible. Interestingly enough, “people opened up quite nicely.” The crew created a sound booth in the bottom of a bunk bed at the various hostels (albergues) on the trail, by covering it with blankets and setting up microphones. Speaking with people in this dark and cozy place provided Cook with the opportunity to speak candidly about many themes. The result is a series of very introspective, and at times curiously funny, testimonials.
Another important element in the film is the music. From my perspective, the music helps bring the audience into this journey as well. As Cook describes it, the soundtrack is an element of the film that “helps the audience connect with Johansen doing the walk.” At times, nothing’s been said but there is this music… beautiful and moving evoking various emotions.
What is evident while watching Strangers on the Earth is that there is more to El Camino than simply the pilgrimage. The film is not a ‘road movie’; it is a very interesting look at the many ups and downs pilgrims encounter along the trail. This is neither an easy nor a predictable journey. The camera places us right on the trail, beside those walking El Camino. As I watched the film, especially towards the end in Finisterre, I found myself reflecting upon what this pilgrimage represents for people. Cook described it best, “[El] Camino is pure metaphor.” And that is the point of this film — it allows us to partake in this journey and make our own meaning of El Camino…
Strangers on the Earth continues its run in Toronto at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema until May 17, 2017. For screening times and box office information, visit the cinema’s website.