The Camino De Santiago, or The Way of St. James, is an ancient pilgrimage, dating back over a thousand years, that offers a journey of self-discovery. Roughly 500 miles long (depending on the chosen route), the pilgrimage attracts people from all over the world, many who come to find themselves, or escape a past trauma. It’s the perfect subject for a documentary, and a wonder it hasn’t happened before.
Enter Noel Smyth and Fergus Grady, a filmmaking duo with minimal experience but a solid vision. Grady’s background is in theatrical movie sales while Smyth edits amateur documentaries. Together, they’ve put on their walking boots, grabbed some camera equipment and joined a bunch of Aussie and Kiwi pilgrims on the long walk south from France to northwest Spain.
Initially the walk sounds like a fun romp, and quite where the film will find something interesting to say remains unclear. But then the backstories of the walkers take over. We find out what’s driving them, much as we might had we met them on the journey and listened to Julie, Mark, Terry, Cheryl, Susan and others ramble on for hundreds of miles.
One walker has crippling arthritis and her husband of 30-odd years left her for another woman. Another lost her husband and son in separate, tragic accidents. Then there’s a man walking in honour of his terribly sick daughter. They’re all driven by a singular purpose – to understand, or at least come to terms with their place in the world.
One of the biggest challenges in documentary filmmaking is to tell a personal story up close without affecting the subject at hand. In Camino Skies, the subjects are so driven by their own demons that the presence of the camera, for the most part, seems incidental to them. As they walk and talk to one another, they tell their stories naturally. There’s very little need for the crew to spur them on and no gimmicks to get them talking.
It’s helpful that the filmmaking team is so small – Smyth and Grady are part of a tiny crew, making a film on a shoestring budget, advertising on Indiegogo to raise the funds to have a poster designed and music rights cleared. With such a small team following the walkers, they’re able to hide in plain sight.
Smyth’s confidence with the camera helps. He focuses on the small moments, intruding perhaps on the subjects as they reach a nadir, breaking down in personal moments of reflection or physical pain. Yet he remains somehow supportive, finding the beauty in their gestures of love or remembrance. Picking out shots as they disappear down tunnels or stomp through muddy pathways.
On the surface, Camino Skies appears to be a predictable tale of pain and redemption, and while it does offer glimpses of hope and the odd piece of uplifting music, for the most part, this is a mature, respectful doc that shines a light on something previously hidden.
Smyth and Grady don’t rely on mawkish tropes to elicit audience reaction. Yes, there are moments of stark truth from the walkers, yet at the end of the journey they aren’t shown to have found peace, rather, they’re just a group of people who feel a little bit better about taking life on, one step at a time.
- Director: Fergus Grady, Noel Smyth
- Starring: Manny Domingo, Neill Le Roux, Sue Morris
- Released: May 8 (Curzon Home Cinema)