The Camino de Santiago, also known as the Way of Saint James, is a network of pilgrimage paths that lead to Northern Spain and the shrine of Saint James The Great. Since 812 A.D., with the discovery of Saint James’s remains, the pilgrimage paths have been well traveled by those seeking something greater than themselves. Today, hundreds upon hundreds of travelers a day, most hiking, a few cycling, feel called whether by faith, the challenge of such an arduous journey, the experience, or the scenery to complete the multi-day trip. It is the most popular European pilgrimage, and movie buffs will recognize it as the setting for the wonderful drama The Way. Now, the documentary Strangers On The Earth artfully examines what it takes out of a person, and what it gives back to them, to trek the entire Camino de Santiago.
In 2014, cellist Dane Johansen set out to walk the Camino de Santiago, his instrument in tow, to do a series of six recording sessions; one session for each of Johann Sebastian Bach’s cello suites, some of the most complicated pieces ever written for that particular instrument. Soon though, he is playing multiple concerts at churches in towns nestled all over the Way to enthusiastic and responsive crowds. Walking all day, performing at the churches, playing on the trail, and making the documentary eventually takes its toll. Johansen at times finds himself exhausted, but he is determined to finish and make it to the cathedral housing Saint James.
Along the way, other travelers are interviewed about what they hope to achieve on the pilgrimage, how it has/ currently is affecting them, and who they have gotten to know over their expedition. These interviews are set mainly to the melodic melodies of Dane’s cello and offer some of Strangers On The Earth’s most insightful observations.
“The Camino de Santiago is a network of pilgrimage paths that lead to Northern Spain and the shrine of Saint James…”
One lady tells of how the people she started walking with, strangers all of them, are the same people she sees at the hotels and restaurants at the restful intervals. This gives her the motivation to keep pace and not turn back, as she does not want to disappoint her new friends. She becomes closest with one fellow, and she rehashes one day when she first starts her period and how this man helped her out in a huge way. It is a shockingly funny and sweet story that shows the best of humanity.
Equally inspiring are Johansen’s concerts at the churches, which amass great crowds. He is a gifted musician and hearing him play is quite moving. Also quite affecting is a wheelchair-bound man’s steadfast hope to accomplish the Odyssey in its entirety. Not just to partially walk the Way, but to cross the finish line, if you will.
Not all stories are as good-natured. Another fellow hiker recounts how he and a lady he met his first day grew very close as they walked together. They encouraged each other onward, but not all things end well. One night, she was charging her phone, using his charger. But his phone was about to die, so he needed to charge it. She has her own charger, and he asked her to use it so that he could charge his cell. Maybe it was a language barrier, perhaps she lost her charger and didn’t tell him, either way, she refuses. So, he unplugs her phone and charges his. They decide to start walking separately.
“…equally interested in all the different representations the journey means to each individual…”
Strangers On The Earth isn’t just about the people who dare to travel the Camino de Santiago. Director Tristan Cook is equally interested in all the different representations the journey means to each individual and what it may say about their ideology.
One man discusses how when having a conversation with another wanderer, there are many other levels of conversation happening- the level between the two of them, how it reveals things they haven’t necessarily acknowledged to themselves, how thought is intangible but always present, and how all these things intersect. The filmmaker sets such ramblings to the incredible native landscape that makes up much of the trip. The accompaniment of the scholarly musings and the natural vistas offer a sincere approximation of what these modern-day pilgrims discover out there on the pathway.
Strangers On The Earth sets itself a Herculean task; to replicate the soul-searching journey that takes place over many days and nights and several miles of a specific pilgrimage route. Due to a combination of sophisticated direction, an engaging human element, lofty ideas on the nature of self, and exquisite cinematography, all set a beautiful cello score, it succeeds in a profound way.
Strangers On The Earth (2018) Directed by Tristan Cook. Starring Dane Johansen.