Michael Hayward's Blog

VIFF 2016: "Strangers on the Earth"

Michael Hayward

The October 2nd screening of Strangers on the Earth at the Playhouse was the film's world premiere, and American cellist Dane Johansen, who plays now for the Cleveland Orchestra, opened by playing some of Bach's Suites for Solo Cello.

In 2008 Johansen, inspired by a friend's walk along the Appalachian Trail, decided that he wanted to walk the Camino, the ancient pilgrimage route across northern Spain, from the Pyrenees to the cathedral at Santiago de Compostella, where legend has it that the bones of St. James are interred. What's more: he wanted to do it while carrying his cello on his back. As he notes in his blog, he was "searching for a new way to approach recording the Six Suites for Solo Cello by Johann Sebastian Bach; a rite of passage for all cellists, [and] I realized that recording the Bach Suites in churches along the Camino de Santiago would be a perfect continuation of my lifelong musical pilgrimage with Bach." Strangers on the Earth document's Johansen's 2014 walk along the Camino, during which he played 35 concerts featuring the Cello Suites.

The Camino is perhap the most famous pilgrimage on earth, and over 200,000 people now make their way along the route each year. The opportunities for solitary spiritual reflection while walking the Camino (the original purpose for this ancient pilgrimage) are becoming fewer and fewer, and a number of shots in Strangers on the Earth make this clear: stretches of the route crowded with people, with cyclists carefully picking their way through the throng.

There are already dozens of films which describe and document the Camino, and at one point in Strangers on the Earth Johansen credits one of them, The Way (2010), starring Martin Sheen, for inspiring a fresh wave of American "pilgrims." The Camino has become a modern "bucket list" item for so many.

I wish I could say that Strangers on the Earth brings something new to the genre of the Camino film, but it has great difficulty making up its mind just what kind of film it wants to be: a record of one young man's musical journey along the route; or a portrait of the Camino as it is today. At one point in the Q&A following the film Johansen mentioned that the 10-person team who accompanied him on the journey had been making (ie editing) the film in real-time, as his journey was taking place. This may account for the film's lack of focus.

There's a website about Johansen's journey here; you can watch a trailer for the film here.

Strangers on the Earth has one more VIFF screening at 10:00 a.m. October 9th, 2016, at Vancity Theatre



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