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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


Of caminos and climbs: embracing the path

Gerald Schmitz


Strangers on the Earth (U.S./Spain 2016)
Hobnails and Hemp Rope (Canada 2016)

Big summer movies tend to offer more escape than enlightenment. But there are some winners. I’ve already praised The Big Sick, one of the sharpest comedies in years. Another South By Southwest festival hit is Baby Driver, which I’ll review next time. Other notable releases arrive in the coming weeks. Here, however, I want to focus on several much smaller films about remarkable summertime journeys.

Tristan Cook’s poignant documentary Strangers on Earth (the title is from a biblical verse) follows a 2014 walk along the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James) by American professional cellist Dane Johansen, who carries the instrument on his back the entire 965 kilometres. Along the way he stops to give free concerts in 36 historic churches playing compositions by J.S. Bach. Some of the stages are arduous, but Johansen perseveres to perform under difficult conditions, sharing the gift of sublime music with all on the path. As the film’s tagline puts it, “every pilgrim goes their own way.” Johansen’s is certainly unique (read more about it at:

Johansen takes the popular “camino francès” route, starting in St. Jean Pied de Port, crossing the Pyrenees into Spain then eventually to the great cathedral of Santiago de Compostella and beyond to Fisterra on the rugged Atlantic coast. I did the same in 2013 and so recognized many of the locations along with the daily rituals of going on foot. What elevates his camino out of the ordinary, in addition to its musical grace, are the diverse encounters he has with fellow pilgrims that reveal its deeper meaning for many. Walking the camino is about more than getting to some hallowed destination. Really experiencing it mirrors the journey of life — with challenges, struggles and hardships, but also epiphanies and joys. The film does a wonderful job of evoking how the camino touches body, mind and soul.

A much less travelled path is the subject of the excellent 23-minute short film Hobnails and Hemp Rope directed by Greg Gransden. In 1916 an intrepid Austrian mountain guide, Conrad Kain, made an historic solo ascent of Bugaboo Spire in B.C., then considered the toughest climb in Canada. He did it wearing heavy hobnail boots and using hemp ropes, primitive outfitting by contemporary standards, and without knowing how to descend, which is often the most perilous part. To mark the centennial of that legendary mountaineering feat, a team assembled to replicate the ascent using 1916 gear. Along with Robert Le Blanc, Gary Reiss and Natalia Danalachi, was Ottawa photographer and alpinist Ivan Petrov who assisted in filming the adventure. On a second attempt the group reached the summit on July 14, 2016, although they had to abandon the hobnail boots on the most dangerous sections.

Remarkably Gransden had no previous climbing experience. It brought me back to my own first real climb in the same mountains in August 2000, arranged thanks to a friend, Kim Laker, who then worked for Canadian Mountain Holidays. I didn’t tackle Bugaboo Spire, but a nearby peak, also over 3,000 metres, named Pigeon Spire. It’s considered less challenging but was first climbed only in 1930 and, believe me, was thrilling enough even under ideal conditions with expert guides, especially having to traverse a knife-edge section and later rappel from the pinnacle down a sheer cliff edge. There’s nothing quite like the panoramic view from a mountaintop to stir the senses.

The film is a worthy tribute to Kain’s exploits and gives the viewer a vicarious feel for what it was like. Supported by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, among others, it’s been shown at festivals (winning a prize in Moscow last year) and special screenings. The plan is to put it online.

Updates and a trailer can be found on the Facebook page:

Safe summer travels everyone.