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Camino Skies: An inspiring Kiwi doco about grief and determination

directed by Fergus Grady and Noel Smyth

A New Zealand-made documentary about those who walk the 800km Camino trail is heartbreaking, blistering and terrific.

Like getting old, walking the Camino ain’t for sissies. The 800km route across Northern Spain, which has a history of being a Christian pilgrim route since the Middle Ages, attracts about 300,000 hardy souls a year, but its tourist boom is partly powered by more than a decade of movies.

But as this affecting New Zealand-made documentary shows, right from its beginning when we first meet 70-year-old Sue Morris in pain and despair after yet another day’s tramping, the Camino de Santiago (“Way of St James”) can still threaten those who walk it with their own personal martyrdom.

Morris is one of six Kiwi and Aussie walkers that co-directors Fergus Grady and Noel Smyth effectively cast as backpacking case studies. Each walker has his or her own reasons for doing the trail, the religious roots of which have made it a spiritual undertaking as much as a physical one for those who spend a month or more on it.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

“I believe the experience of the Camino gives us the strength to go on,” says a handy local priest, the only outside talking head in the film.

Among those looking for solace along the way are Christchurch psychologist Julie Zarifeh, who lost husband Paul to pancreatic cancer and son Sam in a rafting accident shortly afterwards, and father-in-law and son-in-law Terry Wilson and Mark Thomson, who are doing it in memory of their teenage granddaughter and daughter Maddy, who died of cystic fibrosis.

Any worry that this is an exercise in grief exploitation is soon put aside by the quiet frankness of the participants as they trudge ever onwards. As they do, the film develops its own meditative mood and it becomes quite entrancing.

Latterly, it can feel a little propped up by a soundtrack that has found the “uplift” button beneath some impressive drone footage. But although films about the Camino have become a crowded mini-genre, this one has a real purpose in its stride. It’s heartbreaking, foot-blistering, inspiring and terrific.



This article was first published in the July 27, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.