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Walking off the pain in Spain: Behind the blistering doco Camino Skies

Emotional, spiritual and physical journey: the Camino de Santiago. Photo/Getty Images

How Kiwi documentary makers put in some hard miles on an Antipodean pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago.

As a documentary, Camino Skies is following a well-trodden path. Yes, it’s an affecting film about six people, Kiwis and Aussies, walking the Camino de Santiago in northern Spain. Almost 300,000 do so every year on what’s been a Christian pilgrim route since the Middle Ages and, since the 1990s, a tourist magnet. But it’s also following in the footsteps of earlier films about the 800km route. The 2010 drama The Way, which starred Martin Sheen as a grieving father completing his dead son’s trek, opened a floodgate to a dozen or more docos and features.

They’ve included films about an American cellist hauling along his instrument to play for fellow hikers (Strangers on Earth); one about a wheelchair-bound guy and supportive best pal (I’ll Push You); and another about a deaf and blind German determined to make the trek unassisted (The World at Arm’s Length).

The various Camino films, with their themes of the long walk being as much of a spiritual undertaking as a physical one, have become an art-house fixture, and it is what encouraged co-directors and producers Fergus Grady and Noel Smyth to make Camino Skies. Grady, who has a background as a sound recordist, saw the popularity of earlier Camino titles distributed by a former employer in Melbourne. That brought him into contact with people running Facebook groups devoted to the trek, and he also met diminutive Aussie septuagenarian Sue Morris, who had attempted the walk of 40-plus days twice before and whose third attempt in Camino Skies comes after spinal surgery and a diagnosis of severe degenerative arthritis.

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“I was fascinated with her determination to try and finish the achievement, to try and knock it off,” he tells the Listener from the Cannes Film Festival. He thought accompanying Morris and other Antipodean trampers facing their own challenges might make a film that would appeal to Australasian audiences.

So, he and Smyth put out the call via travel agents: if you’re walking the Camino de Santiago this year, join us so we can tell your story.

They auditioned 30 possibles by Skype. Among the four New Zealanders cast was Christchurch psychologist Julie Zarifeh, who lost husband Paul to pancreatic cancer and adult son Sam in a river-rafting accident 16 days later, in late 2017.

Grady met Zarifeh after her husband’s funeral. When she told him about Sam some weeks later, Grady suggested she bow out of the project.

Julie Zarifeh. Photo/Supplied

“My immediate reaction was, ‘Don’t come, don’t be involved in the film, take some time out.’ But she was adamant that this is exactly what she wanted to do. She wanted to get onto the Camino as fast as possible.”

With her emotions never far from the surface, but exuding a quiet strength and humour throughout, Zarifeh becomes a star of the film. Among the others are Terry Wilson, who is walking the Camino for a second time, on this occasion taking his son-in-law, Mark Thomson. Both blokes are doing it in memory of granddaughter and daughter Maddy, who had died 18 months earlier, aged 17, of cystic fibrosis. Their walk raised money for organisations dealing with the condition, but Thomson also saw it as a chance to ensure that he would live to see his younger children grow up – when he started training for the walk, he weighed 150kg.

The Manawatu pair were the fastest walkers, says Grady, and the funniest. On arriving at the end, Wilson takes in the splendour of the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela before turning to Thomson: “Are you going to buy me a beer or am I going to buy you one?”

“They brought a bit of comedy relief,” says Grady, “which we obviously needed, otherwise it would have been all doom and gloom.”

Fergus Grady. Photo/Supplied

They may not have been the first film crew on the trail, but having embedded themselves with the hikers, they think they might have set the record for distance actually walked by any productions. Smyth, acting as cinematographer, was carrying an 18kg backpack as well as 6kg of camera equipment. Grady’s sound gear and a drone added to his load. “So, there was some serious tramping,” says Grady.

The movie was shot on the hoof, and it wasn’t until they got into an editing suite that knew they actually had a film. Grady says he had a plan B, though. “I was adamant that if the main film was bad, we were going to make a documentary called ‘Drones on the Camino’.”

That aerial camera captures an eye-of-God perspective on the Camino de Santiago (the Way of St James), which ends at the cathedral and tomb of St James.

Grady says he was too busy trying to capture the participants’ emotional, spiritual and physical journeys to experience any epiphanies himself. Still, the resulting film may answer a few prayers for the first-time feature makers.

Camino Skies screens at the Doc Edge Festival in Auckland on June 6 and 7, and in Wellington on June 17,18 and 21, with charity screenings for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in Pahiatua on July 4, and for the Muslim Widows Foundation at the Isaac Royal Theatre, Christchurch on July 5. It opens nationwide at cinemas on July 11.

This article was first published in the June 8, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.