Steps in the Journey: “Strangers on the Earth” at the Cleveland International Film Festival

A film review by Mark Sebastian Jordan.

Life is onward.

As I drove from my home in rural Lucas, Ohio, to the Cleveland International Film Festival to see Strangers on the Earth, Tuesday, April 4th, I received a text that I had just become an uncle (well, actually, great-uncle) again. My niece Michelle, the closest thing this crusty bachelor will ever have to a daughter, had just given birth to her first baby, a son named Javier. A new life beginning a journey.

On the return trip a few hours later, I received another message: My beloved friend Kimberly Orsborn had passed away in hospice care. She steered me to the newspaper job that gave me a port in the storm in 2007 when I was transitioning out of the corporate world and into the creative world. In 2009, Kim left that small-town rag and began life as a free-lance writer. That same year, she was diagnosed with a malignant, fast-moving breast cancer. The doctors gave her months. She made it eight years.

Kim beat the odds to live many more seasons because she kept moving, kept doing, kept finding ways around the fog of “chemo-brain.” Before she was done, she said that cancer had ended up being one of the great gifts of her life, something that made her stop and relish every moment of her existence, before continuing on, more aware of her surroundings than before. It deepened her journey.

SOTE the way

El Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrimage path featured in the documentary “Strangers on the Earth,” presented this month at the Cleveland International Film Festival. (Photos by Kayla Arend courtesy of Fisterra Productions.)

So, a film about a journey is a good forum for savoring the life in us and around us. But how many feet can walk a road before it becomes a stampede? Strangers on the Earth is a film by Tristan Cook about the ancient pilgrimage route El Camino de Santiago de Compostela in the Galicia region of northern Spain. Dedicated to the Christian Saint James (who is said to be buried in Compostela), the way actually co-opted an older Celtic sacred pathway and Roman trading route running from the Pyrenees Mountains to the Atlantic Ocean.

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Dane Johansen meets all sorts on his 580-mile trek through Spain, with cello. (Photo by Kayla Arend courtesy of Fisterra Productions.)

The film is being promoted as the voyage of cellist Dane Johansen, a member of the Cleveland Orchestra, who walked the 580-mile journey with his cello strapped to his back, but Johansen is only one of many voyagers followed by the camera. From devout Catholics to nonbelievers, a huge range of people are drawn to make this pilgrimage, to test and find themselves in the process. In recent years, a large bump has been seen on the Camino from fans of The Way, a Martin Sheen film. That touristy approach has predictably annoyed more serious trekkers: at one spot, Cook’s camera lingers on a road sign where someone has scribbled “Fuck you, Americans.”

Johansen’s personal revelation—or the one we see in the film, at least—is that his original plan to travel the path and record a movement of each of the six suites Johann Sebastian Bach wrote for unaccompanied cello was egocentric and careerist. He discovers along the way that the most important pathway for him is in making a bridge between himself and the listeners who crowded into churches and public squares to hear him play. Without that bridge, Bach can’t make the journey to the terra incognita of those who need his voice of inspired yet reasoned searching.

Dane Johansen 2

Dane Johansen, playing Bach in a small church on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. (Photo by Kayla Arend courtesy of Fisterra Productions.)

Yet the joyous look on Johansen’s face as he attends a service at the Santiago de Compostela cathedral made me wonder if there wasn’t more to his story than just finding himself as a performer. But that we don’t get. The film is by design spacious and contemplative, but since the filmmakers are determined to show the diversity, even chaos, of all the people flocking to the Camino, it’s too busy to delve further into individual stories. And, for all its supposed focus on a guy playing Bach, the film doesn’t really explore the music itself. Bach made every piece he wrote, large or small, a journey, sometimes even a labyrinth. The film uses Bach as backdrop (Bachdrop?), sometimes plain, sometimes distorted as if heard from another room, but not from within the music. At best there is a resonance between Bach’s counterpoint and the tangle of stories we glimpse.

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A sign post along the way. (Photo by Kayla Arend courtesy of Fisterra Productions.)

Humor is a delicate technique to use in a film about a sacred path. Cook’s first use of it is perfect: starting his voyage, Johansen is shown trying several different takes of his opening narrative. That nicely deflates the potential for an overly reverential tone. Less effective are the predictable enough shots of calloused feet and worn shoes. In places they seem calculated for humorous effect, but it would have been nice to also see the face, the eyes, the personal experience being made possible by those feet. And in other places, the director’s humor is callow. We hear one pilgrim earnestly try to express his beliefs about levels of existence in the world, but he messes up and has to back track and correct himself. His retread is illustrated with a shot of a guy picking his nose. Puncturing pretension? Perhaps, but it comes off as unkind.

The film is at its best when capturing unguarded moments sympathetically. There is a devastating scene when a pilgrim who has traveled the Camino in his wheelchair is sitting in the square outside Santiago de Compostela cathedral. A hale, brightly dressed (American?) man breaks into the scene and kneels to give thanks, puffing out his cheeks from his spiritual exertion. The wheelchair trekker smiles and reaches out his hand to pat the bright guy on the shoulder. The bright guy shrugs off the hand, stands, and walks away. The rolling pilgrim’s face falls and he looks down at his legs, shoulders slumped.

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The Galician landscape, seen from the Camino de Santiago as “Strangers on the Earth” was being filmed in 2014. (Photo by Kayla Arend courtesy of Fisterra Productions.)

Cook’s camera has an eye for beauty, savoring both the picturesque and mundane parts of the journey. It kicks up into a higher plane near the end, watching pilgrims symbolically burn clothes or mementos on the beach at Cape Finisterre. Fireworks follow, and the night ends with a procession of paper lanterns fading like embers into the black night sky. It’s beautiful, though weighed down by the filmmaker having earlier used the same imagery to accompany the faltering pilgrim talking about the highest level of existence being both God and nothingness. A statement? Perhaps. But, then what? And where did Johansen go? We see him arriving at the ocean and unpacking his cello, but instead of seeing him play to the western wind, we hear the soundtrack cello instead.

The film is worthwhile–god knows the theme of self-examination and transformation is desperately under-served in our modern world–but its grasp is smaller than its ambitious reach. There are so many stories here that there isn’t room to dive deeply into any single one. What started ostensibly as Dane Johansen’s path becomes a superhighway of seekers. To be sure, that’s one of the film’s points. But I found myself wanting less observation and more transformation. I’d love to see what Tristan Cook, with his obvious gift for evocative sound design and his painterly eye, would have to say about this pilgrimage twenty years from now. May his journey to come as a filmmaker have many twists and turns, all of which will make his eye more generous to his subjects.

It would be nice to see a version that focused more on Dane Johansen and his interaction with the music and his listeners. The cellist has said that Bach’s six suites are the beginning and end of his professional life and that it will be a lifetime’s journey to explore them. He’s clearly well on his way.

passers by

Dane Johansen plays Bach at Tower City in Cleveland. (Photo by Mark Sebastian Jordan for Voices from the Borderland.)

Before the film, Johansen played the first suite in the Tower City atrium, just outside the cinema complex in the shopping mall beneath Cleveland’s landmark Terminal Tower. Some people clustered around the fountain, knowing that the cellist was scheduled to play. Others were snagged out of their shopping, curious to hear what was going on. And some merely rushed past, travelers on different journeys.

atrium fountain

Dane Johansen playing at the Tower City fountain before the CIFF premiere of “Strangers on the Earth.” (Photograph by Mark Sebastian Jordan for Voices from the Borderland.)

Johansen is young, but his mastery is impressive. I would love to hear him play the Bach suites in a less busy, more acoustically friendly venue. The central complex in a mall is not congenial to Bach, particularly when the cello isn’t amplified to help it climb above crowd noise. But Johansen’s concentration and ability to communicate despite the distractions was powerful. He joined the Cleveland Orchestra just a year ago, and he’s clearly a treasure.

passer by

Dane Johansen doesn’t bother with the low-stakes gambling of a casino. He plays Bach. Photo by Mark Sebastian Jordan for Voices from the Borderland.

As for me, my pilgrimage continues, going from place to place in search of insights I can share with others, rejoicing in new life and weathering stark losses along the way. Perhaps if I hadn’t already spent so many years as a writer eyeing such a journey myself, I would have had my mind blown by Strangers on the Earth. It certainly seems that many others have had that happen in the film’s award-winning trek of film festivals around the U.S. But on this long pilgrimage, my feet are worn, and they support a heart that, while equally scruffy, is blooming anew. If this film helps more people have that happen, then more power to it. It could make this world a better place.

What more could anyone ask for? Perhaps just one more moment, to savor each step.

Kim in Autumn- small

In memory of Kimberly Orsborn. Photo courtesy of Mark Sebastian Jordan.

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