The Camino de Santiago has received the silver screen treatment a couple of times in recent years, including in the 2010 feature film The Way, starring Martin Sheen and directed by his son Emilio Estevez. The stories that come from this famed pilgrimage trail traversing across Spain (and other parts of Europe) to the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela and the shrine of St. James are plenty ripe for movie treatment. And one remarkable story in particular will be showcased at the AFI Docs film festival, which runs downtown and in Silver Spring, Md. through this Sunday, June 26.
Filmmaker Annie O’Neil, a Georgetown graduate (class of ’81) has had a hand in telling her own and others’ stories from the Camino as a participant and producer in the documentary Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago. Following the completion of that documentary, O’Neil discovered another Camino almost as far from Spain as you can get, but that she felt spoke just as true to the experience she and countless other had had.
After watching Walking the Camino, Seattle native Phil Volker, who is suffering from stage-four cancer, reached out to O’Neil to tell her how much the film meant to him, and how he had created a Camino of his very own in his backyard. He was walking and keeping track of his journey as if he was on the real thing. He signed his letter to O’Neil with a request: “Come walk with me. Love, Phil.” As fortune would have it, O’Neil and her husband were on their way up to Seattle for a business trip, and so she took the time to meet with Volker.
“When we were sitting at his kitchen table with his wife getting ready to walk, I felt exactly the same way I had felt in Spain right before walking the actual Camino,” O’Neil says. “I just felt like he had created something really wonderful.”
O’Neil quickly realized that this was a story that was worth putting on film. But Volker was a little more skeptical.
“I’m just a guy walking in the mud,” he told O’Neil.
But, in a stroke of luck that has led O’Neil to joke that one of the executive producers on the film was St. James himself, Volker was granted a chemo holiday by his doctors, giving him 28 days to travel to Spain and walk the Camino. His trip may serve as the narrative arc of the short documentary, but it is not the message that O’Neil found or audience members are likely to take away.
By creating his own Camino in the woods near Seattle, O’Neil says Volker did “what we all forget to do, which is just to start and let it be different than what we had planned it to be. He just started from where he was, and I love that message that we can all start exactly from where we are.”
In addition to his Seattle Camino and the one in Spain, Phil’s walk – thanks to this film – has taken him and O’Neil to South by Southwest and the deadCenter Film Festival, and will take them to a number of more over the next few months (the film will be screened at three festivals this week, including AFI). And according to O’Neil, Phil is just enjoying the ride.
“He says that he is grateful for three things in his life,” O’Neil explains. “The Camino, being a Catholic and cancer.”
O’Neil says that during filming, he asked her, “How can I be mad at cancer if it brought me all of this?”
Phil’s Camino will screen as part of the “Points of Departure” shorts segment on Saturday, June 25 at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring, Md. AFI Docs runs until Sunday, June 26.
AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center: 8633 Colesville Rd. Silver Spring, Md.; 301-495-6700;www.afi.com/silver
Photo caption: Phil Volker walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain
Photo credit: Courtesy of Jolson Creative PR Group