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Antenna Festival 2019
Wandering and remembering with Werner

Mountain scene from "Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin"
© Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

Three decades after travel writer Bruce Chatwin’s death, German film director Werner Herzog pays tribute to his friend and kindred spirit in the fascinating, insightful and highly personal documentary Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin - which opens this year’s Antenna Documentary Film Festival.

By Sarah Ward

In 1983, in the dusty outback expanse of Coober Pedy in South Australia, Werner Herzog met British travel writer and journalist Bruce Chatwin. That the former now refers to the latter as a kindred spirit is hardly surprising; if they hadn’t crossed paths in the tiny town often referred to as the opal capital of the world, they likely would’ve elsewhere. Their friendship would only last until Chatwin’s death from AIDS in 1989, but it had a profound impact on Germany’s — and perhaps the globe’s — foremost filmic philosopher and explorer. While Chatwin was still alive, Herzog adapted his novel The Viceroy of Ouidah for the screen in Cobra Verde. After his passing, the director based a character in climbing drama Scream of Stone on him. And now, three decades after losing his friend, Herzog goes wandering as Chatwin often did in Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin.
 
How do you pay tribute to someone who felt like an extension of yourself — if not physically, then mentally and spiritually? In Herzog’s typical yet never routine manner, he ventures into both the heart and the belly of the beast. Even if the filmmaker hadn’t known Chatwin personally, it’s easy to foresee him making the same kind of documentary ode in the same kind of way, because trekking as his subjects did is part of his regular approach. With Nomad, though, he’s not just fashioning a chronicle, but excavating his own memories. Werner Herzog in South America in his film "Nomad" Herzog travels to the Cueva de las Manos in southern Argentina | © Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin Herzog calls on others for help, discussing Chatwin’s life and work with his biographer Nicholas Shakespeare, widow Elizabeth Chatwin, plus friends and people he met along his journeys; however this equally intimate and expansive documentary feels like the result of someone wading through, and trying to hold onto, their own vision of someone not just special, but crucial.

FROM PATAGONIA, TO WALES, TO CENTRAL AUSTRALIA

Nomad begins, as Chatwin’s printed publications did back in the late 1970s, in the Patagonia region of South America. Thanks to audio recordings read by the author himself, the film shares his strong connection to the place from his childhood years. As a boy, he spied a piece of animal skin in his grandparents’ home, and was told that it belonged to a brontosaurus. It didn’t, instead coming from a 10,000-year-old mylodon carcass found in Chilean Patagonia by one of his ancestors — but the idea, magic and wonder of that first youthful impression eventually led Chatwin to the area decades later.
 
Tales like these continue across Nomad’s sweeping frames, with Herzog also venturing to Llanthony Priory in the Black Mountains in Wales, as well as through Central Australia. One overflows with rolling hills, the other with dry earth — but both meant much to Chatwin, and mean much to Herzog’s film in turn. In Wales, where Chatwin and his wife Elizabeth felt an unparalleled sense of peace, the space resonates like a sanctuary.

In the heart of Australia, which Chatwin would document in his influential 1987 book The Songlines, his fascination with the country’s Indigenous inhabitants comes to the fore. Indeed, Herzog dedicates the bulk of Nomad to Chatwin’s Australian experiences, and not just because that’s where they met while filming Where the Green Ants Dream and researching The Songlines, respectively. Exploring the strong connection between Aboriginal culture and the land, external attempts to influence it (including by German Lutheran missionaries) and its sacred nature, Chatwin and now Herzog clearly felt a kinship as wanderers similarly determined to commune with the earth one footstep at a time.

A FILMIC SCRAPBOOK

It takes eight chapters, each as fluid and restless as the narration provided by both Herzog and Chatwin, to piece together Herzog’s pilgrimage. As the title suggests, this is a film that doesn’t stay still for too long. Or, one that remains tied to one mode — switching, not long after a discussion of nomadic people and Chatwin’s unfinished book The Nomadic Alternative, to filtering the writer’s life more firmly through Herzog’s work. Werner Herzog and Bruce Chatwin pose for a photo in the 1980s Werner Herzog and Bruce Chatwin pose for a photo in the 1980s | © Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin It’s one thing to hear someone speak about and sift through their recollections of a friend and their enormous impact; it’s another entirely to see it in action. In that way, Nomad functions as a filmic scrapbook of sorts, returning to pivotal incidents, reappraising the mementos collected at the time, and placing them within a highly personal context.
 
While Herzog travels far and wide, this was always going to be an intimate and personal plight, and Nomad doesn’t suffer for that fact. The director’s documentaries have always resonated because they reflect his inimitable presence and perspective as much as they capture his subjects and topics, with that synergy at its peak here. His excitement when he recalls that Chatwin hurried him to secure the film rights to The Viceroy of Ouidah, because David Bowie also wanted them; his contemplative but never sentimental gaze as he surveys the places and spaces that shaped his friend; his joy at owning Chatwin’s treasured rucksack — they all say as much about Chatwin as anything else within this fascinating feature.  After being gifted Chatwin’s bag before his death, as filled with his prized keepsakes, Herzog makes this cinematic tribute in the same fashion, using it to store all that he holds dear about a man who has been gone for three decades but hasn’t been forgotten.

"Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin" is showing three times at this year's Antenna Documentary Film Festival (17th October to 27th October 2019) in Sydney. Tickets are available here.
 

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