Every year thousands of people walk the trail of the Camino de Santiago, a pilgrimage across Spain to the shrine of the apostle St. James. Despite its religious beginnings, now the people who undertake the pilgrimage come for all kinds of reasons. Some do it for an interesting vacation. Some were inspired by the film The Way. Some seek spiritual guidance or are searching for meaning. There are as many different reasons to hike the 600 km trail as there are people who walk it. Director Tristan Cook has taken this route with his film Strangers on the Earth. It isn’t about a single story. Like the Camino itself, the film explores the many different paths that lead people to partake in Europe’s most popular pilgrimage.
Illustrated by mostly generic images of people walking the Camino, Strangers on the Earth lets the people partaking in the pilgrimage tell their own stories. Cook speaks to people from all over Europe and North America, engaging a mosaic of people from all different walks of life. Each person is given time to reflect on their reasons for walking the Camino and what it means to them.
The result is a philosophical discussion on life and spirituality that is both fascinating and insightful. While the images feel repetitive, people’s insights into life and spirituality make for incredibly stimulating intellectual listening. And that’s where Strangers on the Earth lacks. It’s less of an audiovisual experience and more of an audio experience with assisting images. There is a lot of talk of the beauty of the trail, but this is never quite captured by the images of the film. The only major asset to having a visual component to the film is the benefit of subtitles. This allows for every individual to speak in their own words, which captures the far-reaching, universal feel of the Camino in a way that would be lost if Strangers on the Earth lost its visual component.
Strangers on the Earth represents a missed opportunity for Cook visually. With all the intellectual content he had access to, Cook had the opportunity to match the big ideas with a more visually experimental documentary. It could be argued that he didn’t want to take away from the words’ power, but a film needs to work on multiple levels. Strangers on the Earth provides intellectually stimulating content with its audio. Visually, it never manages to rise to the same level.