'Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin': Film Review | Tribeca 2019

Tribeca Film Festival
A poignant testament to two friends' shared curiosity about the world.

Werner Herzog travels to some of the places that mattered to his old friend, the late author Bruce Chatwin.

"Bruce Chatwin was searching for a strangeness" as he traveled to remote parts of the world, Werner Herzog says early in Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin. He sought out ancient loci of unexplained energy fields; tribes who used songs to navigate vast wilderness; rituals whose costumes remain haunting today — little wonder, then, than he felt a kinship with a filmmaker whose own obsessions were just as fierce and strange. Three decades after Chatwin died of AIDS, Herzog offers a touching, fragmented remembrance of the writer, going to some of the places he treasured and speaking with those who knew him. Not intended by any stretch as a proper biography, the film is also not one of Herzog's more mainstream efforts. But admirers of either artist will find it very worthwhile, as will viewers who need the occasional reminder that the world still contains wild places to explore.

It begins with a scrap of animal hide, with some bristles of fur still attached, that the young Chatwin was told was the skin of a Brontosaurus. It was actually from a much less impressive beast, a giant sloth called a Mylodon, but Chatwin's boyhood fascination with the skin was enough to inspire the South American voyage that produced his first book, In Patagonia. Herzog follows his path down to the bottom of the world, talking with the granddaughter of the man who found that animal's remains, then hanging out in the natural history museum in Argentina whose exhibits Chatwin loved.

Talking to the author's biographer Nicolas Shakespeare, we learn that Chatwin kept a kind of museum of his own — a collection of strange objects others had owned, some of which inspired his journeys. In an inversion of the Holy Grail quest, he would start with the object, then go in search of its history — along with whatever other unrelated stories come with it.

Herzog follows some of these treks, and is similarly open to tangents. He goes to Neolithic sites in Wales where blindfolded pilgrims commune with forces they think travel through "ley lines"; he photographs ancient cliff paintings, getting lost in the crowds of "mysterious" colored handprints left behind by their makers; and, most involvingly, he goes to Australia, talking to Aboriginal elders about the "songlines" that gave one of Chatwin's books its name. In an echo of Grizzly Man, in which Herzog listened to a recording he refused to share with the viewer, we speak to a scholar who believes outsiders should never hear the ancient songs these tribes created.

Between these outings, Herzog recalls his own encounters with Chatwin. He describes the multi-day "marathon" of storytelling between them when they met in 1983; he recalls how the extremely sick author briefly joined him on location for Cobra Verde, delighting in the opportunity to see a real king's procession. When he died, Chatwin left Herzog the leather rucksack he had carried around the world. The filmmaker put the bag to the test, and recalls how he used it as a cushion while he nearly froze to death in a blizzard during the making of Scream of Stone.

Both men believed not just in travel but in "the sacramental aspect of walking" — the way the world reveals itself to those who take the slow, hard path from one place to the next. Nomad is by no means arduous viewing. But in its restless, curious way, it tells us things about its subject that a more conventional film would have a hard time putting into words.

Distributor: Sideways Film
Director-screenwriter: Werner Herzog
Producers: Lucki Stipec, Steve O'Hagan
Executive producer: Richard Bright
Directors of photography: Louis Caulfield, Mike Paterson
Editor: Marco Capalbo
Composer: Ernst Reijseger
Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight Documentary)

89 minutes