News Column

'Camino' documentary captures challenges, spiritual awakenings

November 28, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 28--HERE'S HOW Lydia B. Smith found herself walking the 500 miles of Spain's Camino de Santiago. She and her fiance had just broken up, she was in between jobs, alone in Santa Cruz and had nothing to do. For the first time in many years, she was free.

So she walked.

"It just kind of popped in my head out of nowhere. I'd known about it but never had the slightest inkling to do it," says Smith, a veteran documentary producer who had lived in Barcelona for three years and who walked the Camino, a mostly unpaved trail that has attracted millions of pilgrims since the ninth century, in 2008. "It was a really magical, sacred experience for me. It was just what my soul needed."

The Ross native had no intention of making a documentary about the Camino, however. She had produced and directed a short doc 15 years ago and swore she would never do it again, mostly because fundraising was so hard.

But more than that, she was afraid.

"The Camino was so nourishing. I was really scared I couldn't do it justice. I felt like I was going to try and capture the wind, like I was going to try and touch something impossible to touch," says Smith, 49.

Still, many of her fellow pilgrims on the trail had urged her to make a film about it once they found out that she was a filmmaker. She kept hearing that message in her head when she moved to Portland, Ore., shortly after her monthlong journey and began talking about her experience and sharing her slides with others.

"It just wouldn't leave me, this idea that I needed to do this film," she says. "It was this gut feeling, that 'this is what you're supposed to do.'"

She contacted Theresa Tollini-Coleman, a Tiburon entrepreneur and filmmaker who had given Smith her first job fresh out of UC Berkeley film school and whose documentary on incest and child sexual abuse, "Breaking Silence," inspired Smith to pursue documentary work.

"I had never heard of the Camino," Tollini-Coleman recalls. "When she told me about it, I didn't even have to think about it or ponder it or go home and talk to my husband about it. I literally said, 'Lydia, I would like to make this film with you.'"

That next spring, they were on the Camino, which begins at St. Pied de Port, just across the border in France, and stretches across northern Spain, with a film crew, cameras and a handful of people who were willing to be featured.

Their documentary, "Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago," will be screened from Dec. 6 to 12 at the Rafael Film Theater.

The film follows the story of six people from all over the world whose motivations for making the spiritually nourishing but physically challenging trek could not be more different, from a Catholic woman doing it for God to a man who decided at the last minute to walk the trail instead of learning to kite surf. It also includes interviews with Camino experts, from scholars to priests to the hospitaleros, or pilgrim-hostel volunteers who attend to the pilgrims. Named best documentary at more than half of the 13 film festivals at which it has screened, the film has been called a "brilliant documentary" by Martin Sheen, who stars as an American doctor walking the Camino in the 2010 movie "The Way."

"A lot of people there are really soul-searching. You drop down into the essence of what it means to be alive, so the experience is extremely intimate and very intense in a beautiful way," says Tollini-Coleman, the film's senior producer and whose nonprofit, Future Educational Films Inc., sponsored the documentary.

They came back from Spain with 300 hours of footage and no money. Funding was nearly impossible to get, Smith says, because most foundations offer grants for films that tackle social issues, not personal journeys. It also doesn't have any controversy or drama; that makes it a hard sell.

But through appeals to former pilgrims, about 50 fundraisers and the generosity of people like her former boarding school classmates, including "The Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown, she was able to complete the film.

"There's this saying that the Camino begins when you get home, and for me the true Camino was making the film. It took me five years," Smith says.

It was a life-changer for her.

"I realized I was more capable than I thought. I spent most of my life supporting other people's dreams and visions," says Smith, whose has produced specials for CNN and PBS.

Smith hopes those who see her film get a sliver of that experience.

"For a lot of people, they leave more inspired to follow their life's passion, to do what makes their heart sing, and to live their purpose and their potential," she says. "And that's the thing of the Camino. The Camino brings something different to each person, and everybody walks away with different lessons but everyone kind of gets what they need."

Vicki Larson can be reached at vlarson@marinij.com; follow her on Twitter at @OMGchronicles.

, fan her on Facebook at Vicki-Larson-OMG-Chronicles

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(c)2013 The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.)

Visit The Marin Independent Journal (Novato, Calif.) at www.marinij.com

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