Originally written on May 17, 2009
Going through the San Francisco International Film Festival catalog is a daunting task when you have to choose only two films. Nomad's Land or Sur les Trace de Nicolas Bouvier (In the Footsteps of Nicolas Bouvier) stood out as one of the films that stood out to me with its evocative quote from author Nicolas Bouvier, "One thinks that one is going to make a journey, yet soon it is the journey that makes or unmakes you."
This beautiful documentary is in first person as Swiss filmmaker Gaël Métroz goes alone without a camera crew to capture the danger and beauty of landscapes and people on his journey. His goal is to trace the footsteps of the author of "The Way of the World" by Nicolas Bouvier. Bouvier was another Swiss man who traveled in a Fiat Topolino from Geneva, Yugoslavia, Turkey, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, and over to Japan in the Fifties.
As Métroz traces Bouvier's trip to Iranian and Pakistan cities it is clear that much of the charm and romance recounted in Bovier's book have morphed into a violent locales unwelcoming to Métroz. Behind a gauzy curtain up in his hotel room Gaël hears endless gunshots and waits for the next jeep out.
By taking the opportunity to follow the Nomads out, Métroz veers off the path of Bouvier letting the trip take him rather than taking a trip. He takes many leaps of faith in the generosity and hospitality of the regions many tribes of nomads.
The first person point of view is extremely powerful and has the effect of immersing you in the highs and lows of his journey. You feel the exhaustion, elation, sense of awe of the enormous landscapes, and the heart-stopping remoteness.
I felt sadness at times when he would capture places like an Iranian marketplace that retains the exotic beauty, but where women are conspicuously absent. A young European treads lightly through these cities, how could I, an American Woman, ever hope to follow his footsteps? So, I am grateful that he makes this trip and captures the beauty as well as the precarious nature of the modern Middle East. In the same breath, I despair that much of the planet's exquisiteness remain elusive to me because I am a woman. As a mother of a son, I hope that my son has the opportunity when he is older to embark on such a journey even though worry would be my companion.
This film works on so many levels. Technically the photography captured the colors and the features of the locals and its people with incredible sharpness and intimacy. It is possible to see and hear, but you almost could feel, taste, and smell through his lens. Competing with the incredible visuals was the poetry of Métroz's narration and Bouvier's words. I wished that I could understand French, so my eyes would not have to choose whether to watch the action on screen or read the subtitles.
Nomad's Land is also a meditation on the nature and philosophy of travel. It retains the nostalgic notion of travel where the journey tells you when it will end, instead of having an itinerary of what you will see determined by what little time we get off from work. Instead of rushing through a destination so one can say they climbed the Eiffel Tower or walked the Great Wall of China, travel can be a slow, patient surrender to the part of the world unfamiliar to you. In a time where we have Google Earth and can see almost every inch of the planet, there are opportunities to be kindred to explorers from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but without the Western ethnocentric point of view of the quaintness of natives. One can explore untouched areas of the world and view its inhabitants as wise teachers, protectors, and spirit guides on your journey. It is a journey that respects the rhythms and traditions of others who follow the rhythms of the earth.
Métroz embraced and was embraced back by a part of the world where they are supposed to hate freedom. What you learn from Métroz's lens is that these people are happiest when they are free to roam away from the cities and into open landscapes and crevices of hills. The urbanized and modern parts of that world drive some to smoke hash, and feel the great anxieties in cities that imprison. It is violent and breeds extremism. It is when you are with the nomads and visit the tribes that the extremism softens, the people blossom into generous people at peace enough not only allow a westerner in their midst, but a westerner with a camera.
Métroz says, "These temptations not to return too often plagued me, convincing me to make a film which, as the writings of Nicolas Bouvier, especially recalls that "travel is not an innocent activity… it is an experience of which one never heals." When one comes back, one is never the same."
As Métroz allowed his journey to change him, the film has the ability to change you. According to this film's website, this film will be pressed to DVD. I am hoping to add it to our collection of films and recommend that you do too. The film is also a great inspiration to read "The Way of the World" by Nicolas Bouvier.