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Film explores connections formed by Camino pilgrims


The Camino de Santiago is a network of paths that lead to the tomb of St James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, in the northwest of Spain. It has inspired and challenged pilgrims since the Middle Ages, many of whom continue to find enlightenment on the way. This month, writer and director Bill Bennett releases The Way, My Way, a film about his personal Camino experience.

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The Camino de Santiago, known in English as the Way of Saint James, is a lengthy pilgrimage from southern France through Spain. Of all the routes, the most popular is the traditional one; the French Way, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the first Cultural Route of the Council of Europe.

Pilgrims Ivan Boffi and Giovanna Donizetti.

Pilgrims Ivan Boffi and Giovanna Donizetti.

When writer and film producer Bill Bennett decided to tackle the 800km walk a decade ago, he didn’t really know why. The compulsion happened after encounters with pilgrims while holidaying and working in Europe’s Galicia and Meseta.

“I saw these pilgrims walking across the Meseta and I thought, ‘who are these crazy people?’” he said. “I started getting more and more fascinated by what they were doing and who they were.”

Curiosity got the better of Bennett and when he set off on his own journey, he soon discovered that each person’s reason for their pilgrimage was wildly different.

“Some people don’t want to tell you, but others walk beside you and after five minutes, unload a deeply personal experience or their reason for walking,” he said.

“These are people you’ve never met in your life. It’s an extraordinary connection and when they walk on, you may never see them again.”

Bennett documented his journey in his novel The Way, My Way, released in 2013, and it resonated with readers. Now, his film by the same name takes his personal story to the big screen.

When casting the characters, he engaged some of the people he met on his inaugural Camino all those years ago.

The pilgrims, who he refers to as “actuals”, appear alongside professional actors Chris Haywood (Muriel’s Wedding, Kiss or Kill), Jennifer Cluff (Kiss or Kill, In a Savage Land), Pia Thunderbolt (Three Thousand Years of Longing, Here Out West), and Laura Lakshmi (Colin from Accounts and Home and Away).

Writer and film producer Bill Bennett.

Writer and film producer Bill Bennett.

“Having now walked five Caminos, I knew the only way to do it was with a very small crew, so we could work within the ebb and flow of the Camino and not try and control it, rather to work within it,” Bennett said.

When crafting the script, he worked closely with Johnnie Walker, a Santiago-based Scotsman who is widely regarded as the world’s leading authority on the Camino de Santiago.

Walker has completed 54 Caminos and penned 19 books on what is known as, ‘The Way’.

Previously, he was founder of the Scottish Foundation for Economic Development and served as the chief of staff to the First Minister of Scotland.

“I had been doing very difficult jobs, including trying to solve some of the financial problems of the Catholic Church in Scotland,” he said.

“It was like banging my head against the wall at times but it ended up being very successful. Eventually, I wanted to stop doing these difficult jobs and find a bridge to a new way of life.”

Walker found the simple way of life he craved in Santiago, where he has lived for the past 15 years.

“I fell in love with the city and I fell in love with the cathedral, I even ended up playing the organ there,” he said.

“There’s a yellow arrow outside my door, just a few steps from the cathedral. Every morning, I hear the ‘click click’ of walking sticks as pilgrims walk past.”

Chris Haywood and Johnnie Walker during filming of The Way, My Way.

Chris Haywood and Johnnie Walker during filming of The Way, My Way.

Walker also fell in love with the history, some of which is captured in the film.

“The Camino de Santiago is 1000 years old and there’s no doubt of the origin,” he said.

“It was originally an authentic Catholic pilgrimage; one of the three great Christian pilgrimages in the world alongside Rome and Jerusalem. In those days everyone who went on the Camino de Santiago was Catholic.”

Not so now.

Last year, of the 466,000 pilgrims who were asked why they walked the Camino (at the pilgrim’s office in Santiago), only 34 per cent said they did it for religious reasons.

“The rest said it was for spiritual reasons, or for personal challenges, for fitness, to recover from a separation or loss, or to find themselves,” Walker said.

“A lot of them are like Bill and have no idea why they’re walking but experience a great spiritual awakening as they walk.”

The Way, My Way opens in cinemas on May 16.

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