I had been eagerly awaiting this film by Werner Herzog, even turning over the thought of a trek down to Phoenix to view it. That’s an indicator of the level of my anticipation. Then the pandemic hit, and that potential went out the window. Finally, it’s available streaming.
At a time when I am so constrained from my own usual travel, Nomad has given me much needed relief by living vicariously through Herzog’s romantic documentation of Bruce Chatwin’s wandering life. But he wasn’t an aimless wanderer. I had already read Chatwin’s first book In Patagonia and then The Songlines about Indigenous Australians, their sacred lands and the Dreamtime. I knew he was interested in digging into place, culture and tradition in such a way that celebrated their unique properties and attempted to translate what likely challenge western minds. He would often blur the line between nonfiction and fiction.
Herzog described Chatwin’s mission as a “quest for strangeness”—not unlike his own. They both sought other than what we know from our everyday life, far from it. Given that, the film wasn’t strictly “in the footsteps of Bruce Chatwin” but overlapped Herzog’s own.
The film transports us from the Australian Outback, where an Elder speaks of dream tracks, to the standing stones of Avebury—reviving my own memories there—and on to Wales. In the southern Sahara, Wodaabe tribesmen in elaborate attire were engaged in a ritual courtship dance, showing off the whiteness of their teeth and whites of their eyes. I readily remembered them from photographer Jimmy Nelson’s coffee table book Homage to Humanity, a gift I treasure.
A good portion of the documentary was also devoted to passages from Chatwin’s books and testimony from his wife Elizabeth Chanley, friends and colleagues. There’s also footage of Herzog and Chatwin together in different locales.
Chatwin’s biographer Nicholas Shakespeare described him as “a fiery ball of light shedding flickering illuminations on obscure pieces of knowledge connecting countries, people, books and texts.” Some thought him an eccentric and narcissist. Some accused him of misinterpreting and simplifying what he experienced. Others believed he would have grown into his full genius if not lost to this world in 1989 due to HIV/AIDS, still young.
Found in his journal, these are thought to be the very last words he wrote before dying: “Christ wore a seamless robe.” I have to wonder what story Bruce Chatwin might have spun from there. Or maybe it was his documentation.
A quote from Herzog I so resonate with: “The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot.” But there’s something I’d add. It also changes you. You become revealed to yourself. To me, that’s a clear message from this remarkable film. I remain moved by it.
Streaming on You Tube, Google Play and Amazon Prime.