Following in the footsteps of his friend, explorer Bruce Chatwin, writer and director Werner Herzog explores the remarkable story of this storyteller and author in “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin.” It is available virtually this week as part of the M.V. Film Center’s Documentary Week and playing as part of the Film Center at Home.
Herzog and Chatwin met in the early 1980s, and became friends. When he was dying of AIDS, Chatwin contacted Herzog, director of Cannes winner “Fitzcarraldo,” and asked to see his film on tribesmen of Patagonia. Thirty years later, Herzog filmed a documentary about Chatwin and his explorations, carrying with him Chatwin’s rucksack, a gift from the explorer on his deathbed at 49. The rucksack may have saved Herzog’s life during a frigid, windblown trek.
The film is divided into eight chapters that roughly relate to Chatwin’s books. The tale begins in Chatwin’s childhood, when he found a scrap of hair and skin in his grandparents’ storage cabinet that belonged to a brontosaurus discovered in 1895. It started this amazing explorer on a journey to Patagonia, and led to the bestselling 1977 book “In Patagonia,” followed by “The Songlines” in 1983. Visiting the cave where the brontosaurus was discovered, Chatwin learned that the creature actually turned out to be a mylodon, an extinct, 10-foot-tall sloth. With it were found football-size feces.
Including scenic overhead shots of Central Australia and Patagonia, Herzog visited the country and spoke with the aborigines Chatwin had interviewed so many years ago. From them he learned about songlines, mysterious musical expressions of nature, history, and dreams.
Chatwin next found T.G.H. Strehlow’s 1971 tome, “Songs of Central Australia,” which influenced Chatwin but was not considered appropriate for outsiders. It is a reflection of the strangeness that fascinated Chatwin. Herzog includes images of archival photos of the aborigines Chatwin was interested in, and more current footage of dancing natives, and a host of women warriors.
Herzog also spent time in filmed discussions with Chatwin’s biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare, who said of the explorer, “Bruce didn’t tell a half-truth. He told the truth-and-a-half.” Herzog learned from Shakespeare that Chatwin kept a collection of objects and used them to investigate their origin. The film further employs old photos, Chatwin audios, and footage of Herzog’s travels. Herzog believed with Chatwin in the sacred aspect of walking, and the two are often shown talking about it.
In “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin,” Herzog pays tribute to a singular man many may not have heard of. It is as much the story of Herzog as Chatwin, and both deserve the explorations it entails.
“Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin” is available virtually at Documentary Week at mvfilmsociety.com.