For 90 minutes last weekend, moviegoers in Denver and Boulder experienced the spiritual growth, physical pain and joy of pilgrims who made a 500-mile journey along a historical Catholic trail in Spain.
The premier of the award-winning documentary “Walking the Camino: Six Ways to Santiago” attracted large crowds in both cities, including 233 people at a sold-out show the evening of March 28 in Denver.
“This film and Camino is for people who want more from life than making more money or buying a bigger TV or a new car,” said director Lydia B. Smith, who attended the Denver premier. “People who are seeking why they are on the planet, what is their relationship with God and the meaning of being more connected with other people.”
Smith first walked the trail in 2008 after a broken wedding engagement and wants to share the magic of the pilgrimage she calls “a Catholic gift to the world.”
Since the Middle Ages, the 1,200-year-old Catholic pilgrimage has attracted several hundreds of thousands of walkers yearly and ends in the city of Santiago de Compostela where the bones of Apostle St. James are said to be buried.
“Many people come as tourists,” said a Spanish priest in the film. “They end as pilgrims.”
Co-producer Annie O’Neil and Smith, who did question and answer sessions at the local premiers, raised the money to produce and distribute the film. Their film crew followed pilgrims on the six-week journey from late April to early June 2009.
Moviegoers at the Friday evening show laughed and cried as they watched the pilgrims encounter humorous and heartbreaking challenges: snoring strangers packed in a hostel; a brother who doesn’t believe in God; blisters the size of quarters; hiking boots covered with mud; smelly clothes; and strangers who offer immediate friendship.
“I didn’t expect to be so emotional watching the film,” said moviegoer Louise Lopez, who heard about the film from a Facebook post. “A women sitting next to me, who I don’t know, shared some Kleenex when we both started crying.”
O’Neil was one of six pilgrims, ages 3-73 from Brazil, Canada, Denmark, France and the United States, featured in the documentary. They had a variety of reasons for doing the walk, from a traditional Catholic pilgrimage to a widower honoring his wife and a women suffering from depression.
O’Neil started the journey feeling inadequate because she physically couldn’t keep up with older pilgrims. Yet, she soon realized that feeling of competitiveness was taking away from her spiritual journey.
“A bad day for the ego is a good day for the soul,” she said in the film.
Sam, a woman in her 30s, began the walk in a deep depression and ended it determined to focus on the positive things in her life.
“I haven’t washed my hair in the month but I feel great,” she said.
Misa, a student from Denmark, wanted to travel alone but she discovered the journey became more meaningful by walking with fellow traveler, William from Canada.
“Happiness is meant to be shared,” said William, who also considered himself a loner before the pilgrimage.
About 20 people at the film Friday evening have walked the Camino, including Gene and Rosann McCullough of Denver. The couple completed the pilgrimage in three different segments beginning in 2002. As members of American Pilgrims on the Camino, the couple now returns to Spain as hosts to help other pilgrims at the hostels.
“We’ve made connections that will last a lifetime,” said Gene. “We see new people every day and they all have a different story.”
About 50 people raised their hands when Smith asked how many wanted to walk the trail after watching the film.
The filmmakers plan to have a DVD of the film available to the public by this fall. They also are raising $85,000 to get the film aired on PBS in the next few years and are seeking an international distributor.