Gay Essential Opinion: Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

From the restless mind of master filmmaker Werner Herzog, this documentary traces the life of writer-adventurer Bruce Chatwin. The men were close friends for several years before Chatwin’s death in 1989, at which point he gave Herzog his beloved leather rucksack. Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin, which had its world premiere at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival, tells the story of their friendship and much more in eight imaginative chapters.

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin

Herzog packs a lifetime of material into this brief 89-minute documentary, and yet it never feels rushed. The tone is deeply personal, as Herzog goes on a quest to follow Chatwin’s journey by interviewing people from his life, intercut with film and television clips, still photos and audio recordings that let Chatwin narrate the film alongside the filmmaker. This is the tale of an explorer who was fascinated by the things that drive people to travel, visit new places and simply wander like a nomad. Herzog’s unquenchable curiosity matched Chatwin’s, so it’s easy to see how they became fast friends. And the film doesn’t shy away from his personal life, including his sexuality.

The opening chapters explore Chatwin’s childhood and some specific things that inspired him. There was the skin of a “brontosaurus” in his grandmother’s curio cabinet, so Herzog travels to the cave in Patagonia where it was discovered. Chatwin’s childhood in Wiltshire developed a strong interest in stone circles and lay-lines, and he was fascinated by the indigenous mythology of the Australian Outback. So Herzog visits several Aboriginal elders to speak about the “songlines” Chatwin wrote a whole book about. This obsession with tribal cultures took Chatwin all over the world, as he explored the way they interacted with Western society, and vice versa. Chatwin was passionate about preserving history.

Herzog’s first met Chatwin in Australia, then later filmed an adaptation of Chatwin’s novel The Viceroy of Oiuidah as the 1987 film Cobra Verde. He has fond memories (and footage) of Chatwin visiting the set in Ghana, even as he was growing ill in the very early days of the Aids epidemic. After Chatwin gave him the rucksack, Herzog had his leading man carry it through his 1991 mountaineering film Scream of Stone. While shooting that movie, Herzog himself was carrying it when he was trapped atop an icy peak for 55 hours.

For Herzog, Chatwin’s bisexuality was irrelevant, while to Chatwin’s wife Elizabeth it never felt complicated. “It didn’t impinge on our relationship,” she says. He famously had relationships with the likes of Robert Mapplethorpe and Jasper Conran, but Elizabeth says she has only happy memories of their life together. Indeed, Herzog’s portrait is of a cheeky optimist who roamed the world bringing people and cultures together. “The world reveals itself to those who travel on foot,” Chatwin liked to say. And Herzog’s film is gorgeously shot with his usual attention to both spectacularly grand vistas and microscopic details. It’s a riveting film that encourages the audience to never take life, or the planet, for granted.

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All pictures reproduced courtesy of SIDEWAYSFILM

Rich Cline

Rich Cline

As a freelance journalist, Rich Cline has covered films and major events on five continents. The founding editor of Shadows on the Wall, he is vice chair of the London Film Critics' Circle, chair of the London Critics' Circle Film Awards, and a member of Fipresci, Online Film Critics Society and GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics. A native of Los Angeles, he grew up in Ecuador and has called London home since 1992.
Rich Cline
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