2019 TRIBECA FILM FESTIVAL: Documentaries often seek to shine a light on a pressing political or social issue. Sometimes, they can attempt to color in the lines for a public figure the world may not truly understand. It’s rare to see one presented as a love letter. However, that’s just what filmmaker Werner Herzog has done with “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin.” A tribute to the late writer, Herzog is not just giving him a moment in the sun, he’s also explaining to the world just why he was important to him.
“Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin” opts to drop audiences right into Herzog’s relationship with Chatwin. A lack of familiarity with the writer won’t hinder enjoyment, though it does require a bit of catching up. Herzog provides this, even if that aspect is the least interesting element of the documentary. When it’s exploring the shared interests of the two, as well as why this friendship was so important, that’s when the film is on the most fertile ground.
The journey was inspired by the passing of his friend Bruce Chatwin, three decades ago. When the writer was about to die of AIDS, they had one final visit. That memory inspired the filmmaker to traverse a nomad path, one in keeping with Chatwin’s spirit. Exploring Chatwin’s fascination with animal skins, historical sites, and cultural landmarks, he opines about what it all meant to the man.
Herzog notes that Chatwin especially found kindred spirit with nomads, leading to a large focus in the documentary. Through interviews with scholars and others who knew the man, he weaves a multi-chaptered (inspired by the writer’s actual published works) odyssey not just of the world’s beauty, but of his friend’s as well. In the final moments, the love they shared, unconventional as it was, is movingly paid tribute.
Bruce Chatwin clearly impacted Werner Herzog in a profound manner, something he doesn’t shy away from here. The doc presents a platonic love story between soul mates of sorts. “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin” does not just wants to craft a film worthy of the late writer’s legacy, but also seeks to let viewers inside Herzog. Appearing on screen often and narrating the picture, as much of what is learned has to do with Herzog as it does with Chatwin. In that manner, it’s a fascinating project for devotees of the filmmaker to pour themselves into.
“Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin” is undoubtedly Herzog’s most personal non-fiction work to date. He imbues the entire project with a sense of profound duty. Much like someone might make a trek to scatter ashes or fulfill a dying wish, Herzog makes sure to pass on the essence of Chatwin. At times, his signature voice makes the narration seem more imposing than is meant. However, those moments are brief and the doc quickly refocuses on Chatwin’s interests, Herzog’s quest, and how the two came together.
Fans of Herzog will find “Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin” to be a moving curiosity. Tribeca launched this documentary and it’s a worthy tribute to a man that meant the world to the filmmaker. It’ll have trouble finding an audience outside of the festival circuit, but Herzog made the movie for himself, as much as anyone else. For what he set out to accomplish, he pulled off his goals admirably.