The Unlikely Pilgrims : Australian film documentary psychodrama – reviewed by Camino Downunder

In Sydney on a Monday night, this June (2013), The Unlikely Pilgrims had its world premiere.  The queue started early and it was obvious there were high expectations and excitement.

Who went to this first time viewing?   Mostly locals living in Sydney.

At this Sydney Film Festival premiere, three different audiences were discernible:

The first group were returned pilgrims – wanting to see and experience how an Australian film crew and four Australians in front of the camera performed on their beloved and cherished pilgrimage route.  These people are the same ones who want to identify (and to some extent relive those locations), which they themselves had experienced during their own time on the track and who would have indubitably gone to see the Emilio Estevez film «The Way», starring his father Martin Sheen when it was released in Australia and New Zealand in April, 2013.  This group was numerically big.

The second group was made up of future pilgrims and those about to fly out and commence their own pilgrimage sometime soon on the Camino de Santiago.  They were all ears and eyes: wanting to absorb as much as they could from this documentary.

The third group were film industry people, Sydney Film Festival people and the drug and alcohol rehabilitation people.

The title of this unique Australian documentary THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMS refers to three recovering drug addicts called Amy, Chris and Dave (all from Sydney) who in 2004 were filmed by a small Australian film crew, flying out of Sydney Airport.  It would have been the first time from Australia that three people with such challenges had done the Camino de Santiago.  In the 21st century, the Camino de Santiago attracts the whole range of humanity from Spain and Western Europe, and that is precisely why physically and intellectually disabled pilgrims are seen along this track in adapted wheel chairs and special mobile devices with their carers and support staff.  The writer briefly discussed this inclusiveness in a previous blog.

From Madrid, the three unlikely pilgrims plus their guide Ronan get to the head of the Camino Francés track at Roncesvalles in the Spanish Pyrenees.  Nowadays, more Australians and New Zealanders begin in France on the other side of the Pyrenees at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port 27km further north in France.  Spending their first night (June, 2004) in the now defunct Albergue Juvenil (Youth Hostel), which was replaced in 2011 by the refurbished and modernised new pilgrim hostel: Albergue de peregrinos de Roncesvalles.

Immediately there are issues and challenges for these three unlikely pilgrims on the Spanish pilgrimage track called the Camino Francés.  The first and fundamental issue concerning them are that they are quite clueless about many things related to walking the Camino de Santiago as 21st century modern pilgrims and the documentary film brings this issue to the surface many times.  The documentary may have been better titled: The Three Clueless Pilgrims from Australia.

Amy, at the beginning of the film documentary, aptly summarises her mental state and extreme anxiety when she says “I feel unstable … I feel sick.”  Our hapless three (Amy, Chris and Dave) who are at the start quite naïve about what it really takes to have a successful outcome.  However, what inevitably happens as a process on this pilgrimage trail is well documented cinematographically.

By having, experiencing and overcoming their multitudinous hardships they in fact lose their gullibility along The Way and replace it with insights about themselves and a better understanding of what they were doing and the geographical, cultural and historical context.  Ronan was right when he said that the Camino for him started after he returned to Australia: reflection and transformation.

Amy: the only female in the group

Amy: the only female in the group

Contrast these unlikely pilgrims’ cluelessness in the first half with the writer’s long experience of would-be and future pilgrims attending a Camino Downunder class/workshop: without exception class participants have already done huge amounts of reading and research: and some of them over many years.

It is intellectual hubris for anyone to say they know everything about the pilgrimage routes in Spain and do not need to learn anything more – and certainly in the Australian and New Zealand context this means language and culture.  It is the writer’s proposition that you can never know too much or everything about this very deeply layered and varied aspects which constitute the Caminos de Santiago.  So when you’re watching this film, you realise that our real-life three pilgrims at the start, know next to nothing: one begins to dread their fate and destiny along the Camino path due to their very fragile emotional and mental health.  However, that doesn’t mean they do not change and learn commensurate with the kilometres walked.  And that is precisely why this documentary film is authentic and worthwhile.  This documentary psychodrama then wins its spurs – it successfully does portray deeply flawed humans beings being transformed by their indomitable spirit as a result of undertaking this pilgrimage.  With insight Chris says:

The Camino seems to be a crash course in life actually (hands being banged at the same time Chris is making a boom sound) there you go – learn or don’t learn!

For us who have already undertaken this seemingly endless walk from the Pyrenees do appreciate seeing the iconic and exotic geographical place names: RoncesvallesZubiriTrinidad de Arre (Albergue de la Trinidad de Arre, just before Pamplona city)…Puente la ReinaCirauquiEstellaGrañon (the low-key and unusual pilgrim hostel in the church’s attic according to Chris)…Nájera (unfortunately where Amy is traumatised by having her money stolen)…Burgos (major city and entry to the Meseta – the elevated wheat-growing tablelands)…Hontanas (the iconic small village of 80 inhabitants on the Meseta)…León (meeting up with the lost members)…Astorga (the physical and metaphorical fork in the road for Dave and the Albergue de Peregrinos San Javier)…Ponferrada (the dominating 12th Century Templar Castle on the hill)…Villafranca del Bierzo before arriving into Galicia (autonomous community/region) and seeing the remaining two, Amy and Chris get to Samos before getting into Santiago de Compostela some four days later.

It is truly life affirming to see Amy’s face so effusive when she walks into Santiago de Compostela when comparing that same face at the beginning in the Pyrenees, writ large with fear and anxiety.

Notwithstanding their naïvety and clueless state, the writer during the film started to developed a deep respect for all three monolingual native English-speaking Australians in spite of their pre-existing challenges.  All having very problematic, unhappy childhoods and in one case being sexually abused.  Two of them having different forms of mental illness with extreme anxiety thrown into the mix and all three having abused a variety of drugs (legal and otherwise) in their youth and as young adults.

It is actually a remarkable feat of human endurance and more importantly, human resilience that these three hapless Australians as portrayed in the documentary were able to rise to the occasion more often than not.  The evidence is clear that walking this remarkable, if not magical track – the Camino de Santiago started to rebuild their characters (nearly destroyed by years of abuse, neglect and drug taking) during their time on the track and after having left it.  When all three came up to the stage after the Premiere and answered questions from the audience, there was a realisation that nine years later, after their original Camino, have been a period of growth and development for all of them.

Chris: the only one at his own pace, on his ownChris: (photo to the left) – the only one to walk at his own pace and on his own, for much of the time


Ronan’s obvious failure is to thoroughly prepare his charges before leaving their comfort zone (Sydney).  During the documentary and towards the end, there is a very significant conversation between Chris and Ronan.  Chris says to Ronan he suffered and cried on the Camino on his own, without Ronan knowing anything about it or he (Chris) asking Ronan for assistance.  He accuses Ronan to his face of being irresponsible and not supporting or assisting him and the others sufficiently.  Ronan, on the other hand defends himself by saying that they should have taken more responsibility and his role was not there to be their counsellor.  He was simply there to guide and accompany them. Evidence: Ronan walks with a waking pole: the three walk unassisted.  The exception being Chris in the first stage walks with a crudely cut tree branch;  but later he walks with a traditional wooden walking staff (available for purchase all the way along the Camino path).  The others don’t seem to know you should walk with hi-tech walking poles in order to avoid accumulated physical injuries and have a faster recovery period in the afternoon when the day’s walking has stopped. (See a previous Camino Downunder blog on walking poles

On stage after the Premiere, Ronan continues to justify his position: he says there is a fine line between rescuing and standing on your own two feet.  He is absolutely right.  However, this reviewer comes to this issue from a different point of view.  He is an educator: he believes passionately that quality education will and always does make a difference.  The cliché is true: knowledge is power – it always empowers the individual in all circumstances by giving them choices.  This is what we call in the 21st century: human capital.  Training was also required to be up skilled.  Having good hi-tech walking gear and accessories do result in a better walking outcome – evidence based.  Ronan’s failure was the failure not to teach or train well enough his charges so as to neutralise on the track their disproportionate toxic feelings and emotions to certain triggers.  But in Ronan’s defence: he is not a teacher nor an educator.

Ronan: leading The Unlikely Pilgrims

Ronan: leading The Unlikely Pilgrims

Doing the Camino de Santiago is not a walk in the park; however you don’t need to be an elite athlete either to complete it successfully; but you do need to be resilient and have mental stamina.  You do need to trouble shoot on a daily basis, you do need to understand the geography and the local cultures and this heterogeneity.  You certainly need to have some knowledge of the language.  Indeed, for every challenge or read the word “challenge” as a “problem”; there is always, always an adequate solution.  And it is precisely the mental stamina and resilience (or some will say their religious faith) which counts more on balance.  Therefore, if one is suffering one or two emotional issues and/or mental illness it becomes more challenging than it needs to be in order to successfully complete such a walk without timely and sustained support.

Ronan’s imposed 30 days walking from Roncesvalles to Santiago de Compostela is good for him: but it is bad for the others.  And it is for this reason early on, Chris decides to walk on his own, most of the time and most importantly, to walk at his own pace.  It is the reviewer’s considered opinion that the aggregated injuries along the Camino arise when the pilgrim walks to someone else’s rhythm or pace.

In the film, Dave has a conversation with Ronan at Astorga: they are both sitting on an outdoor seat, the backdrop being the Bishop’s Palace.  See photo below of The Bishop’s Palace – Gaudí’s masterpiece (1887-93) and it is here that we learn Dave will no longer continue his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela 250 km away.  We learn later that Dave returns to Astorga, 6 years later to finish what he had left undone.  Astorga in many ways is a metaphor for arriving on to the Camino track at a critical juncture and also departing from it too.  The southern pilgrimage track called the Vía de la Plata (Silver Way) from Seville or Ruta de la Plata (Silver Route) intersects with the ancient Roman road (east/west direction) and called the Via Traiana – for Dave it becomes his classic fork in the road decision.

Astorga: Gaudí's masterpiece The Bishop's Palace

Dave and Ronan on a good day

Dave and Ronan on a good day

There must have been shock and horror to returning pilgrim audience members on that Monday night to actually conclude that apart from Ronan, the three recovering drug addicts had done very, very little preparation and that their knowledge of Spain, of its history in general and of the pilgrimage history and culture in particular, showed up their ignorance.


At the start, our clueless (unlikely) pilgrims did not have one word of Spanish up their sleeve – towards the end, the film audience heard the odd “Buen Camino“.  Why would they?  Why did they leave Australia without any language training or cultural insights?  The answer screams out from the film: no one had any Spanish language skills.  Even Ronan who has been on the Camino 5 times (we are informed) has a poor working knowledge of Spanish.  The film crew, when filming themselves in their support car in León and looking for their subject(s), can only communicate in English to Spanish people who live on the Camino track.  This is an appalling situation.  It appears that some Australians assume the whole world speaks English, because English in the 21st century has now become the lingua franca of the world – it is how a Mongolian will communicate to a Moroccan – by using English as the common language whose native languages are different.  This situation, therefore makes for errors of judgements when native English-speaking visitors go to a non-English speaking country like Spain and can’t communicate in places where there is so little English.  ****On that Monday night, Chris responds to the question with: “Learn a little bit of Spanish ¿Dónde está el baño?”- he gets a laugh from the audience.

Throughout Spain and certainly along the full length of the Camino Francés, language politics and traditions for the following languages Castilian/Castellano [Spanish], Euskera [Basque] and Galician/Galego/Gallego impact on everyone, everyday.

Here is an Australian film crew, filming in Spain and it is obvious from the film, that this film crew’s problems in León could have been solved very quickly had they hired or contracted a multilingual interpreter/translator.  Reading the film credits, there is no reference made whatsoever to this film crew having used any Spanish translation or interpretation services.  Just imagine a Spanish film crew and cast coming to Australia and expecting everyone they encounter during their filming to speak in their language.

To understand this documentary and its revealed relationship dynamics is to understand each of the four protagonists: three recovering drug addicts and their Camino guide Ronan, who so happens to have been their drug counsellor in Sydney and at the beginning he actually says in the film: “I’m not there to counsel you…” – but the irony is that Ronan constantly does counsel and advise; but it is always too little and too late.  It is like closing the gate after the horse has already bolted.

The Three along the track to Santiago

The Three along the track to Santiago

Technically, the cinematography at times seemed grainy and the clarity of the moving pictures leave a lot to be desired.  However, on the positive side, it was an inspired choice to have subtitles in English when significant conversations were taking place between and amongst themselves.  The map graphics in the film indicating the geographical location of the Camino de Santiago, including some mountain passes as symbols ^^^^  are never named.

Yes, you may well say that it is too easy for Camino Downunder to criticise this graphic map.  But a good, quality map can communicate better and tell a better story than not having a good map.  One cannot exaggerate the importance that geography and topography have impacted on Spain, since the beginning of documented human habitation on the Iberian peninsula more than three thousand years ago.

If you compare the dramatic and dynamic map graphics, shown in the fictional film The Way, these seemingly minor, cost cutting areas in the  final production stage of THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMS, would appear in hindsight to be a false economy.  After all, northern Spain’s geographical context is incredibly important in understanding the history and culture of this pilgrimage.  Spain’s geographical context has determined everything over the last three thousand years from the Celts to the Romans to the Visigoths, the subsequent Muslim invasion in 711 and the Reconquest taking more than 700 years to accomplish and then only in 1492.  Geography explains Spain’s different regions, now called Autonomous Communities: different languages, different histories, different traditions and customs and naturally being reflected in its different foods and gastronomy.

Q & A session after the film  For about 12 minutes, questions were taken from the audience and directed to either the two film directors John Cherry and Kirsten Mallyon or to the four protagonists: Amy, Chris, Dave and Ronan.  Body language was telling: Ronan the guide and former drug and alcohol counsellor for the three was on stage, physically quite separated from the directors and his former three charges.  During this Q & A session, Chris responds to a question from the floor by revealing that he and Amy wish to walk the Camino de Santiago again in 2014 – 10 years after they had first step foot on the Camino track.  He jokingly asks the audience if anyone out there is interested in filming them?

What was the best part of the Camino?*

What was the best pilgrim hostel along the track?**

Will a DVD be produced?***

Can you give any advice?****

CONCLUSION: The reviewer highly recommends this original Australian documentary psychodrama THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMS.

Acknowledgments: The 5 photos above from the Australian documentary THE UNLIKELY PILGRIMS was gratefully supplied by Rebecca Hyde from Miranda Brown Publicity (Publicist for this documentary film).  The photo of Antonio Gaudí’s Bishop’s Palace at Astorga was supplied by Y.A.E.G.

Documentary Film Credits: Directed by Kirsten Mallyon and John Cherry.  Producer: John Cherry.  Length: 90 minutes.

Reviewer: Marc Grossman from


* Chris said walking on his own.

** The albergue at Grañon: Hospital de Peregrinos San Juan Bautista

*** Yes.

**** See Chris’s response in LANGUAGE ISSUES