Review by Lindsay Waite, Albuquerque, New Mexico
Imagine being born with an undiagnosed disease - Usher Syndrome - that gradually takes away sight and hearing. Imagine that it is not discovered until 8th grade, after which you are sent away from friends and family and your health continues to deteriorate. Sven Fiedler lives this life. In the documentary The World At Arm’s Length (2018, German and Spanish with English subtitles), we travel with Sven and his team as he pursues a dream he’d had for two decades: walk the Camino de Santiago (Way of St. James), more than 500 miles. He has some hearing ability, can communicate with tactile sign language (using one’s hands placed over another’s to feel the shape and movement of signs), but requires 7 different DBAs (Deaf Blind Assistants, 3 of whom are hearing-impaired) to provide support along the way.
Directed by Susanne Bohlmann and produced by Christopher Hawkins (both of whom also appear in the film), The World At Arm’s Length take us on a unique, enlightening and heartbreaking journey. Spoiler alert: Plot is covered from beginning to end in this review. Neither had known anyone with this condition before, but as explained by the director, “When we were told that Sven was about to travel the Camino, this seemed like such a heroic decision and one which would teach us a lot about him, his reality and determination.” Sven, in fact, intended to raise awareness of those suffering hearing and vision loss and with the help of one of his Assistants, Almuth, was contacting media about his planned journey.
The film opens with a gray screen, some discordant sounds including a high pitch, and tiny blotches of light gray every now and then. We are experiencing what presumably Sven experiences, but he’s not going to let that stop his journey. Several times during the film, we are brought back to this dark world with this gray imagery and unexpected sounds, as dialogue continues. We can briefly think about what it’s like to, for example, navigate a rocky path without sight.
Seemingly, Sven is off to a good start, with a team of three Assistants to begin - Silke, Almuth and Katya - who provide descriptions of the surroundings and guide him as he holds onto a strap attached to an Assistant’s hand or backpack. Initially, he is kind toward the Assistants, appreciating their support, but underneath there is inner turmoil. As he falters and an Assistant reaches for him, he grumbles, “You don’t have to catch me.” She responds, “It’s a reflex.” He grimaces.
Since he can’t take in the beauty of the surroundings, despite the attempts of his Assistants to offer vivid visual sketches of what they see, his focus turns to completing the walk as quickly as possible. In fact, his pace often becomes so fast that it is not easy for the Assistants or the filmmakers to keep up with him. Sven is angered, for example, with Silke, who says the pace is too fast. Later, when Katja suggests she first walk up a steep hill to see if it is open before they all walk up, he mutters, “Oh. Now the DBA decides.” He resents the Assistants despite their efforts to address his needs and make the journey as meaningful as they can.
Sven is briefly uplifted when a group of hearing-impaired people meet him at a stop, and they use tactile signing and hugs to wish him the best. He hugs each of them, communicating verbally as well as by signing.
But once back to the journey, it is clear Sven is mad that Assistants are taking control. He rails that he wants an Assistant - not a Carer (who he characterizes as a commander). He wants to be in charge. A rage slowly builds because he knows he needs the Assistants. He is angered when Silke explains she can’t keep up his pace. Later, he shouts at the Assistants, coming out of his bedroom, when he hears them talking and laughing. He accuses them of wanting to get rid of him, ridiculing him. As Silke leaves the team along with the film crew (since the intent was only to film the beginning and end of the journey), director Bohlmann stays since she wants to see how the story unfolds day-by-day. At one point she draws Sven aside and asks him how he feels. “Alone.” She has become part of the film.
I asked the production team on whether it was the intent of the director and producer for them to become part of the story. They responded via email:
“The intent was never to include ourselves in the film. The film we began with in our minds was purely about how Sven interacted with the environment and interpreted it in his mind. We were unable to share this reality enough with Sven to do this justice [since] our expectations were incorrect.”
Thus, they change their vision of the journey to include director Bohlmann’s view of his journey, its impact on his team and Bohlmann’s gradual understanding of Sven’s experience despite his unwillingness to share his thoughts most of the time.
When a new crew arrives to join Almuth and the filmmaker - Manu and Antje, hearing-impaired and a long time Assistant for Sven - it seems as if there is a chance for a shift to a more positive experience for them all. This moment is short. Quickly, Sven accuses Manu of simply wanting a job and money - not his friendship, shocking Antje. She has not seen this side of Sven.
Sven wants independence, which he can never have. He wants a bond of friendship with persons he hired as Assistants, but his insults are brutal and he drives them away from him. He calls Manu inhuman. He complains that the team should be “All for one and one for all,” but instead it is “One for all and three against one.” He is left out, remarking “I’ve got a name. I’ve got a heart and soul.” As kind as all the Assistants are to him, he responds with bitterness and sarcasm. “Being along here is even harder.”
The producer, Christoper Hawkins, shows up on a bicycle and they hug for a long time, Sven in tears. Manu notes that for the first time, and perhaps the only time, Sven has forgotten that he is powerless, that he is in constant need of some kind of help. “He didn’t need us to complete his senses,” she believes.
The involvement of Hawkins in the film was accidental because the camera was rolling constantly. Sven had a connection to Hawkins. Bohlmann explains that “Sven drew him in to certain impactful scenes and it then became impossible to leave him out if the story were to be told.” Truly, these are some of Sven’s most revealing moments - when he feels the support of Hawkins.
There are further verbal altercations with the Assistants. At one point, he admonishes Manu when she takes a moment to soak her feet in a river as they await a car at at pickup point. He remarks, “Now she is a pilgrim, not an Assistant.” His contradictions abound. “Nobody is here for me.” “I don’t care if I reach Santiago.” When Manu plans to leave since he won’t take a break for a day, he points his finger toward her face and shouts, “I need you! Are you happy now? I need you!” But, Sven trusts no one.
In Santiago, at the Zero Stone, he has already instructed his Assistants to not hug him, so they don’t. They hug each other. Sven briefly has a look of peace on his face since he has achieved his goal, but when director Bohlmann comments that the walk gave him what he needed but not what he wanted, he responds, “My heart still hurts but I made my Camino. That’s the most important thing.”
When is he most happy? When he is home again in his own surroundings, opening the blinds, stepping out on his balcony, moving comfortably around his space, and using his hands and memory as guidance. What does this space give him? “Freedom.”
The filmmaker closes with her own thoughts on how disconnected people are who are unable to hear or see. She reflects, “when one is blind, one is disconnected from ‘things’ and when one is deaf, one is disconnected from ‘people’.” But to Bohlmann, “If I can’t read the face of my companion, I can only search inside of me.” She believes the hero journey of Sven ended when Sven arrived home again. Yet, Sven is planning another journey, to hike to “the end of the world,” the Atlantic Ocean. He wistfully dreams of a second chance. But he has to work out his own negative and destructive reactions to his disability and understand that fear, anger and confusion about the motives of helpers only drives him into more loneliness.
This filmmaking team plans to continue to document the stories of people who have extraordinary challenges in their lives, and I look forward to their future productions.
This film has a limited release in the USA, so the screening at the Guild, beginning this afternoon, is a rare opportunity to view it. The World At Arm’s Length is also being released in Canada, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand.
The Guild’s screenings are May 21-May 23 (4:15PM, 8:30PM) and May 28-30 (4:15 PM, 8:30PM). New Mexicans have an opportunity for a unique glimpse into the world of a dreamer with extraordinary challenges and his quest to walk the Camino despite tremendous obstacles, including himself. Here is a link to the trailer. https://www.imdb.com/videoplayer/vi1829288473