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The World at Arm's Length - documentary

What is it about?

The documentary, the shooting of which will start in April 2017, is about a deaf-blind German man, Sven, who’s decided to walk the 800 km of the Camino de Santiago. The walk will start in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port on the French side of the Pyrenees, will reach the breadth of Spain and will end in Cape Finisterre. If all goes according to plan, the walk should last about 42 days, ending in June or July. Here you can watch the audio-described and subtitled trailer - the password to access it is conkertreefilm.

More than a million pilgrims have completed the walk in the past hundred years. Sven and his assistants will trek through the Pyrenees, the vineyards of Navarra and Rioja to the flat lands of the Spanish plateau; bleak, arid, desert-like, up once more to the mountain landscapes of Galicia, the Switzerland of Iberia. With the majestic scale and solitude of the landscape, historical towns and artefacts, the road is a unique adventure for those determined to make it.

The filming crew, captained by director Susanne Bohlmann, will follow Sven in his adventurous journey. Due to financial restraints, the crew won’t be able to stay with him for the whole “pilgrimage”, but for two thirds of it.

Clara, EVS volunteer at VIEWS International, had the chance to interview both the director and the producer, Christopher Hawkins. Read their interview to find out how the documentary came into being and how they feel about it all.

Who is Sven?

Sven was born deaf, his balance was poor and learning to walk was a slow unsteady process. School was difficult, and his disability alienated him from his peers, especially when it came to sport: he mostly couldn't hit the ball, so feigned disinterest. In fact, his favourite thing was to paint: he expressed himself in weird and ever-changing colours; a verdant tree could be purple one day, yellow the next. He'd continually ask classmates for the colours right next to him, so his teacher finally realized that something was wrong with his sight. When he was 13, Sven was diagnosed with Usher’s syndrome, a congenital disorder which is the most common cause of deaf-blindness. His vision was blurred and distorted, his perception of colour weak. He'd been faking it for years hoping he'd get better, but it only ever got worse. The doctors finally told him he'd eventually lose his sight completely.

Though Sven fought really hard to be normal, his teachers weren't prepared for a deaf and blind boy. Nevertheless, his determination got him through his studies and he qualified as a technical illustrator, securing a position in a local firm of architects. That was one of the happiest days of his life, as it made him feel more connected with the world. However, his sight was worsening, although he pretended otherwise: he compensated for the lack of sight with precision and memory, creating a detailed mental map of any environment he entered. Of course, though, that could not last forever. In 2010 his sight got so bad that he was sent to a special clinic in Hanover to prepare him for life without sight and to hone his abilities in touch sign communication. It was during the 14 months he spent there, on a terrible night, that he got completely blind. Weirdly enough, he’d been struggling so much to use the residual vision he had, that the complete loss of it came as a relief at first. It was just a temporary relief though: he was forced to give up his cherished job and was plunged in a seemingly hopeless existance.

Isolated and devalued, Sven never left his apartment. He sought solitude and fought with the temptation of suicide. Then his new care assistant, Almuth, came along, and decided to pull him out of his confinement. She talked to him and encouraged him to walk in the nearby countryside. She would lead him, their hands grasping a little rope hoop. Sven was terrified and unsteady at first, and didn't trust himself to do anything. But Almuth took him to wonderful spaces, carefully describing landscapes and wildlife through touch sign language. The smell and feel of those places came alive in Sven's imagination. He felt the ground give in under his feet, the aromas of the forest or the sun-baked tarmac as the rain rose from it. He felt the wind on his skin and the muscles tense in his body. It was then that he finally came to terms with his condition.

Sabine joined the team some time later. She was quite different from Almuth, more reserved and quiet, but Sven felt comfortable around her: she was specialized in deaf-blind communication and had worked with deaf-blind people for many years. Over time, Sven felt ready to go for longer walks, over more difficult terrains. And his wanderlust was infectious!

The secret land

When he was still partially sighted, Sven had watched a documentary about the Camino de Santiago. Though he had found it extremely interesting, he hadn’t really understood where the pilgrimage was, since he couldn’t hear the words accompanying the images. In his mind, it was the other side of the earth: America, Canada... maybe even farther.

It was only many years later that Sven discovered that the land of his dreams was not that far after all: just in Spain! He was totally speechless, thinking that he could've actually visited the place. But the dream became reality only when he shared it with Almuth. “I would love to go with you”, she said. And the real dream began.