Feature Documentary Reviews

Diarios de Don Quixote [The diaries of the young Don] (2020) – 3 stars

Director: Walter Schmuck

Writer: Walter Schmuck

Key Cast: Walter Schmuck, Nina Schmuck, Juan Manuel Purger

Running time: 1hr 29mins

A perennial offering on the festival scene is a road movie made by a European filmmaker, offering a view of – to normative European sensibilities – an exotic culture set against some dramatic landscape. Hopefully, in a more balanced global future culture, we could be able to watch Mongolian Pastoralists or Amazonian hunter gatherers giving their similarly whimsical takes on the strange idiosyncrasies of the people they meet, as they make their way on a pleasure trip across the strange continent of Europe. But for now, that seems a distant prospect.

Walter Schmuck, a young German filmmaker, with their narrative feature, Diarios de Don Quixote, follows the conventions we are more accustomed to – the film records a trip he makes to Peru, and a motorbike ride up across the Andes mountains. However, Diarios de Don Quixote does still manage to break some new ground in the genre, with Schmuck proving to be an innovative movie maker unafraid to take chances in this promising directorial debut.

If you want to make a piece of work out of your travels that is somewhat more than a holiday video, the first decision seems to be choosing between the Buddy Movie or Lonesome Traveller motif. Schmuck opts for the latter. As nobody really wants to watch stills or reels of even their closest friends’ vacation experiences – you then have to provide meaning.

Schmuck goes for an approach that intertwines three strands of meaning. First, they set up an Investigation. Schmuck’s father had worked on an aid project in Peru thirty years prior to the filming of the movie and his friend had been murdered there – Schmuck intends to discover what happened. Then there is The Search for Self-Knowledge – the director is fascinated by the story of Don Quixote and portrays the trip as a spiritual homage to Cervantes’ vision of the Don. Third, he brings together a theme of Danger and Adventure – by choosing to make their way through remote regions by motorbike rather than the reasonably readily available public transport Schmuck gives themselves the opportunity to shoot some powerful, genuinely hair-raising footage.

To pull all three strands together is quite a tall order – one of the themes falls by the wayside – and on occasion they do not mesh together. But when they do they make for some fine cinema.

The theme that falls down quickest is the investigation into the death of the father’s friend – after a desultory single conversation in the Peruvian city where the murder was committed, Schmuck abandons the quest. The decision made little sense to this viewer as the director had spent what seemed an age setting the scene, and sketching out the relationship with the father. In fact, the whole introductory scene setting which takes up a large part of the movie could, I would suggest, have been drastically cut down, knowing where it is going. Nothing of import would have been lost and it would have made the movie more hard-hitting. As to one of the scenes with the father, one thing more boring than looking at holiday snaps is watching a film of other people looking at holiday snaps.

The exposition of the search for self-knowledge is extremely well realised. I liked the device of the eponymous diary being periodically written up – enabling the director to share with us their interior monologue. I enjoyed how the search within the framework of the world of Cervantes culminated in the author taking part in a ritual guided by a local shaman where they consume the psychedelic ayahuasca plant. Schmuck deftly joins together the aftermath of the psychedelic trip with the motorcycle riding experience.

The ayahuasca ritual scene is surprisingly subtly done. Psychedelics and movies quite often do not mix well, but Schmuck shows a fine touch by eschewing any grand attempt to mimic the hallucinations characteristic of ayahuasca intoxication and concentrates to great effect on the dialogue and chanting involved in the ritual. The director is helped by the performance of the shaman (Juan Manuel Purger) who powerfully projects the required aura of Trickster/Con Artist/Guru. The particular ayahuasca rite conducted by Purger comes across as pretty basic cognitive behavioural therapy garnished with esoteric hubble-bubble taken from Carlos Castaneda but given added oomph from the psychotropic chemicals. The ritual seems to do the trick for Schmuck as participant but importantly for the audience it works well as cinema.

For me, a couple of the bildungsroman strands did not add any value to the piece. There is a truly cringe worthy street scene in Lima where the director gives us their Rich World Guilt thoughts on South American poverty. A more developed plot line is Schmuck sharing their thoughts through the diaries as to their joy and hopes for their unborn daughter. At one point, Schmuck has their partner (Nina Schmuck) read tearfully to us one of the diary entries about how they miss Nina and the yet to be born child. The scene comes across as false. Your reviewer’s reaction was – your wife is pregnant, as a couple you have had the sex of the foetus determined – brilliant. Nevertheless, you have chosen to take a presumably expensive and certainly dangerous trip alone to the other side of the world in search of self-enlightenment and to make a movie – it is like elective surgery – you do not have to do it.

Some road movies have the means of transport play a leading role and portray the protagonist as emotionally bonded with the machine – a good example being Lucio Arisci’s The Yellow Queen, reviewed by IFL last year. In contrast, Schmuck endearingly, even quixotically, appears to know almost nothing about motorcycle mechanics. The motorbike ridden is a nondescript, rental Honda trail bike which keeps breaking down – during one hiatus we learn that Schmuck does not even know where the spark plug is situated. Schmuck’s status as a total novice, rather than detracting from, actually enhances the motorcycling scenes – adding an imperilled and adventurous feel to the footage.

And some footage it is. The bike scenes appear to be shot by a camera strapped to the rider’s chest and they are breath-taking – one captures the drama of weaving through fast moving traffic on a mountain highway, in another we feel the ecstasy of a making a motorcycle glissade down a precipitous winding track.

At the end of the latter scene, the bike’s engine splutters and dies. The director then does something extraordinary – the latest mishap has all got too much and they break down in tears – real tears. I thought this was brave of Schmuck to include – it is not often that the intrepid lead of a filmed expedition is shown having a genuine breakdown and being unable to cope with what fate has thrown up. The honesty of the scene drew me on to Schmuck’s side – I became invested in their future.

The glissade scene also happened to be accompanied by one of my favourite pieces of pop music from the last century – Talking Heads’ Road to Nowhere, beautiful acapella vocals segueing into Tina Weymouth’s wondrous bass guitar lines. For The Diaries, the director has assembled a fine soundtrack – aptly chosen and adding tone and depth to the imagery. Apart from the Talking Heads, there is only one rock-based number – a thrash guitar celebration to evoke the joie de vivre of the first outing on the motorbike. The rest of the soundtrack is by Peruvian artists, with a stand-out live performance by some street musicians that gives a celebratory feel to the denouement near the movie’s end.

For the ending, in a bold move, Schmuck replicates the movie’s opening sequence. The camera silently looks out of the door of a shop on a Peruvian street. Someone comes into the shop, but our gaze is focused on the pedestrians and the vehicles that happen to pass by. Nothing happens. It is a meditative, almost numinous, experience. I enjoyed the piece as opener but even more so when it is repeated as an ending; it underlines the circularity of the narrative. We are back where we started, but the Don may be a wiser person now.          

Schmuck, with Diarios de Don Quixote, has given us a film that works well in parts and less so in others but, overall, the piece is a strong directorial debut. From the submission notes and from the subject matter of the movie, it is clear that the director has a deep interest in mental health and its relationship to spirituality – a relationship that is not often interrogated in cinema. Possibly, they will be able explore the topic in their subsequent filmmaking. Whatever way they decide to go, I look forward to viewing further submissions to IFL. One piece of advice for future expeditions though – maybe investigate where the spark plug is located.

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