CHATHAM – Watching just the trailer for “I'll Push You,” a documentary that screens at the Chatham Orpheum Theater May 24, conveys the emotional depth of the experience Justin Skeesuck and Patrick Gray went through when they traveled the El Camino de Santiago in 2014. Filming the two friends' journey also changed the life of director Terry Parish.
“When you're on the journey with them you are also a pilgrim of sorts,” he said in a telephone interview from his California home Monday. “There is a part of your essence and being that wants to be a pilgrim, that wants to have the epiphanies and experiences of the others who you meet from all over the world.”
At the same time, he had a job to do. “There's this other role that we're supposed to be taking up, director, cameraperson, sound,” he said. “So you have to close off those other desires and needs for the tasks to be done.”
Still, the experience had a profound impact on the graphic designer turned filmmaker. “Life is much more simple now,” he said. The things that were important before – the impressive list of clients, and stream of revenue – “those are no longer the markers of success,” he said.
What makes Skeesuck and Gray's story so compelling is not that they traveled the Camino – thousands of people do that every year. It's the fact that Gray pushed his wheelchair-bound friend 500 miles over mountains, through mud and over scorching hot roadways in Spain. The film that chronicles their journey also tells the parallel story of Skeesuck, also a graphic designer before a rare neurological disease robbed his ability to move his limbs.
It's also a rare portrait of true friendship. Skeesuck mentioned a desire to travel the Camino after seeing a Rick Steves TV program about the route traveled for ages by pilgrims. Grays response was simply, “I'll push you.”
Parish had known Skeesuck as a fellow graphic designer; they'd gone to the same school and kept in touch by Facebook, and he'd noticed Skeesuck's deteriorating condition. The time he learned of the Camino plan, Parish was deeply frustrated professionally, basically tired of the “swimming with the sharks” that big-time marketing entailed.
“I think there's always been that tension in me, when and how can I go out in the world and make something that means something to me and isn't just trying to sell dog food,” he said.
“Something had to give. There was something in me that said I have to do this,” he said, “even if I had to film it with an iPhone.”
He and his business partner (and co-director) Chris Karcher found a way to make it work, and he found himself with a camera operator he barely knew on a plane to Paris. That's when they realized they needed more help, and were able to bring in two friends to flesh out the crew.
During the 34-day journey, he found himself feeling the tension of being the observer as well as wanting to be a participant in the pilgrimage. On top of that, the crewmembers barely knew each other – “We were a group that had never worked together before,” he said – and were involved in a physically demanding endeavor. On the first day of filming, the crew members were running up and down the mountain trail to get the best shots, while Skeesuck and Gray just went up once.
“It was just a physically exhausting experience,” Parish said.
The director says he could see himself in both Skeesuck and Gray, as someone who was at once strong, generous and willing to sacrifice for others as well someone who could be at the will of another's talents or skills.
“I was seeing that dynamic play out between them,” he said.
Some people have told Parish that the friendship between Skeesuck and Gray didn't seem real. Parish said he kept waiting for a conflict to emerge between the two life-long friends, “but it never did.”
“They were so trusting with one another. It really caused me to look at myself more closely, the different aspects of myself. Does that exist within me?” he said.
After a Kickstarter campaign, it took two years to complete the film, which premiered in April. It was released to about 560 theaters nationwide in November and was “really well received,” said Parish, who has been working with the Muscular Dystrophy Association and Fathom Events to promote the 98-minute film.
The Orpheum screening will be a benefit for the MDA. Parish will be on hand for a meet and greet at 9 a.m. and a question and answer session after the film. He's being hosted by friend Debbie Cobb of Chatham, and it will be his first time on the Cape.
“I'm hoping we can raise some money for the local MDA,” he said. “They've been a great partner helping to get this out. I'm looking forward to being there.”
Email Tim Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org
“I'll Push You”
At the Chatham Orpheum Theater
Thursday, May 24, 10 a.m.
Tickets are $20